Doner kebab and integration: A story worth telling
Let us swim around the melting pot, enjoying the mix
Kebab shops have become so common place in much of Western Europe over the last 50 years that it is easy to forget that they were once something “exotic” and “unusual”.
They are consumed differently from country to country, but are ubiquitous across the United Kingdom, France, Germany and beyond.
The way they became an institution, a feature of countless towns and cities, something so ordinary as to not be noticed, speaks to the integration of the communities that brought kebabs to Western Europe.
From one perspective, the kebab industry can (and I believe should), in many cases, be seen as an example of successful integration.
Immigrant communities, through hard work and entrepreneurship, have woven themselves into the economic and social fabric of their receiving societies.
The presence of the kebab industry in Western Europe is now unquestionable, even if some would like to question the presence of those who brought them.
Over time the kebab has transformed. It went from something exotic, to become – in the UK, at least – a staple for late-night drinkers. In the past years, it has once again undergone something of a change with an increasing number of people enjoying kebabs as a sit-down meal.
The evolving status of the kebab interplays with that of the community around it. The story of the kebab in Britain reminds us of the immigrant struggle, and success, in the age of Brexit.
Another way the kebab has evolved in Britain is that kebab shops are no longer owned and run only by people of immigrant descent, such as Turkish, Kurdish, Cypriot communities that traditionally make kebabs.
Today, some of Britain’s most successful kebab shops are run by people who do not have any particular “ethnic” connection to Anatolian and Middle Eastern cuisines.
With this change, the kebab has adapted to local tastes and has been fully claimed by those of non-immigrant descent.
Indeed, there is no singular, authentic kebab. They vary from country to country: The famous German doner kebab is quite different from what we come across in France or again from what is eaten in the UK.
This variety speaks to the two-way process of integration. Immigrant communities adapt to and integrate into their recipient cultures, but they also engage in a process of communication, bringing new ideas and cultural elements.
Berlin would not be the same without its Turkish and Kurdish communities, nor would North London. Nor, for that matter, would be countless smaller towns and cities across these countries.
Much like the curry before it, the institution that is the British kebab has surpassed its background. In this way, the humble kebab holds a powerful message about how integration can work. It marked the newcomers as much as the receivers.
What’s more, the way kebab became a staple of British life tells us something fundamental about our shared humanity. Through the simplicity of hot, grilled meat and bread, the presence of communities once contested in the UK has now become wonderfully unremarkable.
In Brexit Britain, where we have seen a spike in xenophobia and Islamophobia, it is worth reminding ourselves of this positive integration story.
Let us believe in an idea of a Britain where white, black or Asian you can follow your ambitions, whatever they be, from serving amazing Middle Eastern food with a British twist to hungry revellers, or excelling in law, art, science or anything else.
We must make sure that this positive voice rings out strong, because today there are other currents driving the UK and many other parts of the world in another, darker direction. Islamophobia threatens the most fundamental values of our societies, such as tolerance and integration, which makes them great.
Thus, it is heartening to see that kebab shops are everywhere and they have transcended their origins and become a part of countries everywhere in Western Europe.
At the same time, it is also important not to forget the immigrant origins of this food, in light of everything that is going on now. Let us not forget that kebabs in the UK are a food born of an immigrant community’s struggle.
Helping to overcome local conflicts
Also in the story of the British kebab, there is more to celebrate than an immigrant community’s successful integration.
Turks and Kurds, who had been locked in a decades-long conflict in their homeland, realised that there is much more that binds them than divides them during their common experience in Britain as immigrants. Today, alongside with Turks and Kurds, it is possible to find people from a huge range of backgrounds working together in the kebab industry in the UK.
On the back of this success, Turks, Kurds and other groups who were once defined solely by kebab and kebab shops in Britain, are now moving beyond the industry.
We can find Turks and Kurds in all areas of the community, in a huge range of sectors. From proud kebab restaurant owners to lawyers or politicians, just like any other group in the country. Turks and Kurds proudly brought the kebab industry to this country, but they are not defined solely by it.
Herein lies the importance of engaging in forming the narrative of a given community’s contribution to society. Too many kebab shop workers have at some point been the target of racist or xenophobic comments.
We want to challenge those attitudes. We want the kebab industry to be seen as an important contribution by the Turkish, Kurdish and Cypriot communities to British culture, something in which Brits of all ethnic backgrounds can enjoy together.
We want the work of those in the sector, regardless of background, to be respected and valued. From the first kebab shop in the 1940s, the industry has expanded into a $3.4bn industry, employing around 200,000 people in the UK.
We want those of Turkish and Kurdish descent living in the UK to feel proud of their communities’ achievements, but also that they can follow whatever path they choose in this country.
Ultimately, the work of writing the story of our shared community is a never-ending one. We have to be ever vigilant in ensuring the right story is being told, the story of which we can be proud.
Let us believe in an idea of a Britain where white, black or Asian you can follow your ambitions, whatever they be, from serving amazing Middle Eastern food with a British twist to hungry revellers, or excelling in law, art, science or anything else. Let us swim around this melting pot, enjoying the mix.
Ibrahim Dogus is the founder and director of the Centre for Turkey Studies, which hosts the British Kebab Awards.
This article was published in Al Jazeera