Cyprus Mail
Life & Style

Displaced from paradise

US-based environmentalist Emily Markides, who says everything is here to teach us a lesson, has long strayed from the tried and tested. THEO PANAYIDES meets her

The 60-something woman with the mobile, puckish face sits in the garden on a pleasant end-of-May morning (not her own garden; she’s only here for a few weeks) and takes a sip of water. “We do not have the clean sky that we had before” in Cyprus, she notes sadly. “Our clean sky is no longer clean, our waters are no longer pristine. They’re polluted. There is plastic everywhere. We live in a polluted world, and that is why you have so many illnesses. Everything is interconnected. We can no longer think as nations – we have to begin thinking as global citizens.”

Dr Emily Markides sighs, with a touch of resignation: “And somehow, when I talk like that they say ‘You talk like an American!’. That’s where I lose my Cypriot friends.”

She is, to some extent, ‘an American’, having lived there – specifically in rural Maine, where she founded the Peace Studies Program at the University of Maine – since the 70s, with only a couple of brief stints back home. On the other hand, as she puts it, “Cyprus has been the catalyst for all of my major transformative moments, I would say” – starting with her childhood, spent in Famagusta with a strong connection to the Karpas Peninsula (her dad, a teacher, came from Rizokarpaso) and five years in Vasa Kilaniou where Dad was teaching. “I come both from the city and the country,” she explains, those early years in Vasa and summers in Karpas having moulded her later eco-conscience.

Does she fall into the ‘diaspora trap’, the fallacy of those who grew up in Cyprus and subconsciously – or even consciously – conflate the country as it is now with the idyllic country of their childhood? Maybe. It’s true she tends to idealise those long-ago golden years. “The heart hardens when you have anger in you,” she tells me at one point, “and I think I went into counselling to overcome that anger – because there was resentment that I lost a very beautiful life here in Cyprus. We had paradise, and we became displaced from paradise”. She doesn’t say exactly when the ‘counselling’ was, but I get the impression she’s done years of therapy – which would also explain, for instance, why she has no problem discussing her often-fraught relationship with her late mother.

As a child, Emily was a daddy’s girl. Father was “a really amazing human being, I think he must be my kind of mentor/hero in life. It took me years to have a decent relationship with my mother”. Father was “a minimalist”, a philosopher, “a very wise man”; he cared about the environment long before it became trendy to do so, never drove a car in his life, never touched meat till the age of 21. Mother came from a rich Famagusta family and was more conventional, more prosaic, more hedonistic. The family dynamic may have been awkward for Emily: her mum craved a daughter (she already had a son), tried for years to have one without success, finally gave up and decided to adopt – then, years later, Emily arrived as a kind of afterthought, long after the craving for a girl had been satisfied. Mum sought “a more conventional daughter” – her adoptive sister fit the bill nicely – whereas Emily was more like her dad: “My father found in me a young girl who could read literature and poetry, and discuss ideas with him”.

Literature was her solace, her escape. She became fluent in five languages, mostly so she could read her books in the original. “I was always a rebel and an anarchist within my soul,” she claims – though in fact she was also a sheltered, studious girl, a product of all-girl schools and genteel women’s colleges in Germany and Switzerland. Dad was from a village, and quite traditional when it came to daughters; he “wanted to help me develop my mind, and not focus too much on physical things”.

When was her first boyfriend?

“I had none. I couldn’t have any. When my present husband tried to kiss me I gave him a big slap in the face, because I felt he was being inappropriate”. At the time, she was almost 22 – and they actually got married soon after. “He was a kindred soul. He reminded me so much of my father…”

Emily’s husband is Kyriacos Markides, a fellow academic who’s also known for The Magus of Strovolos and other books on Christian mystics and healers. The whole family are a bit unconventional. Her daughter Vasia is a documentary filmmaker, her son Constantine a swimming champion and aspiring novelist whose website lists 50 different occupations, from ‘farmhand’ to ‘harmonica teacher’ to ‘human rights researcher’ (his second novel, Lou Blue, was the tale of a lobster in love, told from the point of view of the amorous crustacean). Did she encourage her kids – both now in their 30s – to do what they wanted? “Absolutely. I encouraged them to follow their bliss, to follow their inner voice, to do what gives them meaning and joy”. It often comes with a price, she admits; you lose the certitude of the safe path, you “won’t have the security of a financially secure career – but golly,” she adds, sounding very American, “how much you gain!”.

