Rakı Is Home In Every Sense, With All Its Senses

How can one translate Rakı without its cultural connotations to someone who has never had a cultural and emotional experience in which Rakı was the protagonist with all its long-lasting interactive memories? How can one explain the aroma produced through such intimate memories? How can one start drinking Rakı alone without any initiation ritual?

Personal memory is always connected to the social narrative, and similarly, social memory is connected to the personal. Rakı stories exemplify this interaction. The intimacy and significance of Rakı generates from this constant interaction between these presumably separate social and private spheres that constantly feed each other’s existence. When someone narrates their relationship with Rakı, the lines between these two spheres inevitably get blurred, and the storyteller’s narrative aims to intrigue the listener and trigger their own memories. The story must be so contagious that it makes the listener feel naturally involved. The storyteller and the listener become one; those stories interactively build up and create a cultural sensorium.

The sensory aspect of memory is having a total sense of the past in the present. If that is so, how can one interactively narrate Rakı and the amalgam of senses it brings with itself that are experienced and retained in memory, to someone who lacks the ‘emotional and historical sedimentation’?

For me, Rakı means home and this is a fact. I have conducted numerous anthropological researches for years; however, with lockdowns of Covid-19 and many travel restrictions, Rakı has become a distant home that I have been longing for, especially for someone like me who lives away from Turkey. I’ve felt its deliberate nostalgic feature so vividly during my constrained times. Even if I set up a table with all the necessary ‘mezes’ and the music for Rakı, my table always becomes a mere replica, and I feel even more nostalgic.

We are always looking for something that we are missing around Rakı tables; we miss a past that we can excavate that is inside our soul, we miss a place, we yearn for those who are not around us, we want our youth, we miss better times – the times that never actually existed in reality- but those tables always end with the clinking of glasses. However, it is also apparent that we never conclude these conversations we have around those tables; they simply become the excuse for our next Rakı table gathering. Therefore Rakı tables are truly never-ending. Those tables are never fully concluded, but are just gateways to the next table to be gathered around.

Sharing Rakı is a different level of intimacy; many adult women start their narratives with intimate hidden memories, mostly concerning a man close to the family, such as a father, uncle, or a neighbor. For today’s adult women, these personas are remembered as those who drink Rakı and their body movements, words, laughter, and surroundings are reminisced. As Seremetakis says, memory is the horizon of sensory experiences, as those Rakı tables provide a wholeness–again a sensory capital– as an added capital that forms our habitus.

When I revisit my childhood memories, I remember three men, my father and my two uncles around a white-clothed table, the aroma of my grandmother’s Sunday lunch spread in Ortaköy, Istanbul. Every Sunday, we had a family lunch, and every Sunday, my extended family gathered around that big table. The strictly ironed white-clothed table was adorned with a big variety of mezes that were always the same and everybody always sat at the same place. Everything was the same every Sunday; the smell, the taste of the food, the table setting, how the people exchanged their spaces, jokes, political arguments, and knowing that us kids were running around or hiding under the table after a while. These highly repetitive, structuralized and ritualized Sundays, unsurprisingly, continued until we reached the teenage years when we were introduced to that sacred drink with a powerful smell of anise. The older we got, the more we could participate in those tables rather than just observe.

We continue those rituals to perpetuate the Rakı tables, yet our tables, though formed in different times and still partially reminiscent of our childhood tables, are always a bit lacking. Our present tables are the continuation of our pasts; more often than not, we raise our glasses to our childhood memories of old boys’ souls, our initiators, and many others who are not around anymore.

Now you tell me; how can Rakı be explained to someone who does not have this sensory capital?

So far, this is how everything started. We began building our versions of Rakı memories and our sensory tables in different places when the white-clothed table owner left the table. Each place, each Rakı table, is an accumulated experience and as we grow older, our new tables from distant childhood memories collide and silently speak to create structured expectations. Our homemade mezes and restaurant mezes talk to each other as if they agree on the tastes, aromas again, as if all the sensory aspects perpetually and deliberately refer to a distant past.

“Let’s go have Rakı one day!”

It means a lot when someone says, “Let’s go have Rakı one day!”. It means much more than having a drink, and it is more than a simple invitation. It refers to when a person catches a moment of intimacy, and this sentence is an open invitation for friendship rather than a simpler, more superficial relationship. Though Rakı is categorized as an alcoholic drink, the meaning of such an invite is not to get drunk; on the other hand, it is an invite to have heart-to-heart conversations, ‘muhabbet’, to listen to and to remember not to forget. Inviting someone to a Rakı table requires a level of intimacy, a wish to connect emotionally, and learn about that person. It is an invitation to start and continue a relationship.

Rakı table does not promise to solve every single problem in existence; if it is a crowded table, the issues are discussed interactively as everybody takes a piece of narrative from that table and adds to their story until another Rakı table gathering, and this is the function of muhabbet.