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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Deborah Cole in Berlin

‘Cliched’: Turkish-Germans react as president brings kebab on Istanbul trip

Frank-Walter Steinmeier in a suit with an apron over the top, cutting meat from a kebab, as Arif Keleş, in a white chef’s jacket, watches
Steinmeier (right) had the skewer brought specially from Berlin, and included Arif Keleş, a third-generation snack shop owner, in his delegation. Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images

Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, raised hackles at home during a visit to Turkey this week by serving up kebabs at a reception in Istanbul, a gesture of cross-cultural exchange many in the diaspora said reduced their contributions to an offensive cliche.

Steinmeier himself took a long, sharp blade to 60kg of meat on a skewer brought specially from Berlin, and included Arif Keleş, a third-generation snack shop owner, in his delegation during the three-day trip.

With bilateral relations at a low ebb, Steinmeier said in Istanbul the döner diplomacy during his first visit as head of state was aimed at highlighting the accomplishments of Germany’s 2.7 million people who have roots in Turkey.

But prominent Turkish-Germans took to social media to blast what they saw as a clumsy attempt to represent descendants of the 1960s “guest worker” programme, failing to take them seriously or treat them as equals.

The journalist Ozan Demircan pointed to a deep bench of accomplished people Steinmeier could have chosen to highlight, including the BioNTech founders, Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci, or the film director İlker Çatak, who was nominated for an Oscar this year.

“Millions of guest workers helped build the German ‘Wirtschaftswunder’,” Demircan said on X, referring to the postwar “economic miracle”.

“And the German president brings a döner kebap maker to Turkey,” he added.

Tuncay Özdamar from the public broadcaster WDR criticised the choice to spotlight the handheld snack as “from yesterday” and “cliched”: “If you visit Italy you don’t bring pizza,” he said.

As the row risked overshadowing a celebration of 100 years of diplomatic relations, Jörg Lau, an international correspondent at Die Zeit, simply posted: “C.R.I.N.G.E.”.

However, Keleş, whose grandfather worked for years in a German factory before opening his own restaurant in 1986, said before the trip that he was proud Steinmeier was taking him “to the home of my ancestors”, telling AFP it was a “great honour”.

The delicacy of thinly sliced meat grilled on an upright rotisserie was introduced to Germany by Turkish migrants, who adapted it for local tastes.

Topped with chopped vegetables and slathered with garlic or chilli sauce, the döner kebab reigns as one of Germany’s most popular dishes.

German kebab sales total an estimated €7bn a year. Steinmeier said in Turkey that he was also partial to the dish.

Ties between Berlin and Ankara have been marred by a range of disputes including over the Gaza war and German criticism of an erosion of democratic norms under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Turkish-Germans have also long criticised economic and social exclusion.

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