I often write about food and culture to educate myself as well as my readers, but rarely is the culture in question in the midst of armed conflict as my post goes live. On July 20, 2015, the same day this piece first appeared on Berkeleyside.com, a suicide bomber killed 32 young people who were on their way to rebuild the city of Kobani. That attack in Suruc, a Kurdish-dominated town in south-eastern Turkey, began a chain of events that is still unfolding. See this BBC article for more details. Meanwhile, profound thanks to Emin and Filiz for sharing your stories with me.
Kobani’s succulent chunks of chicken kebab, creamy hummus, moist dolmas, richly flavored lentil soup and generous gyros are a welcome addition to the corner of University Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Berkeley.
But there is more to this new casual dining spot than meets the mouth.
The name of the restaurant may be familiar if you follow the news. Kobani, a city in northern Syria, was the site of the biggest defeat dealt to ISIS by Kurdish soldiers. But the four-month-long battle that raged from September 2014 until ISIS militants were driven out in January resulted in the widespread destruction of the 100-year-old city that was famous for its olive-oil and cultural diversity. And in a recent, disheartening reversal in June, Islamic State militants re-entered Kobani, killing dozens of civilians.
The restaurant’s logo features a massive golden sun that in Kurdish culture signifies rebirth and figures prominently on the Kurdish flag, whose red, white and green stripes grace a sign above Kobani. Both the name and the logo are acts of defiance.
“That flag is still illegal in Turkey and the Kurdish language is rarely spoken,” said Emin Tekin, Kobani’s owner, who grew up in Van, a Kurdish city in Eastern Turkey, and immigrated to San Francisco in 1999. Perhaps Tekin’s most daring move is the simple description on his window, “Kurdish and Mediterranean Grill.”
For some historical context, the BBC summarizes: “Kurds received harsh treatment at the hands of the Turkish authorities for generations. In response to uprisings in the 1920s and 1930s, many Kurds were resettled, Kurdish names and costumes were banned, the use of the Kurdish language was restricted and even the existence of a Kurdish ethnic identity was denied, with people designated ‘Mountain Turks.'”
In recent years there have been a few in-roads: Kurdish music, theater and film are more visible in Turkey than they were a decade ago. But tensions still remain high and surprisingly extend to Kurdish cooking, as reflected in this story from The Media Line: “It may seem strange to outsiders that in Turkey, where Kurds represent 15 to 20 percent of the population and boast a century-old culinary tradition, there is not a single Kurdish restaurant. There are however, restaurants with ‘southeastern’ food, referring to the regions of Turkey with a predominantly Kurdish population.”
While we in the Bay Area are under no such restrictions, and several restaurants do serve Kurdish food, it seems Kobani, which opened in May, stands out for its proud proclamation of Kurdish-ness.
Whether taking orders, delivering plates loaded with freshly sliced, marinated meat to the eight tables in his restaurant, or chatting with his already loyal customers, Tekin is a charmer. His position as the youngest son in a family of nine children served him well. All of his older brothers, except one, opened restaurants, which became training grounds for the succeeding siblings. But Tekin is quick to admit that his family’s menus do not exclusively feature Kurdish dishes.
“Being from the Mediterranean side of the world,” he said, “in every country from Greece to Turkey, Syria to Lebanon, Israel to Morocco, people eat almost the same things but with different herbs and spices. In our casual dining joints, the idea is to provide comfort food that people are familiar with.”
According to Tekin, however, a few of the dishes on his menu do carry a subtle Kurdish spin: take, for example, the tangy pomegranate dressing on the beet, arugula and goat cheese salad, the bulgur pilaf with pepper paste; the couscous salad; mast o sir (yogurt and cucumber dip) and the Kurdish baklava layered with cooked semolina flour and milk.
Although gyro spits rotate on many a Berkeley street, the smoky babaganoush, meltingly smooth hummus, and tender, deftly spiced meat at Kobani are definitely a cut above the rest. And the wrap sandwiches are large and reasonably priced for the student crowd who often orders them to go.
One evening, however, I find a large group of international students seated around a table, sharing the “family style mixed grill platter” — a wide, wooden board lined with lavash and topped with a mountain of sliced meats, assorted kebabs, mounds of bulgur and vegetable-studded rice.
