Born blind, a Nicosia lawyer and former MP is known for his strong opinions and unhesitating way of expressing them. THEO PANAYIDES meets him
Rikkos Mappourides has a lot of strong opinions. He has strong opinions on the health service, the Cyprus problem, religion, prostitution, and the Minister of Agriculture. He has strong opinions on the rule that forces lawyers – like himself – to wear a gown in the courtroom, and a black jacket (not brown, or grey, but black) when outside it. He even has a strong opinion on newspaper profiles, like the one we’re doing now. “These profiles are a bit too vague, and they’re unreadable. We need to find a way to structure it by topic,” he notes, looking unconvinced by my promise to tie it all together into something readable.
At 57, a prominent lawyer and former MP, he’s a well-established figure. “Oh, Rikkos…” said almost everyone to whom I mentioned our interview, and most of them chuckled – some with affection, some with a hint of malice. (He’d be the first to admit that he’s not universally liked.) One friend, who was Rikkos’ client a couple of years ago, mentioned both his legal expertise (they won the case) and wicked sense of humour. It was actually around this time of year, and Rikkos casually asked him what he thought of the Christmas decorations which his staff had put up around the office. My friend was silent, since the office was totally bare; Rikkos waited a beat, then laughed merrily at his discomfiture – but the point, and the reason why my friend felt awkward, was that Rikkos Mappourides couldn’t have seen any Christmas decorations, even had they existed. He’s been blind since birth.
We meet on a Saturday morning, his Nicosia office empty apart from himself. I ring the bell, wait a few moments, then hear a heavy step on the other side of the door and watch through the glass panel as a shaky hand rummages uncertainly for the handle. The door opens and he greets me with a limp handshake, a middle-aged man with a fleshy face and receding hairline (he looks a bit like the actor Tom Wilkinson), leading me to his private office where we sit down and begin to talk.
When he talks, he talks slowly and sits very still, his eyebrows jiggling up and down for emphasis – as if beating time to the words – with his eyes shut tight. It’s actually a little unnerving talking to a blind person, especially in an interview situation. I successfully suppress my inner 12-year-old’s ridiculous impulse to pick my nose, or wave a hand in front of his face, but it still feels peculiar chatting to someone without quite knowing what impression they’ve formed of you. Not that you ever really know, of course – but a stranger’s eyes always hold the most important clues (are they warm? are they guarded?), and of course we all have a pretty good idea of the first impression our physical appearance makes. In this case, however, all I have to represent me is my voice, and I don’t really know if it’s a pleasant or unpleasant voice for someone who knows only voices, and hears every unintended nuance of another’s voice. He can always tell when people are lying, claims Rikkos at one point, which is certainly useful in his job – though he puts it down to 35 years’ experience, as opposed to being blind.
He was in high school when he decided to become a lawyer – an ambitious dream, though everyone around him seems to have been supportive. Even in his solitary world, he wasn’t lonely; though completely blind (he can’t even see shapes, just a darkness that varies slightly between night and day), he was always sociable, even as a child – the result, I suspect, of a conscious decision to try and fit in. He played with the neighbourhood kids, and was always accepted as one of the gang: “They saw [my condition] as normal – they knew what I could and couldn’t do, and when they had to help out”. What about when the others played football? “I was on the pitch too. Just without making much of a contribution.” The point was being present, being part of that childhood society. It’s trickier now, perhaps, when kids play videogames (where the blind are excluded) – but back then, says Rikkos, there was so much they could do together: chess, backgammon, board games, riding bikes in the playground, playing hide-and-seek. I’m still a little puzzled (hide-and-seek sounds like the last game in the world a blind boy could play), but whatever; he knows what happened better than I do.
“It’s all a question of how you grow up,” he explains a little later when I ask about being a teenager, maybe starting to look for a girlfriend, worried that no girl would ever be interested in a boy with his disability. “If you grow up thinking ‘I’ll do everything as normally as possible’, if you grow up with that principle, then this problem can be overcome”. (It was overcome; he’s now married with two daughters, one of whom works in the office with him.) Still, no amount of positive thinking could obscure the fact that he needed help to live even halfway-normally – and indeed, growing up blind in those days must’ve relied to a large extent on being genial and friendly, to secure the kindness of others. This was even more true at university (in Greece), where “you absolutely had to have a ‘reader’, an assistant”. Some textbooks did exist in audio versions; lectures could also be recorded – but he still needed someone to relay the case-law, or “who could devote 10 hours to read out a book to me, so it could be recorded”, and the ‘reader’ wasn’t always paid help, it might be a friend or a classmate. It occurs to me – perhaps unfairly – that part of the reason why he’s so outspoken now may be that he spent those early years being as obliging as possible.
Not that he sets out to be outspoken now – but his style as a lawyer is aggressive, he admits, and he doesn’t mince words. This was often his problem as a Disy MP (he was in Parliament for one term, losing his seat in this year’s elections), that “I spoke to them bluntly. Bluntly. Using arguments, sure, but I said things like I’m saying them to you now. I didn’t have a problem speaking out – because I didn’t have a reason to want anything, whether re-election or whatever. I said to [the voters]: ‘I’ve got to where I am, I’ve proved to myself what I can do. If you want me to be who I am, vote for me. If not, just send me back, I’ve got an office to run!’”. He remains the only blind lawyer with his own law office in Cyprus – though in fact he spent most of his career working for the government, having prosecuted cases with the Attorney-General’s Office for 22 years.
