By Peter Rutkoff
We arrived in Nicosia, the ‘last European divided capital’ as the pilot always says, this time with some real expectations. A group I had joined on the internet, the Buyuk Han, comprised of Cypriots from north and south (somehow this now feels better than saying Turkish and Greek Cypriots) invited me to join them at their weekly meeting (11am on Saturdays) at the Han, a beautifully renovated caravan (sarie) resting place in north Nicosia. The group meets there in partnership and friendship as the political leaders negotiate and navigate the complex process of a ‘solution.’
I strolled across the Green Line, the original Ledra Palace crossing, between north and south on a beautiful, sun dappled March morning. It smelled like spring thanks to the bright yellow and purple flowers that grow in the fields outside the massive Venetian stone walls that surround the old city. A dozen years ago I first walked though that ‘dead’ zone, past barbed wire, sandbags, bullet-pocked sandstone walls of abandoned buildings the gravestones of a failed British imperial past. Today, while little has changed along the Green Line, it doesn’t seem as menacing. Yet, somehow the beauty of an early spring day only heightened the irony.
I booked our tickets for this our sixth visit to Cyprus since 2005 in expectation that the process toward a ‘solution’ was so well launched that I might well witness first-hand an occasion of wonder and celebration.
But, two weeks before the International talks were to resume, and hence before our visit, the parliament passed a resolution that called for a state-wide public school celebration of enosis (union with Greece). The resolution felt really provocative to my ears, like saying “let’s just fly the Confederate flag once a year… you know for reasons of heritage.” After all, they said, “it’s just history.” Remember, this is the Middle East.
The word provocative weighed heavily on me as I strolled across the Green Line that sweet spring morning.
Minutes later, having entered the northern section of the city, I found myself at Ataturk Square, a shaded triangle in mid-city bustle where men (mostly men) gather to sip coffee, schmooze, and play backgammon with noisy abandon – you can hear the tiles clicking before you can make out the voices.
Six men sit in plastic chairs arrayed around a plastic picnic table. When I asked if they minded if I took their photograph they regarded me skeptically. “No, I’m not the police,” I smiled, “just someone who has written about Cyprus.”
Sit down, please they invited me. What do you do, they wondered? Where are you from? Then a long, but very friendly pause, “can you tell which among us is Turkish Cypriot, which Greek?”
They were a group of very old friends who had been meeting in the same spot for years, as men seem to do the world over. If I had to guess I’d say they were between 60 and 80 years old, and I said, “I’ve no idea how to answer your question. You all look like brothers to me.”
The three to my left identified as Turkish Cypriot – but “here we all speak Greek or English.” We talked for perhaps 20 minutes mostly about politics – theirs and mine – and to a person they agreed that there would be no settlement this time around. “We’ve seen it before. But we will remain friends as before too.” Of course, they wanted to know more about Trump and I was appropriately disrespectful.
Minutes later I walked into the courtyard of the Han and found a long wood table with room for perhaps 40 up and down its two sides. Three people stood and motioned me to join them. “We talk for an hour and then we go out to eat,” the leader, Alexi, told me his greying hair barely betraying his evident enthusiasm. And, like the small group on the square it was equally impossible to tell Turkish from Greek Cypriot. Middle class intellectuals, teachers, government officials, they too hoped for reconciliation. “We don’t, however, do politics,” they told me. “Just friendship.”
Out of the corner of my eye, however, I saw “real” politics. Two TV cameras materialised as did two clearly not Cypriot VIPs. The whole party slowly circled the table, chatting with regulars, introducing themselves to newcomers, exchanging more than pleasantries which they coated with words like “promise” and “work harder” and even “soon.”
The man was the UN Secretary General’s representative on Cyprus Espen Barth Eide and the woman his chief of mission Elizabeth Spehar. Perhaps, I thought, just perhaps someone means business, really wants to see some progress. Perhaps.
I had been thinking about the ways in which popular demonstration, from below, can push public politics along. And, precisely because I knew better I worked my way down to the head of the table where the important people had been concentrated and talked for all of 30 seconds about my own experiences, from the “outside” as an activist in my own society. I expect they have heard this before, but they did listen and nod, if ever so briefly.
