Cyprus Mail
Guest Columnist Opinion

History as dogma

File photo

By Marina Christofides

How do we remember the past? How does each side in our ethnically divided island approach our history? And what does that mean for our future?

Differently, and it doesn’t bode well, according to social anthropologist and University of Cyprus professor, Yiannis Papadakis, speaking on history, memory and identity at the Home for Cooperation earlier this week.

“Just like maps of Nicosia depict a city divided, so is our history. People see half the picture, learn half the history, feel half the pain,” he says. “For example, when we talk about the refugees, or the missing, we only see our own refugees and missing, never the other side’s.”

Starting with the Green Line, he says many Greek Cypriots assume it came into being in 1974 and never think of it as existing before that. The Turkish Cypriots, on the other hand, are obsessively focused on the 1960s, condensing the whole of history into that single period and forgetting that there existed a time other than conflict.

And yet within these differences, there are also similarities. Both sides have slogans about memory that are more or less identical, Greek Cypriots with Den Xechno (I don’t forget), and Turkish Cypriots with Kanlı Noel Anildi (Bloody Christmas Memorial). Greek Cypriots will not forget their occupied lands, lost homes and villages, while Turkish Cypriots won’t forget the Bloody Christmas of 1963, the slaughter and violence of the ‘60s, events that Greek Cypriots hardly remember at all.

While researching what was to become his book on the area around the Green Line in Cyprus, The Dead Zone, Papadakis was surprised how people living in the very same neighbourhood had two conflicting views of the past. Spending several months living on both sides of the line long before the checkpoints opened, he interviewed the inhabitants of the Tahtakale area, near Famagusta Gate, a formerly mixed area. Greek Cypriots would reminisce on how well they lived together with Turkish Cypriots, how they went to each other’s weddings, looked after each other’s children. Turkish Cypriots told him, “They used to kill us and persecute us.” He says, “It was as if they had lived in a completely different land, rather than in the very same neighbourhood.”

Memory, he says, in addition to reminding us of the past, may also tell us about the future. “When Turkish Cypriots say the Greek Cypriots used to kill us and persecute us, what they’re really saying is we can never live together again. That is what history proves for them. When Greek Cypriots, on the other hand, say we got on well together in the past, what they’re really saying is the island should be reunited.”

Similarities also exist in the way the two sides teach history, “like a kind of dogma, that cannot be questioned,” he says. The emphasis is on the respective histories of the motherlands with little time devoted to the history of Cyprus.

In Turkish Cypriot schools, Cyprus is always depicted on a map beneath Turkey, while in Greek Cypriot schools, since the island cannot easily be shown graphically as part of Greece, it is usually inserted in a box as though it were a Greek island. The main focus in Turkish Cypriot history books is on the years between ‘63 and ’74, with half the book covering the four hundred years since the Ottoman conquest devoted to just those eleven years.

Mehmet Ali Talat period book 2004- 2009 showing Cyprus on its own and intact.
Mehmet Ali Talat period book 2004- 2009 showing Cyprus on its own and intact.

When the Turkish Cypriot Left led by Mehmet Ali Talat came to power in the north, they changed the history books in 2004. The new ones had on the cover just a single image of the island on its own with no dividing line cutting through it. While the text still talked of conflict, it also talked of peaceful times, emphasising coexistence and cooperation. Illustrations depicted Greek and Turkish Cypriots looking like identical twins having been divided by nationalism and the British.

Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots as twins
Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots as twins

“Now it was the turn of the Greek Cypriots to suffer,” it says of the events of 1974 in an attempt to create empathy for the other side. Cyprus is caricatured as a creature bent over and crying, as if to say that all of Cyprus has suffered. Controversially, it dares to say that national identity is a construct, not an eternal ‘truth’. Later when Dervis Eroglu’s right wing party came to power, these books were quickly removed and replaced by ethnocentric ones, similar to the ones before.

Post 2009 Turkish Cypriot schoolbook introduced when Dervis Eroglu came to power.
Post 2009 Turkish Cypriot schoolbook introduced when Dervis Eroglu came to power.

In essence, Papadakis says, history is a story, an attempt by human beings to create meaning out of events. On both sides of the divide in Cyprus, the story revolves around two main characters, the moral self and the other, with the self as the protagonist in conflict with the other. Each story has a beginning and an end. The Greek Cypriot narrative starts with the arrival of Greeks on the island, the moral self being the Greeks of Cypriots and the enemy the Turks, or Ottomans, who used to slaughter the Greeks and with whom the Turkish Cypriots were equated. The plot revolves around the struggle for survival of Cypriot Hellenism against the enemy, reaching a tragic end with the ‘barbaric Turkish invasion’. The Turkish Cypriot narrative starts with the arrival of the Turks in Cyprus. As protagonists their story is one of struggling to survive against Greek Cypriot aggression. Theirs has a happy end in 1974 with the ‘Happy Peace Operation’.

He points out that Turks talk of the Greek Cypriots as Rum, the previous inhabitants of the Ottoman empire, as opposed to the Yunanli, or mainland Greeks, thereby reducing the validity of the Greek Cypriot ethnic alliance with modern Greece.

Greek Cypriot primary school history book showing Turks as Hellenism’s barbaric arch enemy
Greek Cypriot primary school history book showing Turks as Hellenism’s barbaric arch enemy

On their part Greek Cypriots look at Turkish Cypriots as remnants of foreign conquerors. Since, according to their version of history, Cyprus is a Greek island, anybody else shouldn’t really be here. The Greek Cypriot narrative that we lived well together ignores any Turkish Cypriot suffering, and denies any responsibility for what happened. It’s as if the invasion happened out of the blue and the coup is not even mentioned. The Turkish Cypriot narrative, aggrandising the Turkish role on the island, says not only do Turks belong here, but historically Cyprus is a Turkish island.

Greek Cypriot primary school history book depicting links with ancient Greece
Greek Cypriot primary school history book depicting links with ancient Greece

Looking to the future, Papadakis is not very optimistic. He feels not enough has been done to change these narratives and align them with each other. While he welcomes the recent setting up of the bi-communal technical committee on education, he fears it may be too little too late. The Greek Cypriot young steadily remain the single group least favourably inclined to reconciliation, while hardly any effort has been exerted to prepare society for what federation would mean.

Meanwhile, the Cyprus problem pervades everything. As the trauma hasn’t been acknowledged, people have become fixated on it, the discussion within society remaining monothematic and obsessive. All other issues are crowded out, as each side focuses on what the other side has done to them, the culture of victimisation continuing unabated on both sides and any talk of compromise and consensus treated as selling out.

Nevertheless he does recognise certain “avenues of cooperation”, though considers them as being “underground” and against all odds, such as the sewerage project, for which he credits the forward thinking Mustafa Akinci, and the existence of the Home for Cooperation, a place that is buzzing with activity with people from both sides of the divide.

He shakes his head as he looks around him. “To me this place is like a small miracle,” he says, leaving the audience to ponder whether there could be more miracles to come.


Marina Christofides is the author of the award-winning illustrated history of Cyprus The Island Everyone Wanted

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