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Doner diplomacy: German president takes kebab chef on Turkey trip

Berlin (AFP) – Accompanied by a Berlin kebab chef, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier kicked off a delicate visit to Turkey Monday, hailing strong ties between Germans and Turks despite Berlin’s difficult relationship with his Turkish counterpart.

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Steinmeier, who is visiting Turkey for the first time since becoming president, has had a tricky relationship with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The German head of state has been quick to call out Erdogan’s approach towards Israel and has previously raised concerns about the erosion of democratic norms in Turkey.

Beginning his three-day trip in Istanbul, rather than in the capital Ankara, Steinmeier stressed the close personal ties between Germans and Turks.

“It is these special and intense relationships that bridge distances, and also some differences, today,” he said.

The first key figure that Steinmeier met was Istanbul’s mayor, opposition politician Ekrem Imamoglu, whose victory in recent local elections dealt a blow to Erdogan and his ruling party.

In talks with the president, Imamoglu expressed regret that Turkey’s relations with Germany and the EU were currently so poor, according to sources close to Steinmeier.

The president held the talks with the opposition figure “with great interest”, according to the sources.

Talks with Erdogan in Ankara will have to wait until Wednesday, shortly before the end of the visit.

‘Heart of our society’

The German president is hoping to use the trip to highlight the contribution made by generations of Turkish migrants, who since the 1960s have come to work in Germany.

During a visit to Istanbul’s Sirkeci train station, from where huge numbers set off for Germany many years ago, Steinmeier said the migrants “helped to build our country”.

“They made it strong and they belong at the heart of our society”, he said.

But there were also signs of tensions over the Gaza war, with about 50 protesters chanting slogans at Steinmeier such as “murderer Germany” and “supporter of genocide”.

There were scuffles with demonstrators as security forces intervened, an AFP reporter witnessed.

Germany is a strong supporter of Israel while Erdogan supports Palestinian militant group Hamas — something which has been a recent source of strain between Ankara and Berlin.

Erdogan traded barbs with Steinmeier on a visit to Germany in November last year, shortly after the October 7 attack by Hamas on Israel that triggered the war.

The disagreement has added to tensions over sharp German criticism of authoritarian moves that German officials see as threatening democracy in Turkey.

Perceived backing for Erdogan in the Turkish diaspora has also caused irritation in Germany, where around three million people with Turkish heritage live and whose presence has often been the subject of a fraught debate over split loyalties.

Only last year did Germany agree to significantly ease citizenship rules to allow more dual nationals, a relief to many Turkish people who have lived in Germany for decades.

‘Great honour’

Among those to establish themselves in Germany was the grandfather of Arif Keles, a Berlin kebab shop owner invited on the trip by Steinmeier.

Arif Keles will serve kebab during the German president's trip to Turkey
Arif Keles will serve kebab during the German president’s trip to Turkey © Odd ANDERSEN / AFP

The grilled meat artisan will serve doner kebab to guests at a dinner in Istanbul on Monday night.

The dish of thinly sliced meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie was introduced to Germany by Turkish migrants.

Packed with chopped vegetables and doused with mayonnaise, the doner kebab has gained iconic status.

Local sales of the kebab total an estimated seven billion euros ($7.5 billion) — an immigrant success story the German presidency wants to celebrate.

Doner dealer Keles is the third generation to manage the family business in southwest Berlin.

His grandfather moved to Germany and worked for years in a factory before opening his own restaurant in 1986.

“Now the president is taking me as a grandson to the home of my ancestors,” Keles said, calling it a “great honour”.

In the kebab, Steinmeier sees an example of “how much Turkey and Germany have grown together” — and admitted he was partial to the meaty snack.

“I also like to eat one — spicy or with garlic, depending on the other guests I have afterwards,” he said in Istanbul.

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