Ovacık, in Eastern Turkey, is surrounded by the bold, grey peaks of the Munzur mountains, which are still snow-capped at the end of March. Getting there from the provincial capital of Tunceli, more commonly known to locals by its previous name, Dersim, is a two-hour minibus journey down a road with hair-pin turns. We snaked between the edge of the Munzur Valley National Park and a frothing river before arriving at the earthen-green lowlands that the small town of Ovacık — which means “little plain” in Turkish — calls home.
The Munzur Valley is considered holy to the Alevis, a religious minority group that combines aspects of Shi’a Islam with pre-Islam Zoroastrian and Shamanism traditions and comprises the overwhelming majority of the area’s population. It’s a place known as much for its breathtaking nature as it is for its radical politics. When you arrive at the provincial capital’s main bus station, you’re greeted by a display of embroidered carpets featuring, variously, iconic leftist revolutionaries Deniz Gezmiş and İbrahim Kaypakkaya, Che Guevara, and Ali, the cousin of the prophet Muhammad and the most important spiritual figure for Alevis.
The Munzur Valley National Park is home to more than 1500 different plant species. This rich biodiversity is the engine behind Ovacik’s status as a rare Turkish socialist experiment, and, increasingly, one of the area’s most famous exports: “communist honey,” which owes its deep, nuanced flavor to the area’s mountain flora. Since 2016, the village has partnered with beekeepers throughout the province to produce what it’s billing as some of Turkey’s highest quality honey — sold locally and throughout the nation, at the lowest possible price.
Ovacık’s mayor, Fatih Mehmet Maçoğlu, is currently the country’s only elected mayor from the Turkish Communist Party. Maçoğlu came to power in the local elections of 2014, and is the architect of a number of progressive initiatives, transforming a section of the municipality building into a public library with thousands of volumes, distributing laptops to every middle school student in the district, and providing free public transit in certain neighborhoods. Once a year, the town even posts a giant list of Ovacık’s revenue and expenditures for the public to see on the municipality’s walls.
But Maçoğlu is perhaps best known for his agricultural program, which began, in 2015, with the municipality cultivating chickpeas and beans on 65 hectares of state-owned land. The mayor quickly expanded his efforts, distributing seeds and diesel fuel to farmers in a number of nearby villages. Revenues from sales of the initial harvest were invested back into the community, providing assistance for 100 low-income families and even funding monthly stipends for university students from Ovacık studying in other cities. In 2017, the municipality formed a collective with area farmers and beekeepers, which sells goods from the area throughout the country, and even operates an affiliated retail store in Istanbul.
“Since we function as a meeting point between producer and consumer, we are not a profit-driven cooperative,” said cooperative president Deniz Yerlikaya. “Any residual revenue goes into our social support and investment funds.” He declined to share revenue figures with The Outline, but said that income from last year’s sales will go towards the planting of this year’s bean and chickpea crops.
Chief exports include chickpeas and two varieties of beans, but Maçoğlu’s communist honey has received the most attention, both domestically and abroad. In one interview, he even proclaimed that tasting the honey will cause one to “become more communist.”
Maçoğlu has short-cropped greying hair and the kind of the thick, bushy mustache that is popular among the country’s leftists. During an interview with The Outline in his office, he spoke Turkish in long, complex sentences littered with anti-capitalist rhetoric, and stressed the region’s variety of endemic plants. “We felt brave enough to embark upon this endeavor thanks to the profound depth that nature has donated to us,” he said.
Regulations in Turkey stipulate that in order to be considered honey, each kilogram of the product must contain a minimum of 300 milligrams of proline, an amino acid produced by the salivary glands of bees as nectar is converted to honey. The more proline per kilogram, the better the honey. Macoglu told me that communist honey boasted an average proline content of 630 mg last year, more than double the base requirements. A kilo sells for 60 TL (or $15), a fraction of other high-quality honeys on the market.
Sedat Çoban, who runs a specialty honey shop in Istanbul, hails from Bingöl, a neighbor of Tunceli. He said the two areas share the same rich flora, and insists that good honey comes from all over the country, which features some 3000 endemic plant species overall. “In my opinion, Turkey has the most quality honey in the world,” he said. “The important thing for us is honey that comes from highlands and mountains, where flowers are not affected by exhaust or agricultural pesticides or the smoke of factories.”
It’s no wonder that Maçoğlu's agricultural initiatives, rooted in eschewing for-profit models to focus on protecting local resources and giving back to community, do not fall on deaf ears. The Zaza-speaking Alevi Kurds who inhabit the area, part of Turkey's largest religious minority that isn't considered as such by the state, are left-leaning. In 2017, the province issued the country’s most resounding defiance of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's referendum, which will transform the country's political system from parliamentary to executive and ultimately invest Erdoğan with even more power. Ninety percent of Ovacık — and 80 percent of Tunceli — rejected the referendum, accounting for the third-highest “no” ratio of any district in Turkey.
The town itself is nondescript but quaint, and it benefits from the serene views. There are small grocery stores, a few drinking holes, and a number of restaurants serving up home-style food — including an excellent gözleme, a crepe-like configuration of fresh, buttery flatbread stuffed with either spinach, potatoes or cheese. As we stopped to admire a lovable Kangal sheepdog puppy that had been rolling in the mud, Ali — my unofficial guide, who hails from the neighboring province of Erzincan, but spent more than three decades working abroad in Holland before moving back to Turkey — lavished praise upon the region.
“The nature here gives people whatever they want without looking at them twice,” Ali said. He is no stranger to the communist honey, either. “I have a spoonful or two after breakfast and I don’t crave anything else until evening,” he said.
Though Ovacık's honey, beans, and chickpeas have attracted demand from other provinces, Maçoğlu stressed that his agricultural endeavors are less about dominating the market than supporting the people of Ovacık and the soil they till.
“We aren't trying to meet the needs of the whole country,” he said. “We want to do what we can on our land to meet the needs of our people and support their economic infrastructure without pillaging our geography and opening up our land to development.”
Between tracking down the mayor and touring Ovacık with Ali, I somehow managed to forget to actually taste the honey during my trip. Fortunately, a shop in the Gazi neighborhood of Istanbul, one of the city's Alevi quarters, sells it by the kilo. I bought a jar, took it home, and anxiously cracked open the lid. It was like no honey I’d tasted before, with an enchanting amber hue and unique flavor blending caramel-sweet richness with bright floral traces. I felt invigorated. Perhaps it was the revolution flowing through my veins.