Nicholas Birch in Kayseri, Turkey -
Tucked behind curtains in a non-descript side street in Turkey's central Anatolian city of Kayseri, Sezai Karakaya's shop is a model of discretion. But that hasn't stopped it being closed down three times since it opened in 2004, dragging its owner into an ongoing battle with the local municipality and courts.
Fantasy World's crime is to be the only sex-shop in a city that is a bastion of the socially conservative former Islamist party in power in Turkey since 2002. "If AKP wasn't in charge here, if the secularists or the ultra-nationalists were in control, life would have been much easier, no doubt about it", says Karakaya, sitting in an office stacked with vibrators and porn videos.
Karakaya may get his wish sooner than the normal democratic process would allow. Despite winning a landslide victory in general elections last year, the AKP is facing closure as the Constitutional Court, egged on by the military, has begun considering whether to ban the party for alleged "anti-secular activities." In a recent poll by ANDY-AR Social Researches Center, 58% of Turkish people expect the AKP to be closed down. If that happens, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and a significant number of his colleagues are liable to lose their parliamentary seats and be banned from formal party office, prompting by-elections, if not a general election.
Closed for business
A former miner who spent 19 years in Germany, Karakaya only opened Fantasy World after the teahouse he opened in 1999 went bust, and insists his new metier is just as respectable. "Kayseri people used to send off to Istanbul or Ankara for the goods that I sell, and they were getting cheated, paying for a penis enlarger and getting an empty package through the post, that sort of thing," he says. "I put a stop to that."
Police offered him protection when he first opened his place out of fear of pimps, not public reaction. "My blow-up dolls are in direct competition with their girls, you see."
Some locals took a dimmer view. "Selling snails in a Muslim neighbourhood", headlined one local newspaper, using a common phrase for something opposed to cultural norms.
Karakaya agrees the first closure in 2004 was his own fault - he'd rented a space that was supposed to be a flat, not a shop. But when municipal police closed his new premises after three days too, he suspected political pressure. "When I applied for a licence, they told me to 'get it from court'," he remembers. He did. A year later, backed by the judge, Fantasy World opened up again.
But the problems continued. A second shop he opened in 2007 went the way of the first two. Karakaya is once again in court battling the closure decision. He's also opened a compensation case against the municipality. "True, AKP controls Istanbul too, and there's scores of sex shops there," says Karakaya, whose drooping moustache betrays his somewhat improbable support for a conservative ultra-nationalist party. "But the mentality here is different, more closed. They seem to think sex shops mean drugs and women from dawn to dusk."
A well-known novelist and commentator, Alev Alatli disagrees. "If [the secularist party] CHP controlled Kayseri, that sex-shop would be worse off," she argues. "At least AKP understands the concept of the free market."
She has a point. Inhabitants of a former trading city which has turned into Anatolia's biggest industrial powerhouse over the past two or three decades, Kayseri's conservatives are fierce defenders of free trade. From the start of his problems with the municipality, Karakaya has received staunch support from the city's Chamber of Trade. "The municipality should desist from obstructing the work of our younger generation of businessmen," the Chamber's head Ali Kilci stated in a press release last year.
Kayseri shoppers seem equally unfazed by Fantasy World's alleged threat to morals. "I get all sorts here, even headscarved women in dark glasses saying they're buying for a friend," Karakaya says, smiling sympathetically.
With only one of his two shops open, he made profits of €95,000 last year, a considerable amount in a country where average wages hover around €4,000. "If business carries on going this well, I've got plans to move into production, like Mustafa Boydak", he adds, referring to the Kayseri industrialist who turned his small furniture business into a giant company with a turnover of $1.5bn and exports to 75 countries.
He is tongue in cheek. But his words reflect an attitude widespread in Kayseri and other rapidly developing cities of central Anatolia: why limit yourself to acting as middleman when you can produce things yourself.
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