For a long time, while walking down Rue Oberkampf from Ménilmontant in Paris, I have stopped in front of the string of kebab restaurants lining the street's buildings. I asked myself what was hidden behind their doors, and found myself gazing listlessly at their sign-filled window fronts. I analysed the details of their sandwich photos, looked over the grotesque signs in the form of glistening meat spits, without ever knowing where they came from nor who made them. And then one day, I felt a mission calling out to me: I needed to investigate these restaurants and their signs, which all have the strange power of drawing in anyone with an appetite. I needed to trace the roots of the illustrious and mysterious kebab restaurant sign.
It was not a simple mission to launch oneself into. First off, I made the rounds of Paris by bicycle researching clues that would help start my investigation. As I came across kebab restaurants, I began to question their owners, many of whom told me to "come back tomorrow" with a not so subtle undertone of "but don't." Others gave the impression that they didn't remember.
Thanks to lots of window front analysis—and lots of pedalling—I finally found a lead. It was a small sticker on the corner of a window, which advertised for a few businesses that specialised in printing menus on LED screens. There were a few fuzzy pictures of sandwiches with their Turkish names and a list of numbers to contact. My investigation could finally begin.
The first person I got in touch with was reticent to tell me anything at all. At the other end of the line there was a painter who confirmed occasionally working with kebab restaurants, just to make a little extra money. Not very talkative, he let out one bit of interesting information: "It's not very well paid—200 to 300 euros, max. I work for five or six restaurants per year, that's it." He concluded by telling me that in this environment everything functions by word of mouth. After some insisting he ended by giving me a huge hint in the form of one word: "Papagan" (the Turkish word for parrot)—the name of a Turkish community newspaper based in Paris.
After getting my hands on a copy of the newspaper, I admit to being somewhat disoriented by all the tiny advertisements written in Turkish. I needed to get in touch with this precious review's editor. A few phone calls later, I found the person in question: an adorable character who gave me yet another clue. The Turkish word
means "signboard" in English. Then he encouraged me to call a certain Barbara who is a "specialist in all sorts of signage." He assured me that she knew the business well, and that she even worked with her father who is considered as an expert on the market.
Once I had Barbara on the phone, I right away felt her suspicion: She wanted to know where my article would be published and responded in an icy tone: "It's not my style to give out information, nor do I have the time" She did, however, suggest that I reach out to the Arab or Pakistani communities because "Turkish people only work with family." She hung up, and for the first time, I had serious doubts about the future of my investigation.
Not overly discouraged, I continued flipping through "Papagan" in search of a new clue. Between the ads for furniture and kebab-making machines, limousine rentals and Turkish toilet installations, I found a little ad, slightly subtler than the rest. It showcased the services of a business that fabricated and installed signage. Three minutes of telephone conversation later and a meeting was organised with the company's boss at noon in Montrouge.
I arrived at the given address at 11.59 AM. A small man was putting together the window front of his next restaurant: Il Segreto. Smiling and intrigued, we greeted one another and he invited me to coffee in a nearby cafe. On the way, he presented himself as a former revolutionary and journalist from Turkey, who has been a political refugee in France for 26 years. All of a sudden, I felt like my investigation was on a more interesting track.
"The process is pretty long. You need to imagine a window front that fits within the client's budget. Then, you build the chamber, the foundation, choose the materials, the vinyl stickers, and stencils, and plan for the scaffolding."
And for good reason, it's a lucky draw. It has been 20 years that Iman Cevik has practiced his "other profession"—creator and installer of signage: "I was a painter, and a friend who already made signs proposed that I join him in the business. We created the company IZ-art, and began working together."
To conceive the signs, Iman asked a photographer-friend to build him a personal image bank.
"At the time, I paid 3,500 francs (around 500 euros) to generate all the photos: sandwiches, kebabs, dishes. For the most part, the photos on today's kebab signs are reproductions of these originals. I don't know how they did it, but I know how to recognise my photos and I promise you they were re-used." Maybe that explains why, from my observations, the photos always appear yellowish and fuzzy. To my surprise, aside from kebab restaurants, Iman has also worked for the storefront signs of Zadig & Voltaire in France and around Europe.
"In Turkey, I started working in a body shop when I was nine. I went to school and I worked at the same time. I always knew how to work with my hands. To create beautiful signs, I needed to have ideas and a skillset. The process is actually quite long. You need to imagine a window front that fits with the client's budget. Then, you build the chamber, the foundation, choose the materials, the vinyl stickers, and stencils, then you plan for the scaffolding."