Nowadays, his clients are sometimes controversial. Just this year, he defended Giorgos Xiourouppas, accused of shooting another man 13 times in a bar-room quarrel (he was indeed convicted – but of manslaughter, not premeditated murder). Why him? “Xiourouppas was my friend,” exclaims Rikkos, then pauses slyly: “You know, I go out socially with that lot,” ‘that lot’ being gangsters and underworld types. “I mean, I’ve never been afraid to go out with people who, for everyone else, might be a red flag. Because you learn things!”.
That brings us to his other recent controversy, when he admitted to his own experience of dodgy bars while calling, in March 2015, for the legalisation of prostitution, provoking uproar from women’s groups. (“Mr. Mappourides actually glorifies prostitution under the umbrella of a ‘profession’, and not a form of violence against women,” they protested in a joint statement.) He sticks to his guns when I raise the issue, adding that his plan would enable a separation between women who are simply professionals and women who are being exploited, with an official register for the former and clients penalised when they visit the latter – that last detail echoing the so-called ‘Swedish model’ (which criminalises all clients of prostitutes), though it’s unlikely that Rikkos would agree with the strict provisions of the Swedish model. In the end, he’s all about freedom, calling himself a Libertarian – a proponent for everyone being allowed to do what they want, if it doesn’t hurt others.
As an MP, he supported abortion and civil partnerships – and also supports privatisations, the 80s “revolution on the two sides of the Atlantic” (ie. Thatcher and Reagan) having converted him to free-market capitalism. Freedom means the freedom to speak his mind: he badmouthed fellow politicians last year – including some from his own party – and now has some choice words for the Minister of Agriculture (an “idiot”), with whom he’s embroiled in a halloumi war. Rikkos represents the Association of Cheesemakers, who want the definition of halloumi to include cheese made from cow’s milk (the government wants to restrict it to goat’s and sheep’s milk) – though he also assures me that he himself would never dream of eating halloumi made from cow’s milk, which mostly gets exported to the UK anyway. Freedom means the freedom to act for clients without also being their PR person.
Does being blind offer him the freedom – and perhaps the desire – to be a maverick? Is it a question of feeling like an outsider, just because his daily reality is so different from everyone else’s? Rikkos doesn’t think so: “What I feel is that, because I worked hard for many years, and I don’t need to build some public impression of me now – whether it’s a good or bad impression – I feel more free to say what I think. Because I’m not interested in building my reputation now”. It’s also undoubtedly the case that he likes to pontificate; you can see it in the way he talks, his eyebrows waggling as if relishing each outrageous word, punctuated with little asides – “eh?” “OK?” – to make sure I’m listening. Simply put, he enjoys being Rikkos Mappourides.
“When it comes to the Cyprus problem, I believe that nothing will happen.”
But surely something will happen? They’re saying that –
“Let them say what they want. Nothing whatsoever will happen!” (His argument, in brief: the problem itself is all but solved, but Turkey is concerned about security in Syria and Iraq and won’t relinquish Cyprus – to be used as a bargaining chip – until the situation is resolved.)
Maybe that’s all it is. Maybe he is just a middle-aged lawyer who enjoys the sound of his own voice. But surely being blind also played a vital role, marking his psyche indelibly. Has he ever felt bitter about his disability? He hesitates: “Yes, I may have [sometimes] thought to myself that I could’ve done much more, if I’d been able to see. But I also don’t know whether not being able to see gave me the focus to develop my strengths… I might’ve let myself go, if I’d had everything, and maybe ended up doing nothing. I can’t know that.”
Rikkos walks unsteadily to a corner cupboard, where he keeps some old souvenirs. This is a wooden Braille plate from kindergarten, he says, holding up what looks like a child’s toy – a rectangular board with a pattern of small squares, each square holding a maximum of six silver pins in various permutations, a blind boy’s first ABC. This is an old Braille notebook, he tells me, bringing out another item: two thin metal plates hinged together, allowing a blind man to insert a piece of paper in between and, using a spike – he roots around, looking for the spike – to make perforations in Braille. This is a Braille typewriter, a heavy clanking thing with six keys, far too noisy to use in a university classroom.
These are his trophies, his scars, his only weapons as he clawed his way to success and the freedom to say what he likes. Nowadays, of course, it’s very different – both for a blind youngster, and for Rikkos himself. He no longer needs a secretary to read everything out. Now, in the digital age, there’s a robotic voice on his computer (its Greek pronunciation is atrocious, but at least it’s bilingual), allowing him to correct a speech even now, by himself on a Saturday morning, and there’s also another voice on his smartphone, allowing him to explore the internet. This is the voice that will list his options – and, if for instance he selects ‘Facebook’, will read out recent posts while describing emojis and smiley faces. This is the voice that will guide him (if he so wishes) to the Cyprus Mail website, and that same robotic voice will recite this entire profile to its prickly subject, the public man who lives in a private darkness. I hope he finds it readable.