“This is the traditional way we Kurdish people eat, sitting around a big platter and all partaking from the same dish,” explains Filiz Celik, a Kurdish woman from Eastern Turkey, who is taking a break from her doctoral studies in Wales to visit friends in the Bay Area.
Celik was attracted to this new restaurant as soon as she saw its name. To her, “Kobani signifies the solidarity and strength of the Kurdish people uniting in the face of atrocity, as Kurdish forces from different countries cooperated to singlehandedly liberate Kobani, a Kurdish town, from ISIS.”
“It is thrilling to see a restaurant that proclaims itself Kurdish,” adds Celik. “In Europe, I’ve seen many Kurdish activists open restaurants that are labeled ‘Turkish food’, although recently there is a momentum to broaden the description of their eateries to ‘Mediterranean.'”
To Tekin, the name Kobani also signifies his pride in other Kurdish accomplishments: “The power of women and the fight against inequality. In Syria, 80% of the fighters are women. To us, men and women are equal,” he says. “For the last ten years, whenever there are elections for mayors, we elect one man and one woman to run the city as co-mayors.”
Tekin is enjoying the success of his new restaurant. But his road to Berkeley was not a smooth one. He saw the Kurdish villages around his hometown burned down by Turkish forces, the men executed, the women and children left to survive on their own.
“Being a Kurdish person living in Turkey was always dangerous,” he said. “There were aggressive words and racist discrimination, with people saying things like ‘Dirty Kurds. You shouldn’t be in our country. Go back where you came from.’”
In 1997, Tekin moved to Marmaris, a Turkish resort town on the Mediterranean, where his brother managed a restaurant. “One night,” he said, “four [plain-clothed] policemen came to the restaurant where I was working.” His gaze switches to look off in the distance, as he recites the disturbing events of that night.
“Two of them were very drunk. They attacked my friend who was working there as a bodyguard and stabbed him 29 times. He died. As I rushed over to try and save him, they stabbed me too, in the spine. Then the uniformed Turkish police arrived. A bystander screamed at them to take me to the hospital. The policeman said, ‘I don’t want to take him in my police car because it will make it dirty with Kurdish blood.’”
Tekin continues, seemingly driven to finish the story, “After lying in the street in the rain for an hour, waiting for an ambulance that never came, a taxi driver saw me and volunteered to take me to the hospital. At the hospital, they never asked me my name or what happened because they didn’t want to write up a report that would make the Turkish officials look bad. So I couldn’t take them to court because I had no evidence. ”
Tekin was temporarily paralyzed for three months, but thanks to one brother living in the Netherlands, he received treatment there and a got visa to come to the U.S., where another brother had settled in San Francisco. After sharing the details of these traumatic events, there’s a slight pause, then Tekin returns to his role as congenial host.
While he attended Foothill College in Los Altos, Tekin taught Kurdish folk dancing at the local Jewish community center. He had been part of a prize-winning professional folk dance company in his homeland and in Los Altos brought Jews and Kurds to dance together. “Kurds, Jews and Muslims should all live together in peace,” he says. “All religions come from the same God, so all are equal.”
He later transferred to Stanford University to study finance, but before he could graduate, he eased into the real-estate business.
Today, Tekin is a busy man. He is opening two more restaurants in San Francisco that will also be called Kobani, and is helping his brother to re-open his popular restaurant, Hayes and Kebab, after renovations are complete in 2016. That’s not all: Tekin also owns a parking garage in a densely populated area of San Francisco and has a real-estate business specializing in restaurants and cafés.
“When you are born hungry, and you get some opportunities, you must use them wisely and not become spoiled,” he said. “My intent is to work as much as I can so I can contribute to my communities both here and back home. I have, and will continue to support, several non-profit organizations, like those that provide help for breast cancer, children’s education and abused women and children. I also intend to support associations that are against war — any war that will oppress a nation and destroy innocent civilians. As I have financial success, I will use that to contribute to people in need.”
Kobani Kurdish & Mediterranean Grill is at 1901 University Ave. (at Martin Luther King Jr. Way), Berkeley.