Like Germany’s president, I love a good kebab. Cosying up to autocrats like Erdoğan, less so | Fatma Aydemir (2024)

“Nazis eat döner kebabs in secret,” must be one of the dumbest slogans I have seen at German protests against the far right. Yes, the popularity of the kebab in Germany has become something of a symbol of labour migration from Turkey after the second world war. And yes, Nazis get hungry, too. So what? If the consumption of ethnic-minority food was really an obstacle to the ideology of white supremacy, Germans would either be starved out by now or they wouldn’t vote for Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). Neither of these is the case: the kebab is the second most popular fast food among Germans, and according to polls, the AfD their second most popular political party.

Still, for the German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, it seems to be a sign of cosmopolitanism to promote kebab eating, so his team thought it a good idea to send him to Turkey with a whole skewer full of meat as part of an official visit this week, the first by a German president in 10 years.

Bilateral relations may be shaky but Turkey remains a highly strategic partner in the European Union’s 2016 cash-for-refugees deal (for which Steinmeier thanked Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Wednesday) despite recent reports about the deal’s unsustainability and the lack of transparency around the €6bn paid to the Turkish state for stopping refugees from fleeing towards EU territory.

Turkey is also the origin country of the biggest diaspora living in Germany, comprising about 3 million people, now in second, third or fourth generations.

One of them is Arif Keleş, a snack-shop owner from Berlin, who accompanied Steinmeier to Istanbul this week and served the guests at a reception directly from his rotisserie. In many cultural contexts, 60kg of meat wouldn’t necessarily be the worst gift a guest could bring to a party. Especially not in this economy. But Steinmeier’s speech expressing gratitude for Turks introducing the “German national dish” in the 1960s, and his clumsy photo stunt with a big knife, upset many Turkish-Germans, who felt their community’s achievements had been degraded and reduced to an affordable snack. Not me.

I am the daughter of small business owners of Turkish and Kurdish descent. Even if in my case it is not kebabs but just plain bread, I will never feel shame or anger about the fact that my mother served food to Germans and afforded us a pretty comfortable life by doing so. Yes, Turkish-Germans also invented the BioNTech vaccine against Covid. But my parents didn’t, and neither did I. Why would I take pride in things someone else did, instead of celebrating the working-class heroes who raised and nurtured me?

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Not only do small businesses such as kebab shops still offer the most accessible chance of social mobility for many people of migrant heritage in Germany, they are also places in which they aresometimes at risk of being physically attacked. It wasn’t by coincidence that all nine people who were murdered by the neo-Nazi terrorist organisation NSU between 2000 and 2006 were small business owners at work, visibly people of colour, easy to track down at their grocery stores kebab stands or sewing shops.

Die Dönermorde (döner kebab murders) was the German media’s racist term for these horrific incidents, until the neo-Nazi murderers unmasked themselves.

Of course, like many other current and historic facts, this was not part of the friendly sandwich show Steinmeier presented during his trip to mark 100 years of diplomatic relations between Germany and the modern Turkish republic. It was ironic that Steinmeier met Erdoğan in Ankara on the same day that the Armenian genocide, which the Germans and Turks collaborated on in 1915, is traditionally commemorated. No surprise that this went unmentioned at their meeting, since the genocide is still being actively denied by the Turkish state. Germany finally acknowledged the genocide in 2016, but Turkish nationalists among the diaspora regularly succeed in preventing memorials from being built in public spaces, as they did last year in Cologne.

Like Germany’s president, I love a good kebab. Cosying up to autocrats like Erdoğan, less so | Fatma Aydemir (1)

It is hard to deny that a majority of the Turkish diaspora in Germany is pretty conservative, regardless of generational lines, and supports an autocratic government in a country they only go to for holidays. From the time Germany’s drive to recruit “guest workers” from Turkey started in 1961, the German state has been strongly supportive of fundamentalist and rightwing immigrant associations, originally as part of an attempt to weaken the left during the cold war. The result is a very well-organised structure of Turkish ultranationalists in Germany, and serious conflicts with other ethnic minorities, as well as dissidents who have emigrated from Turkey to flee political repression.

I have to say, I like a kebab a lot, when it’s done well. And that is mostly the case when it is served by Kurdish chefs in shops disguised as “Turkish” for both marketing and security reasons. Yes, there is also a tremendous safety problem for Kurds in Europe, as recent attacks on Kurdish families in Belgium by the so-called Grey Wolves have shown. In fact, Steinmeier’s döner diplomacy could have easily led to a frank and useful discussion of the Turkish state’s political repression of Kurds, if Germany wasn’t already for decades now complicit in persecuting Kurdish activists and extraditing them to Turkey.

The problem with döner diplomacy is really not the supposedly insulting fast-food references or stereotypes. It is the cynicism with which a 60kg meat skewer is presented as a tantalising symbol of genuine German-Turkish friendship, while masking the true nature of this morally unsavoury, if pragmatic show of unity.

  • Fatma Aydemir is a Berlin-based author, novelist, playwright and a Guardian Europe columnist

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.

Like Germany’s president, I love a good kebab. Cosying up to autocrats like Erdoğan, less so | Fatma Aydemir (2024)


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