x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Turkish PM tops the bill among Palestinians in Jerusalem

Erdogan's image pops up on shopfronts as leader of Turkey is seen as new champion of Palestinian people.

Shoppers at the Abu Al Ez Ardogan Sandwiches Restaurant and Grocery in East Jerusalem. The shop pays homage to the Turkish prime minister. Adam Reynolds for The National
Shoppers at the Abu Al Ez Ardogan Sandwiches Restaurant and Grocery in East Jerusalem. The shop pays homage to the Turkish prime minister. Adam Reynolds for The National

JERUSALEM // Azzam Maraka's small grocery and restaurant is known for serving greasy chips and fried chicken with an unusually healthy helping of Turkish politics on the side.

The Palestinian businessman hopes first and foremost that his customers indulge in the message of his favourite politician: Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

"He is better than all the support of the Arab countries put together - all of them," Mr Maraka said in his shop, on East Jerusalem's Abu Obeidah Street.

To make his point, he has liberally plastered his shop with images of the Turkish leader.

Figuring prominently in his window-front collage of chicken wings and various assortments of cooked meats is Mr Erdogan, in a business suit, thrusting a defiant hand into the air.

Another photo shows the 57-year-old politician's visage beaming a bright smile at customers entering the shop, which Mr Maraka renamed last year Grocery-Restaurant Abu Al Ez Ardogan. (The establishment, previously called the Abu Al Ez Sandwiches shop, has also replaced its logo with a picture of Mr Erdogan.)

Mr Erdogan has rallied regional sentiment against Israel like no other Middle Eastern leader since, perhaps, the late Egyptian president, Gamal Abdul Nasser, and his once widely popular brand of Arab nationalism.

He has become a champion of the Palestinian's goal for statehood recognition in the UN, urging its long-time ally the US on Tuesday not to veto the measure should it go to the UN Security Council.

He has also increased Turkey's naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean, promising to protect Turkish ships delivering aid to Gaza.

Mr Maraka even goes so far as to dismiss the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, and his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, when compared to Mr Erdogan.

"Abbas, Arafat, what have they done for us? Nothing," he said. "We see him [Erdogan] as the only person who's actually fighting for us."

Mr Maraka is not alone in his enthusiasm.

Nearby shops selling Turkish doner kebab fly the Turkish flag, with its crescent moon and star on their storefronts.

Samer Bakri, 28, opened his doner kebab restaurant, called Istanbul, on Al Azhar Road two weeks before an Israeli commando raid killed nine Turks aboard an aid flotilla sailing to the Gaza Strip in May 2010.

"After that there were more customers coming here," he said. "You could tell people were supporting the restaurant more because of the food we serve. They were giving us pictures of Erdogan and flags to put in the shop."

Shortly after Mr Bakri opened his restaurant, another doner shop down the street, Original Istanbul, opened its doors for business. One loyal customer, Ashraf Daas, 37, insisted that the recent craving for Turkish cuisine did not result from its inherent tastiness.

"It is all about Erdogan - anything that is Turkish or about him, people like it," said Mr Daas, who lives in Jerusalem's Old City.

Mr Maraka disagrees, however. He said his revenues have plummeted by nearly half since he changed his store's motif in June last year to one touting the newest nemesis of Israeli policy.

He said Jewish Israelis who work at nearby government offices and businesses stopped ordering food from his shop, which he opened 20 years ago.

Mr Marak fears that he is now being watched by Israel's secret police, Shin Bet, which he believes have been photographing his employees.

"I don't care if I go out of business - this is what I believe," he said, adding the other restaurants in the area have only adopted a Turkish theme "for business".

"Believe me, if Israel gave us peace, then we wouldn't need Erdogan."