Turkey Pulse

As national pride surges, Turkey's flag sellers struggle to profit

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Article Summary
Following the coup attempt, Turkey's public squares have turned into a sea of red as supporters of the government wave flags late into the night; yet while business is booming for producers, many flag sellers are struggling to make a profit during Turkey's new festive holiday.

"I don’t know how he did it, but he made his way into our hearts," mused Adnan, a bayrakci (flag seller) in his mid-50s. "I feel like [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan is part of my family." Since the July 15 coup attempt, successfully beaten back by supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) called to the streets by the president in his now infamous FaceTime address, dozens of bayrakcis have flooded the area around Istanbul's Taksim Square to flog their wares.

Adnan, hailing from Istanbul, is a typical flag seller. Year-round he roams Istanbul’s neighborhoods selling flags at a small profit. The most successful periods for flag sellers are bayrams, or public holidays. Many bayrakci sell flags strictly on bayram days, reserving the rest of the year for other vending efforts, such as selling water, flowers and produce on the streets.

On July 23, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim declared July 15 a new holiday: Demokrasi Bayrami (Democracy Holiday). Yildirim praised the thousands of Turkish citizens who came out onto the streets to beat back tanks and soldiers, saying, "Our people gave the best response against this terror gang."

Adnan and his colleague Osman, who migrated from Kayseri to Istanbul, are emphatic about the country's new festival of democracy. The days following the botched coup attempt have been good, said Osman. "Life was really hard, for example, during [ex-Prime Minister Bulent] Ecevit's years. Do you think you could have gone out in the streets at 3 a.m. like kids do now? … It's a much more free society now."

Adnan and Osman are a classic profile of many older AKP voters: Not especially religious, they see a party that has taken care of them where no others have. "Before the AKP, nobody cared about the poor," commented Adnan. "They actually pay attention to us." Osman agreed, saying Erdogan had provided leadership and economic stability where other party leaders failed.

On the opposite side of the square, two sellers had joined together to promote their sales. Both migrants to Istanbul in their early 40s, the pair had been working together in a central hotel until July 19, when they were laid off with another 118 colleagues. The hotel had told them that, after the coup, Istanbul's already flailing tourism industry was set to collapse: "No tourists, no business." In the absence of their day jobs, the two purchased flags from a neighborhood stall the next day.

However, the pair were four days too late in entering the market. At 10 p.m. on the evening of July 20, they had yet to make a sale. They weren't alone in struggling with sales. Basak, a bayrakci in her 60s from Kayseri, has spent nine years selling flags during bayrams. "We never sell much on bayram," she said. "People ask for a flag for 5 liras. I didn't even buy these flags for 5 liras."

Basak had only sold one flag by 10:30 p.m. on the night of July 19. She was unable to come to the square in previous days, instead taking care of her sick children. Asli, who moved from Kayseri to Istanbul 36 years ago, reported selling 30 to 35 flags in the past few days. Lale, a seller in her 20s from Istanbul, regularly sells flags during bayrams alongside her husband. Contrary to Basak, she says on a normal bayram day she sells about 80 or 90 flags. After the coup attempt, that rose to almost 200 a day.

Though flag producers have reported astronomical sales, street sales fluctuate. While two boys aged 10 and 12 from the slum neighborhood of Kustepe reported selling about nine flags per night on July 18, by the evening of July 20, sales had tapered off for most. What Taksim Square's bayrakcis do have in common is a lack of profit.

Most flags are bought at a common price from Pir Ajans, a factory in Gaziosmanpasa. With many customers bargaining over price, the sellers lose out. Pinar, a migrant from Kayseri, buys her largest flags for 9 liras. She tries to sell them for 20 liras, but on July 18 she had only sold one for 15 liras. Most flags, no matter the size, are sold for the low profit of 5 liras. Some make only 1 lira.

Bayrakcis are not only weighed down by competition and bartering, but also by the fact that local municipalities often give out free flags during bayram periods and party rallies. The municipalities' flags, however, are of a low quality. The sellers prefer to buy quality flags from Pir Ajans. One seller attempted to make his own, carefully sewing the fabric while his brother printed the design. Despite his efforts, profit remained as low as that of others.

Ahmet, originally from the Black Sea region, is a lawyer by day. His daughter has Down syndrome and her school provides special programs for which a tablet is needed, so he decided to sell flags on Sunday.

Although he practices law, he sells flags from bayram to bayram. He said, "Let's not forget this is a form of dictatorship. Here at the Gezi Park protests, 11 people died … and what they've being doing … these very aggressive policies," alluding perhaps to controversial military operations in the Kurdish-majority southeast.

Though he is critical of AKP policies and their supporters, the Istanbul lawyer is a patriot. "When you drive into Istanbul, there is a big Turkish flag rippling in the wind. You feel this great shiver," he claimed. "We have to remember that the only reason someone like [Erdogan] can become president is because of the system that [Mustafa Kemal] Ataturk created."

Ahmet added, "Before [the coup attempt], I was against the AKP … now I would vote for the AKP. Nobody else is able to provide security. Erdogan already has leadership, and no one else has that. After the coup, the other parties will follow the AKP [leadership] like a train, so we might as well vote for them."

Found in: turkish economy, trade, recep tayyip erdogan, flag, coup, akp

Mel Plant is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul and London, where she is a student of Arabic and Turkish at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies. She served as editor-in-chief of SOAS' student newspaper from 2015 to 2016 and her articles have been featured in Agos and Souciant. She regularly posts about Turkey, Syria and Kurds on Twitter: @meleppo

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