THEO PANAYIDES meets a Turkish Cypriot actress and activist who drifted into both roles but is determined to do something to better the country
We meet in the buffer zone, at the Home for Cooperation Café, facing the handsome sandstone of the Ledra Palace whose pre-UN grandeur is now just a fading memory in the minds of the over-50s. People saunter by occasionally, heading to one or the other checkpoint, often in small groups, chatting loudly and toting bags of shopping. Near the end of our conversation the muezzin starts up on the Turkish side, calling out his stock incantations and threatening to drown out Oya’s voice.
This is a significant space for Oya Akin, for three reasons. The first is that she’s worked extensively with the Home for Cooperation and indeed is a Board member of the Association for Historical Dialogue and Research, which runs the Home. The second is that this is where she met her husband 12 years ago – or rather, this is where he first saw her (she didn’t notice; she was rather flustered at the time), crossing from north to south and talking in English on the phone to a taxi driver who was supposed to drive her to the set of Panicos Chrysanthou’s film Akamas. The third, more generally, is that the notion of a buffer zone describes her conceptually – because she too is somewhere in between, taking part in bicommunal projects (over 100 in the past few years) and “causing people to get together that would not get together if I wasn’t in the middle,” as she puts it.
It helps that she’s one of the few Turkish Cypriot actors who’s fluent in English (though not Greek, at least not yet), the result of being born in East London – though her parents weren’t exactly immigrants, having gone to the UK to study; they ended up staying for 25 years (her dad’s an accountant, her mother a teacher), yet they “always gave us the feeling that, at one point, we would be coming back”. The family always spoke Turkish at home, and – even before moving back permanently in 1985, when Oya was 10 – would always spend every holiday here, three times a year. The result was that she never lost contact with Cyprus – but also never quite settled in England, sparking a rootlessness that’s afflicted her all her life: “In London not being British enough, here not being Cypriot enough, living in Istanbul for seven years not feeling Turkish enough. There’s always this kind of not-being-enough-ness that’s prevalent, when I look back”.
In her teens, this not-quite-there feeling led her to act out, becoming a rebel and the black sheep of the family: “I was always having boyfriends, getting into trouble, skipping school, getting caught”. Actually she’s always had a headstrong quality, going from terrible twos to troublesome teens – and she’s also, it seems, an extreme personality, even going so far as to call herself “kind of bipolar”. She feels things very strongly, whether it’s triumphs or slights.
Some of this may be down to younger-sibling syndrome. Oya is the youngest of three (her dad, with an accountant’s efficiency, scheduled a kid every five years, she jokes), and the youngest child is always a bit more concerned about being loved, beset with subconscious angst that she may be surplus to requirements. In her teens – and despite the rebelliousness – her only real goal was “to please my dad,” she recalls wryly, and she still has a bit of that anxious sensitivity. “I don’t know if you’re aware of the United Cyprus Now initiative,” she begins tentatively. “I’m very active with that, since the beginning, and now the whole group is getting a lot of – hate speech?” (Oya tends to twist her voice into a question when making a painful or delicate point.) “And I’m so devastated by the whole thing. I’ve always had a problem with people not liking me, or not understanding me, and I always feel the need to clear things up and kind of explain myself.”
Unite Cyprus Now isn’t the only thing in her life – she’s an actress; she’s a Drama teacher at the English School of Kyrenia in Bellapais; she translates poetry, including that of her husband; she does workshops and “devised performances”; she’s a wife and mother – but it’s one of the most important, albeit also the most recent. UCN was only launched a few months ago, when yet another round of talks on the Cyprus problem failed to bear fruit and journalist Esra Aygin posted on Facebook that “the people of Cyprus are out on the streets protesting yet another collapse” – a sarcastic post, since that was conspicuously what people were not doing. A growing number in both communities took up Aygin’s challenge and the group became quite influential, or at least visible – but it seems a shame that it didn’t start earlier, I point out, instead of being launched so near the end of the process. Though of course I don’t know if it’s the end, I add hastily. But it feels like the end.
“It does feel like the end,” agrees Oya soberly.
What’s the mood on the Turkish Cypriot side at the moment?
Well, she hedges, she can only speak for herself – but certainly frustration, despondency, hopelessness. She knows the feeling well, having also felt it in 2004: “I suffered depression after the referendum”.
For how long? Days, weeks?
“For a couple of years?” she replies, twisting her voice into a question again.
Oya tries to sound positive: she’s still clinging to hope, she insists – “but I think the realisation is that [a solution] is not going to happen soon, and we have to work more towards understanding each other, and building trust… But I also have a sense of urgency that, if it doesn’t happen now, it won’t happen,” she admits. “Because everything that is being done meanwhile is more towards – partition”. There’s talk of Islamic nations being urged to recognise the TRNC, “Turkey is talking completely different now”. And of course “everything in the south has always been in line with partition,” she adds bitterly, voicing a view that may come as a shock to some Greek Cypriots. “Be it the education system, which has not changed. Be it [far-right party] Elam, which is –”
But Elam is tiny, I object.
“Tiny, but still. Two per cent is how many people? It’s not that tiny. Or, for example, I’ve stopped driving in the south,” she goes on, “which is very strange for me, because I’ve always – since the checkpoints opened – I always drove”. Recently, however, she’s grown wary. “It kind of gives me an uneasy feeling now? Especially if I have my children with me.” She’s personally witnessed the aftermath of two attacks on Turkish Cypriot cars, once at a poetry event at Famagusta Gate and again this year in Troodos, where four Turkish Cypriot families (not her own) came out of the hotel where they’d been staying to find their tyres had been slashed. Oya knows of at least 20 incidents which have been reported to police – and the worst part, she adds, is that no-one’s been arrested, let alone punished. “They might be one-offs. I’m not generalising,” she concludes, trying to be fair. “But, if it happens, I don’t want it happening to me.”