It was a wonderful moment. But, like the encounter I had earlier at Ataturk Square it was but a moment.
A few days later we drove north to Kyrenia, from where it feels as if you can see Ankara from the charming harbor. The town has a decidedly UK feel to it, not just the ruddy faces drinking wine and cracking shrimp at the two dozen restaurants that ring the marina, but the names (Viscount, or Her Majesty) on worn but seaworthy vessels rising and falling to the rhythm of the waves. It’s a place to sit and kick back and pretend that the rest of the world is actually at peace.
Not far from Kyrenia a Lusignanian castle perched dramatically atop a steep and rugged mountain cliff peers down on the seaport. A really fine pair of binoculars might even allow one to see down on to the very table we had enjoyed at water’s edge. To the naked eye, however, the harbour looks rather like an impressionist vision of blue waters under a thousand white-capped sparkles.
St Hilarion Castle is about a three kilometer climb. The road becomes ever tortured and narrow, negotiating s-turns between the arid rocky hillside on the one side and a skimpy single-rail guard on the other. It requires so much concentration that it’s easy to pass, not even notice, the series of red posters framing a blue silhouetted military figure cradling an automatic weapon in his arms. The sign, one of very many, signaling Turkish military bases scattered throughout the north. We climb ever more slowly and higher, and the stone spires and archways of St Hilarion emerge like elaborate outcroppings from the surrounding hills. To our left, away from the sea pounding down below, a scene materialises as if out the clouds and fog that linger in the late morning light.
Perhaps a half-mile below us, spread out like a model train table, a stone-dirt field the size of several football pitches is filled with men and equipment – soldiers in green, armored vehicles in desert camouflage. They scurry silently to and fro, filling the grounds with random activity. It passes by in the blink of an eye, this scene, as we swerve dramatically to avoid a tour bus careening down the hill toward us along this narrowing one-lane road.
That unnerving climb followed by another 2 kilometers on foot, up worn stone steps, ducking beneath hand-hewed stone arches, yields breath-taking rewards. Along the north coast of Cyprus the Mediterranean curves outward past the miniature city of Kyrenia toward the Akamas peninsula. A clear and brilliant late morning – azure sky and bright sun – reveals the stuff of picture post-cards. Only an iron railing, about scapula high, stands between overwhelmed visitors and a tumble down all the way to the sea.
And, then the gunfire. Or is it thunder? No. On such a clear and beautiful day, its gunfire – tattoo after tattoo rolling across the hills below. Leaning out over the rail now pressed against my chest I see the miniature soldiers and their bellowing armoured vehicles moving this way and that, randomly, chaotically, across the dusty plain below. It’s far away enough that the thunder of their guns, sending flaming projectiles into the rocky hillside, beats the air and presses into my ear drums. It’s jarringly out of synch with the movement of the army below.
And, like that now toned down law on celebrating enosis in schools, and like the massive Turkish flag on the other slope of these hills that burns bright into the homes of those living in the south, the military exercises and accompanying gunfire of the Turkish army on Cyprus are nothing less that intrusively provocative. Come to think of it, these are all examples of very aggressive passive agressivity. And it flies hard in the face of the hundreds indeed thousands of individual acts, gestures and words of good will, of cooperation, of reconciliation that have become part of daily life on Cyprus.
Later that evening at an ice-cream shop in south Nicosia on the busy and ever so slightly honkey-tonk stretch of Ledra Street we sit with friends from both communities who have worked together at the Home for Cooperation for a decade. Each admitted that the stalled peace process has exhausted them, that the remnants of what they call “nationalism” from each side has frustrated them. Hunching their shoulders, palms raised upwards, their body language says “enough.” And if that isn’t enough one of them, an admirable woman and activist, tells us about her son’s second grade class in Cyprus. There, only that day, the teacher instructed the children to chant, “Kill the Turks, Kill the Turks.”
Provocative. And sad. They all deserve much better.