By Marina Christofides
ANTHROPOLOGIST Rebecca Bryant’s book “The Past in Pieces: Belonging in the New Cyprus” makes for depressing reading. Not just because of the suffering that both Greek and Turkish Cypriots have gone through this last half century, but also because, as its author shows, our interpretations of the past remain diametrically opposed with little hope that there will be any meeting of minds any time soon in order to pave the way for a joint future.
Bryant’s ten year study tells how the opening of the checkpoints in 2003 and the referendum that followed impacted the lives and views of the inhabitants of the formerly mixed town of Lapithos, but did little to bring the two sides closer together.
She describes how, after the euphoria of the first days of the opening and the humanity of the early days, Greek Cypriots who crossed to the north were suddenly confronted not with their dream of how life used to be, but with reality. Initial feelings of joy were replaced by feelings of strangeness. Life in the north had gone on without them, things had changed. Someone else was living in their home, working their land.
Their homes and villages were no longer their own, both because they were occupied by others, and because they were not as they remembered. “This is my home,” one woman said. “This was your home,” came the reply. Some people, when confronted with these realities, began gradually to accept they no longer belonged, that ‘real’ return might not be possible, nor something they desired, and saw that things would never be as they once were. One person considered renting a place in his village and moving back. But most felt that they were like “tourists in our own country” and apart from their initial crossing, refused to confront that reality again.
The Turkish Cypriots, after the initial welcome, began to resent what they saw as intrusions. “Why do they come so often?” they told her. “Coming once to see is one thing, but they keep coming back. It’s been thirty years! Why can’t they put it behind them?”
For Bryant, the essence of the problem is encapsulated in the poignant question that many a Greek Cypriot would ask a Turkish Cypriot, “Wouldn’t it be better if we could just go back to the way things once were?” and the silence or shrug of the shoulders with which it was met. This simple exchange shows that even our memories of our shared history are conflicting. Greek Cypriots remember that “we got along perfectly fine before politics got in the way”, recalling how they worked together in the fields, sat in front of their homes and shelled beans together, traded foodstuffs with each other, and sat in the coffeeshops and argued together.
Turkish Cypriots, however, remember how those same people they used to work with in the fields changed towards them in the 1950s and 1960s, threatening their lives. Their memories are of living in crowded, squalid conditions for over a decade, with little access to their lands or to any form of livelihood, in enclaves from which they could exit only by passing through Greek Cypriot checkpoints, where so many had gone missing or were subjected to humiliating searches, reason enough for them to remain there where it was safe, relying on rations and salaries from Turkey in order to survive. All able-bodied men became fighters, including young boys, and all were responsible for guarding outposts.
Not surprising then that few Turkish Cypriots want to go back to the way we were. “We can’t go back to the past. We don’t want to go back to the past,” they told her repeatedly. “They suffered, but we suffered more. They never had two men leave home one evening and never come back.” The persistent response to the Greek Cypriot question, “wouldn’t it be better if we could just go back to the way things once were?” was, “there is no going back.” “We can’t live mixed any more.”
Ours is a story of two different narratives, as well. The Greek Cypriot nationalist narrative tells of Turkish Cypriots pushed into enclaves by their leaders and a Turkey that always wished to divide the island. “But those narratives could not take into account what they encountered when the checkpoints opened – Turkish Cypriots who insisted on a version of the past that seemed by necessity to imply a separate state,” Bryant says. The opening of the checkpoints put paid to the Greek Cypriot belief that it was the settlers who kept Denktash in power while their former Turkish
Cypriot neighbours wished for a return to “the way things were”, showing that the political landscape in the north and Turkish Cypriots’ political will were considerably more complicated than that.
Perhaps our biggest difference is in our vision of the future. For more than three decades, Bryant says, Greek Cypriots have couched their demands regarding a solution in a language of rights – the right of return, the right to freedom of movement, the right to know the fate of the missing, the right of the majority not to be dictated to by a minority, demands that in Turkish Cypriot eyes amounted to a return to a unitary state that would also entail a denial of Turkish Cypriot equality.
Turkish Cypriots in contrast asked for respect – respect for their culture, respect for their language, respect for their past, respect for their humanity. This has meant, for them, maintaining a separate space, a zone of protection where their equality is ensured. Yet one of the words whose implications subtly changed with the checkpoints opening was ‘recognition’, as Turkish Cypriots began to understand that political recognition wasn’t on the horizon. At best a Taiwan model, at worst incorporation into a federal state without ever being recognised on one’s own. Denktash’s failure to realise that no one was going to recognize him was one of the things that made him so outmoded in an age when most Turkish Cypriots wanted incorporation into a borderless EU.
The opening of the checkpoints made clear that their demand for recognition was not so much the international acknowledgement of a right of self-determination. It was an acknowledgement of their suffering, and a recognition of a history different from that told by Greek Cypriots. What recognition implied after the opening of the checkpoints, was their ability to make their voices heard to the Greek Cypriots who worked so hard to deny them that recognition.
So Greek Cypriots demand their rights, and Turkish Cypriots want recognition of their suffering. How to go forward? Greek Cypriots, she says, are bent on keeping the memory of the past alive. The slogan of “den xechno”, “I don’t forget”, Bryant says, is intended to keep the wound open rather than allow it to heal, until the time in the future when all will return to the way it once was.
When a Greek Cypriot friend refused a bag of lemons from her garden in the north, Bryant realised that for her to inhale the scent of lemons would have been “like opening the locked room of someone one has loved and lost. As long as the room remains locked, one is confronted neither with the truth of the past nor with the truth of its loss.”
Before the referendum, in their enthusiasm to work for a new future, Turkish Cypriots urged Greek Cypriots “to put the past behind them” and move towards the future. “The Europeans did it,” friends kept telling her, presenting their vision of a “European” solution. “The French and Germans fought two wars, but now they cooperate together.”
Their call met with no reciprocity from the Greeks. When only a handful of core ‘peace activists’ from the Greek side turned out to support the thousands of Turkish Cypriots who rallied in favour of the Annan plan, it added to their bewilderment making them ask themselves: “Where are the Greek Cypriots? Why have they not come?”
Now, as a result of the rejection of reunification, a new nationalism threatens in the north – a very local Turkish Cypriot nationalism, a dedication to the unrecognised state for which they fought.
Despite the opening of the borders and the reestablishment of contact between our two communities, we are still talking at cross-purposes. Bryant points out that we don’t even have a common language to describe a shared vision for the future, how our history of conflict might be resolved. This is illustrated by our interpretation of basic words, like the word for peace. It is quite common for Greek Cypriots to say that ‘peace’ in Turkish means partition, she says, while Turkish Cypriots remark that ‘peace’ for Greek Cypriots means the right to control it all.
While Bryant’s study gives no indication of how her subjects envision the future, all Cypriots would benefit from reading her book, if only to gain an understanding of the other side’s point of view and to ask themselves if, after all that has happened, common ground can be found. Personally, after reading this book, I felt we may as well call it a day.