Every installation requires an authorisation from the arrondissement mayor because the dimensions are regulated. The restaurant's logo and visuals also need to be conceived.
"I create signs with my own photos and printers in my workshop. Now, everything is done with a computer—the font, the graphic design… Before, we painted by hand."
Like in all domains, there is more and more competition with less and less available money.
"There is less work, too. We lost much of the market due to the Chinese. Most of the materials are imported from China, but we are still solicited for the installation. Before, I did everything from A to Z," Iman explained.
And trends also apply to the world of signage. For example, neon lighting—expensive and out of style—has been replaced by LED lamps, which are in high demand: "Many restaurateurs have their LED displays made directly in Turkey. It costs them 300 or 400 euros instead of the 1,000 it would cost in France." In spite of it all, by making a couple of signs that bring in 15 to 20,000 euros, an artisan can earn up to 4,000 euros per month.
"It's very difficult to live well. Our community pays badly because they are not aware of the value in our work."
As time went on, I realised just how much in-depth, encyclopedic knowledge my interviewee possessed on the subject. Iman admitted to loving his work, especially for its creativity. The only eek is the business's profitability: "It is very difficult to live well. Our community pays badly because they are not aware of the value in our work. It is a question of culture. People aren't educated or cultivated in that way. In Turkey, we were peasants. Kebabs, kebabs, kebabs, you get the impression that it's the only thing we know how to do. But not at all! It's not as much a question of money as it is a state of mind. You need to fill your mind before anything. If that is empty, everything you do will be too."
I thought I was meeting with a simple sign installer, but found myself talking at length with someone's whose life has so many turns that he deserves his own Wikipedia page. My investigation was becoming more delicious by the sentence.
Iman Cevik was born on September 10, 1961 in Gaziantep, a city near the border of Syria. "One day, I went back to Gaziantep and I didn't recognise my city. There were women wearing niqabs everywhere. Before, the city was very democratic. Today, it's a real catastrophe due to terrorists," he said, cutting short his train of thought. Now, he is far from his homeland (he has lived in France for 26 years), and Iman can reflect on his old life: "I was lucky to grow up surrounded by intellectuals, artists, journalists, and politicians. I would often go see the well-known writers Yachar Kemal and Aziz Nesin. I was very lucky," he added before recommending a very good book by Yachar Kemal, Memed, My Hawk. "It's a wonderful, easy read. You'll see."
Engaged in the conversation, he claimed to have always defended his political beliefs: "While you're a living, breathing person, you are obliged to have a political opinion." I thought back to the numerous opportunities I missed earlier on, and asked why he agreed to meet me. He reminded me that he was once a journalist in Turkey, and that he doesn't have the same vision of the profession as I do. I cringed: "Journalism isn't this. It is exposing things that society tries to keep hidden. In Turkey, I lead an investigation into ground wheat, known as bulgur. Farm managers were employing 12 and 13- year-old girls, many of whom died from heat. I took the risk of photographing this illegal work, and I published an article that closed down several farms." Next to that, the idea that I called him to write about the people who install kebab restaurant signage merely intrigued his humour.
"Turkish restaurants are very clean. They make everything themselves with quality meat because there is heavy competition. Cleanliness is very important. It's a part of our culture."
At 55 years-old, this humanist continues to practice his principal activity, the conception and installation of signage. He is, however, working on another project. He wants to open an Italian restaurant where he will have created all the furniture himself, and where he will host temporary exhibitions.
That establishment will be a far cry from the backlit signs and greasy sandwiches that put food on his table for all these years. But Iman can count on his community's network and their solidarity in promoting his new venture: "Turkish restaurants are very clean. They do everything themselves with quality meat because there is heavy competition. Cleanliness is very important. It's a part of our culture. Our houses are always clean and ready to receive guests," he insisted while assuring that one can feel comfortable eating in any Turkish-owned establishment based on that principle.
I believe that, in beginning this investigation of these ornamented kebab window fronts and their illustrations, I did not expect discovering the savoir-faire and dedication manifested by Iman. I did not think that behind these simple photos of sandwiches, hid so many singular stories and I was even further from imagining meeting this man.
Maybe that is the report's conclusion: one gets their kebab, no matter the sign.
This article originally appeared in French on MUNCHIES FR.