Raki (pronounced ‘Rahkuh’)

It did not occur to me upon arriving in Istanbul and insisting to my host that we drink raki on my first night that I had already had a similar anise-flavored drink in Palestine. For those unfamiliar with hard liquor, raki is the national drink of Turkey and its Arabic cousin is called arak, which I was served by my Palestinian Christian host in Beit Sahour after he had noticed from my glazed-over eyes that the collective suffering of a proud people had left me unable to enjoy sober conversation.

This could be a noble way of saying that Yours Truly, the former Nazarite (see ‘John the Baptist’ — although I never went so far as to eat locusts because they aren’t exactly vegetarian) does not function well without the occasional drink. My mental and physical tensions can no longer be sufficiently ironed out through education and activism, which was my outlet of choice as an undergraduate — education falling somewhere around  fifth on the list of priorities. My mid-twenties have taken me down a steady path of self-indulgence. I have become what I have coined a ‘hedonistic humanitarian,’ or a ‘humanitarian hedonist,’ if you prefer.

I define this as someone who derives some pleasure from helping others but who primarily looks out for his own needs — yet does not meet those needs by harming others. It is a challenge to the self-sacrificial nature of a pure humanitarian and the self-serving nature of a pure hedonist. I think it is necessary to both understand and embrace contradiction.

I recently heard criticism from some friends here that alcohol causes a loss of self-control. This is a criticism I wholeheartedly shared before I became a casual drinker. Now, I feel that it gives me more control. My former allegiance to abstinence was ultimately out of fear — fear of becoming an alcoholic coupled with the fear of conforming (my sense was that most college students drank, and I didn’t want to be like most college students; I wanted to be like me). Knowing that I no longer have this fear and that it was unfounded to begin with (I am neither an alcoholic nor a conformist now that I drink, and my friends back home can attest to that), I feel much more ‘in control’ of alcohol than I did when I abstained from it. I also know from experience that, despite what some people think, alcohol does not make a person into someone fundamentally different. It reduces inhibitions — so if someone is already a very angry person, alcohol may make them more likely to become violent, but it cannot put anger and violence into the heart of someone who is not angry and violent normally. Moreover, behavior depends on how much you drink, what you drink, and why you drink, and whom you drink with. Drinking responsibly with trusted friends is not the same as getting hammered at a random party.

I do not wish to sound preachy, so I will get back to raki and how much I enjoyed drinking it with newly acquainted friends at Taksim Square in Istanbul. I recall — despite drinking more than two glasses far too quickly — walking through throngs of tourists and locals, worrying that I might lose my guides and have no way of finding them, taking in all the lights and strange monuments, and eating cheese that I remarked was “stronger than the raki.” Then I remember a rustic bar, a refreshing beer, over-salted snacks, and a beautiful woman reminiscent of someone I know from the U.S. who kept coming back and forth to our table. I also remember a long, exhilarating cab ride and the best sleep I had in 48 hours. Not bad for my first night in Turkey.


1 Comment

  1. Patty Courtney said,

    September 29, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    Big Smile!

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