Istanbul’s last pork butcher

ISTANBUL – Lazari Kozmaoglu, Istanbul’s last pork butcher, takes a break from a two-hour backgammon session to recall the days he spent slicing bacon instead of rolling dice. Eight workers used to rush in and out of the cutting room, placing wrapped meat in refrigerators, Kozmaoglu, 63, recalls in his store in central Istanbul. Today the shop is down to its last two months of stock and attracts only a handful of customers. Turkey’s Islamist-rooted government has clamped down on the pork industry since 2004, closing all but two of the country’s 25 pig farms and revoking slaughterhouse licenses. Islam forbids its followers from eating the meat, calling it unhygienic. Kozmaoglu, unable to add to his supplies, spends most of his time shuffling paperwork as he seeks permission to reopen his abattoir. «I don’t know what I can do if they don’t give it to me; this business is my life,» Kozmaoglu says as he watches a news bulletin on Greek television. He’s one of about 2,000 ethnic Greeks who remain in Istanbul. Most left the city after Turkish mobs attacked their homes and workplaces in 1955. Before the 2004 crackdown, Kozmaoglu was one of four pork butchers in Istanbul. All of his competitors quit handling pigs after losing their slaughterhouse permits. The state granted Kozmaoglu temporary licenses to let him kill the swine on outlawed farms, but those have now been cut off, he says. In 2004, the Agriculture Ministry assumed the power to issue livestock handling permits previously controlled by local authorities. The ministry has refused applications for pig facilities, citing a failure to meet sanitary or other standards. A ministry spokeswoman declined to answer questions about pig farms and slaughterhouses. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has denied claims by opponents that he has an Islamic agenda. His press spokesman, Akif Beki, didn’t respond to phone calls seeking comment. The pork crackdown began in 2004 after 40 people contracted food poisoning at a restaurant in Izmir on the Aegean coast, and pork was suspected as the cause, said Zafer Ustundag, one of two remaining pig farmers in Turkey. «The Islamic mentality within the government finished off the business,» said Tahsin Yesildere, former head of the Turkish Veterinary Medical Association’s Istanbul branch. «The prime minister probably doesn’t even know about it, but that’s what happens when you have overzealous officials.» Ustundag, 43, keeps about 200 pigs at his farm in Kirklareli, near the Bulgarian border. At first, he was optimistic about the government’s measures. «We thought they would provide us with a properly regulated work environment,» Ustundag says. «It turned out to be a plan to suffocate us.» The pig farmers soon faced a Catch-22, Ustundag says. While a new rule required farmers to provide the address where their animals would be slaughtered, there were no abattoirs left. Back in Istanbul, Kozmaoglu says sales have fallen to less than a 10th of the 50,000 liras ($39,000) a month he brought in four years ago. He employs just three workers. The shop doesn’t have a sign out front because Kozmaoglu doesn’t want to attract attention from ultranationalists. Less demand for his products means more time for backgammon. Kozmaoglu smiles across the table at his friend, a pious Muslim man who lives nearby and visits the shop for their regular games. «This man takes all my troubles away for a few hours every afternoon,» Kozmaoglu says. «This is the best part of my time in the shop.»

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