By: Zeyneb Varol of The Middle East Eye
Under the glaring sun of a Saturday afternoon in August, a restaurant in a small eastern Turkish town welcomes its “most valuable customers”.
It is only one of the many establishments across the town where those in need are invited to eat free of charge. This well-preserved tradition has been carried down from generation to generation for decades.
Karakocan, a 70-minute drive north of the centre of Elazıg province, has attracted attention in recent years for its tradition of offering free food to those in need. For locals, the custom is a way of fulfilling their responsibility to assist the less fortunate.
Mehmet Ozturk, 55, the owner and manager of one of Karakocan’s busiest restaurants, Merkez, for nearly 35 years, says he always keeps at least three tables reserved for those in need, even during rush hour when his eatery is cramped. According to Ozturk, “the poor never fail to come”.
On any given day, Ozturk says at least 15 people come to his restaurant to receive a free meal. According to residents, around 100 people eat for free each day across the whole town, which is home to around 28,000 people, according to official statistics.
Galip is one of the familiar faces at the restaurant who has eaten there every day for the last 10 years. “He was here for breakfast and he will probably come for dinner as well,” a young waiter says.
Suffering from mental illness, Galip doesn’t share much.
“The Merkez is my favourite place in town, because the food is great,” he says.
The restaurants offer Galip and others their pick from a variety of choices listed on their menus including kebabs, chicken, soup, rice and salads.
Ozturk says: “The tradition has always been here, even 70 years ago. For us it was a natural thing to do, something we learned from our elders.”