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A tasty tool of change

Germany has opened its arms to kebabs, but less so to their Turkish makers. A training program may help speed integration.

April 05, 2007|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

Hamburg, Germany — IT'S tough to look masculine in a hairnet and booties, even if you're carrying a very sharp knife toward a slab of meat swinging on a warehouse hook. But the kebab boys, pepper spice dusting their hands, don't seem to mind, preferring to think of themselves as culinary ambassadors.

To understand the metaphor one must appreciate the sauce-drenched, onion-scented, shaved-meat beauty in a pita known as the doner, or spinning, kebab. Fat and messy, it is the Turkish immigrant's gift to Germany, a bit of meal-time chaos in a nation that doesn't like its peas to roll too close to the mashed potatoes.

Integration is often not a success story here, but the kebab has found a home, slipping in amid the sausage and beer like a distant, exotic uncle. It's munched on the run and can fill the brawniest of laborers. When the bars close, and the soul is still restless, the kebab beckons, a late-night snack for the subway ride home. It sheds lettuce, bleeds tomatoes and has challenged dry cleaners from Hamburg to Hesse.

Now that maddeningly persistent German virtue known as order is being imposed on the untidy kebab. The Vocational School for Gastronomy and Nutrition here is offering a six-month course that in July will award the first kebab diplomas, officially known as Meat Processing Doner Kebab Production Specialization. If there is poetry in bureaucracy, the Germans have yet to stumble upon it, but the point is to regulate a loose market of vendors and producers.

And that, surprisingly, may improve integration in a country where more than 2 million Turks live in what many consider a parallel world. The aim is to enhance the image of the kebab industry and give its workers, most of whom are first- and second-generation Turkish immigrants with limited educations, training toward better opportunities.

"In Germany if you are not integrated in the labor market, you are not integrated," said Metin Harmanci of Entrepreneurs Without Borders, an organization that advises immigrant businesses and seeks equality in the workplace. "It's difficult for immigrants to enter the labor market. It was easier in the past when Germany needed guest workers, but now that kind of work is gone and there are fewer chances."

Skeptics in the German media view the plan as noble but Sisyphean. The website for Deutsche Welle radio put it like this: "While encouraging young people to get a start in life with a vocational qualification is a worthy cause, one would have to search high and low to find a pursuit that is less appreciated and undervalued by the customer in the fast-food sector than the high-quality preparation and presentation of a kebab."

IT begins in a meat factory with sawed bones and a dangling carcass. Mostly veal, the meat is cleaved and flattened, trimmed of fat. It is seasoned with white pepper, chili powder, yogurt, onion and secret spices. Thin strips are stacked on a spit about 3 feet high. The meat is pressed together, furiously wrapped in plastic, frozen and loaded on trucks for delivery. Each morning, sometimes before dawn, fresh spits, spinning and sizzling, appear in kebab shop windows across Germany.

Thousands of spits have passed through the hands of Mehmet Atug. A Kurd from eastern Turkey, he was 12 when his family paid a smuggler to sneak him into Germany. Atug lived illegally for years but now has residency papers and works for Ertan Celik, an immigrant and manager of a kebab meat plant. Atug is friendly but reticent; he doesn't know his future and won't pretend to say.

"I want to finish this training and hold a certificate in my hands," said Atug, 25, a compact man with quick eyes. "The first five years I was in Germany I longed for my native Turkey. But after so many years of living here, I guess I can imagine dying here. The best opportunities for me are in Germany and Europe."

Dozens of men like Atug work in the kebab plants at an industrial park near this port city. They smoke, drink tea at lunch, removing their hairnets and brushing herbs and meat off white smocks that glow like starched flags in the sun. They speak a mixture of Turkish and German, the older ones instructing the younger, cobbling sentences and deciphering the rhythms of life in the north.

They are the echoes of their fathers and cousins who arrived decades earlier to help rebuild Germany after the war. Back then, most Turks didn't plan on staying; the Germans were not entirely welcoming, but gradually neighborhoods changed and the guest worker became permanent boarder. Today, many second- and third-generation Turkish Germans carry German passports and are fluent in the language of their adopted nation, but they feel estranged, as if searching for an opening in an invisible, yet impenetrable, cultural scrim.

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