“But, of course – am I hopeful? Yes,” she goes on, as if aware that she’s letting down the side slightly. “Am I as hopeful as I was? No. Will I continue working for this? Yes. I mean, I’ve been doing bicommunal projects since the borders opened.”
Actually, they don’t even have to be bicommunal (she’s done workshops at Kofinou refugee camp, for instance), as long as they have some “social content”. Oya needs to feel that change is being effected – which is why she no longer works with theatre groups in the north, as a conscious protest. “To entertain? And that’s it?” she wails, fed up with the silly escapist comedies she was being asked to do. Acting, like activism, is something she drifted into (her college degree was in Psychology), getting into theatre while working as a training supervisor for Cyprus Turkish Airlines in the early 00s (ironically, she began acting to cure the crippling stage fright that wouldn’t let her do the public presentations required in staff training!); having started, however, she wants to use her talents for a good cause. “I just can’t sit home and not do something, not be part of it.”
It all sounds terribly serious – yet in fact that’s just Oya Akin’s personality, an out-there, headlong effusiveness which manifests itself in fun things too, not just worthy causes. She does work hard, in fact she works so hard that she ended up contracting pneumonia through overwork three years ago, and nearly died – but then she also likes to go out dancing, in fact she dances so hard that she once fell over and broke her arm dancing. (Was she dancing on a table? [wild laughter] “No, I have platforms!”) She likes a drink or two. She likes photography. She likes road trips, hanging out with friends and meeting new people. She writes short stories and children’s plays, though she doesn’t always finish what she started. “There’s a saying in Turkish, maymun istahli. That would describe me a lot. The direct translation is, I have the appetite of a monkey!… I get very obsessed. I get hooked on something, and I really take it as far as it can go.”
“Well, I started aikido. I started learning Greek three times. I started crocheting, I made crochet hats for more than 100 people – 123, to be exact – in just two months. I was finishing crochet hats six a day, I made hats for everyone I know! But then I just binge, and I stop, and I never go back to it.”
The major exception is her activism, which has only grown stronger with the years – especially since becoming a mother in 2007 (she has two kids, a girl and a boy). What’s she like as a mum? “I’m lovely as a mum!” she replies, laughing. Would her children agree with that assessment? “Yes they would. I like my children as people, I think they’ve made me a better person”. Children generate a responsibility, and not just the obvious responsibility to feed and clothe them; they also inadvertently push you to do the right thing, just because you feel them watching. Oya’s husband is the poet Gurgenc Korkmazel (who usually writes as ‘Gur Genc’), a very successful poet but not the most extrovert person; “He’s not out there protesting in the streets,” she admits, “and sometimes I’m like: ‘Our children need to see us doing this. They need to see that we’ve tried, that we’re doing something for this country’. I cannot just be sitting at home, expecting someone to save us all.”
Maybe this, in the end, is the crux of the matter when it comes to Oya Akin – her compulsion to act, not just for herself (though she somehow manages to remain idealistic, and locked herself in the toilet crying bitterly after the collapse at Crans-Montana, having genuinely believed a solution might happen) but in order to ‘do something for this country’, the small community where she’s always been slightly unusual, first as a Londoner, now as a bicommunal activist and progressive parent. “We want [the kids] to be very aware of what’s going on,” she explains. Oya’s children have tagged along to Unite Cyprus Now demos, banging their drums and blowing their whistles, and prepared “little ‘Love is Love’ posters” when they joined her for Gay Pride – but meanwhile the mood in the north is changing, friends now ask “What’s the point?” when they hear she’s still involved with UCN, and (above all) Islamisation is proceeding apace.
“I mean, Turkish Cypriots have never been religious, we really haven’t been,” exclaims Oya with a kind of bewilderment. Her parents never fasted or prayed; Bayram was always a social occasion. “I’ve never been to the mosque, my family has never been to the mosque – nobody I know has been to the mosque, actually!”. Yet women with their heads covered are now a common sight on the streets of Lefkosa, and a (rather scary) recent statistic shows that more mosques are now being built than secular schools. “It’s very strange,” she muses sadly, then echoes a widespread fear in the community: “If only the Greek Cypriots knew that they’ll be neighbouring Turkey, not Turkish Cypriots, in a short while…”
Will her kids stay in Cyprus? “I don’t want them to stay!” she replies at once. So then why does she stay herself? Oya pauses, as if trying to tease out the complexity of it all – the fact that she wasn’t born here being, paradoxically, a major part of why she feels so connected. “I’ve made myself feel Cypriot,” she explains earnestly. She wasn’t brainwashed into it, nor did she take it for granted. This island – and its endless division – is her choice.
And there’s something else as well. “Every time something goes wrong, I tell my husband: ‘We need to get out of this place’,” she admits. “But he says: ‘We have trees’.”
‘Trees?’ I repeat, confused.
“We have trees. For the first time in my life, I’m living in a house where we’ve planted trees.” Oya Akin sighs, looking around at the buffer zone – a symbol of her lifelong wobbly in-between-ness which perhaps, just perhaps, may have found a steadying force after all these years. “We have trees. I have roots now.”