“It was never my ambition to open up a döner shop, I just thought at some point, what is it that I can do with my life?" Tarik Kara
"You can take discrimination as a challenge to show that you are a normal person too, even when you have a different cultural background.” Tarik Kara
“Just wait a minute,” shouts Tarik Kara from his famous döner shop. Like a real expert, he cuts the kebab meat as he oversees the ever-growing queue outside. Everybody is waiting to get a bite from his popular vegetable döner. The way he cuts the meat shows his passion for the food. “I am a döner-artist,” he smiles, while wiping some sweat off his forehead. Tarik’s artist name is Mustafa. Owner of Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap in Mehringdamm.
The 40-year old Turkish Tarik came to Berlin as a little boy. “It’s the classical story of my generation Turks in Berlin. Our parents came to Germany as guest workers. There were so many jobs here. I stayed with my grandparents in my hometown in the north of Turkey, but came to Berlin when I was 7. It was hard, everything was new, even being around my parents was new to me.”
Tarik spent the rest of his childhood in Kreuzberg, a very popular multicultural district in Berlin that houses a large Turkish community. At almost every corner of a street in Kreuzberg you can find a döner shop, the typical German-Turkish food. “It was never my ambition to open up a döner shop, I just thought at some point, what is it that I can do with my life?” He grins before he continues. “I wasn’t very good at school, I realized, actually I can’t do much. And that’s when I thought; why not open a döner shop! But I always knew, it should be a special, very tasty döner.”
His ‘gemüse döner’, or vegetable döner in English, is so popular in Berlin that people are willing to stand more than an hour in line for it – even in cold and rainy weather. “It’s unbelievable that our customers can wait so long. I would never be able to do that, I would be so hungry! I don’t have as much patience as our customers.” He looks proudly at the enormous line that has formed by now in front of his little kiosk, it is just past noon on a Sunday. Three men are working almost around the clock to serve the hungry, waiting people.
Tarik doesn’t know the secret behind his success. “I have absolutely no idea why it became so successful. I have been thinking about this for 8 years (since the shop opened), and I still don’t know the answer. It might be that we fulfil our task, we deliver high quality döner, we are very friendly and I think people see that we have a lot of fun working here. But that’s just 50% of the success. Our customers make up the other half. It makes me so happy.”
The success of his shop turned him into an icon, a ‘Döner Prince’ and a symbol of the Turkish community in Berlin. “I take this role very seriously. If people wouldn’t have known me for my döner shop, I would also want to be an example of the multicultural society of Berlin. There is discrimination here, but I think you can choose how to deal with that. You can take it as a challenge to show that you are a normal person too, even when you have a different cultural background.”
Tarik feels that this approach has paid off. “We never had a problem with violence or discrimination in our shop. I think it’s because we treat everybody equally. There are a lot of homeless people and alcoholics living in this area. They also wait in line for an hour and they also pay the 3 euros for a döner, that’s wonderful. ‘Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap’ has become a brand, it’s not my shop anymore, we all own it now. And that’s why people treat it with respect.”
Part of this respect is created by the new and younger generation Kreuzbergers, Tarik thinks. “My kids for example are 14 and 11 years old. They are curious, open-minded and more tolerant. They learn to live together with all these different cultures, that’s so great! Berlin is their home. If I look at my parents and their generation, they will always long for Turkey. They will always feel Turkish. For me, I am Turkish and I am a Berliner. It goes together wonderfully. Actually it doesn’t matter where you are from. It’s about love. And I love Berlin.”
Photo credits: Jonathan Hempel