Maybe that’s the most vital trait in Emily Markides, that belief in straying from the tried and tested. She’s one of those people who’ve preserved a youthful, questing spirit into middle age (she was born in 1949), which may be her greatest achievement – though she does have others, from the Peace Studies Program in Maine to the creation of an “International Eco.peace Village” in Androlykou, an abandoned hamlet populated only by a Turkish Cypriot shepherd, his Greek Cypriot wife and their children, a potent symbol of bicommunal harmony. Above all, perhaps, there’s the subtle shift in her activities from the women’s movement and peace movement to a more unequivocal emphasis on the environment, especially permaculture.

Cyprus played a part in both incarnations. In her office in Maine there’s a banner reading ‘Women Walk Home’, a memento of the women’s march across the Green Line in 1989 (she got a phone call inviting her to take part: “We need women from America to come, because we want to put you on the front line in case the Grey Wolves attack!”). She’s worked on rapprochement, founded a Peace Centre in the 80s – but also, for instance, attended a conference in Minnesota many years ago where everyone raved about “the economic miracle that was Cyprus, and I said ‘How about the environmental catastrophe that has befallen us?’. It was like I had come from another planet”.

Emily was an early adopter when it comes to eco-issues – a more urgent Cause, some might say, than the rather waffly world of peace studies. “I’m a very firm believer that, in the 21st century, our great challenge is to resolve our conflicts in non-violent ways. I’m a Gandhian at heart,” she says grandly – but how can a conflict be resolved non-violently, when two people want the same thing and refuse to share it? Emily, citing political scientist Gene Sharp, wants to educate both sides so they reach an “informed decision” (aka a compromise), but compromise isn’t always possible – I mention Syria, where the rebels won’t budge till Assad steps down – and some kind of violence may be inevitable. There’s waffle in the eco-movement too (I’m dubious about her claim that behind every ethnic conflict is an environmental problem, the Israeli-Palestinian troubles being really about “shortage of water”) – but also some disquieting facts behind the waffle. It’s hard to dismiss her as a crank when it’s so abundantly clear that, firstly, the climate is changing and, secondly, the fossil fuels on which our economy is based are running out.

Emily with her husband Kyriakos
Emily with her husband Kyriakos

“If we destroy our planet, we have no home,” says Emily Markides, begging Cypriots to stop believing in financial bubbles and set about building a green economy. Long-term thinking, she urges. Solar power was subsidised in Sicily: every household installed photovoltaics, paying €800 a year to the state for 15 years – after which the solar panels paid for themselves, and the state started paying money back out of pure profit. Why can’t we do something like that? “You know, the Native Americans talk about seven generations. That every action we take, we must consider [its impact] seven generations from now”.

Do people listen, when she passes on the wisdom of the Native Americans? Or is that another case where she starts to ‘lose her Cypriot friends’? She smiles: “Denial is the classic modus operandi of every human being. It’s the way of being in the world. We live in denial”. That’s a whole subject in itself, cropping up again and again in our conversation. During the invasion her parents in Famagusta wouldn’t believe her entreaties that the Turks were coming, telling her not to be silly, “everything’s fine, we’re having tea and coffee on our balcony”. Right now, in the US, people insist that the economic crisis is over and the country is recovering, ignoring deeper systemic problems. Meanwhile, in Cyprus, developers plan more projects – roads, marinas, golf courses – dismissing our polluted waters, cut-down trees and extinguished animal species as side-effects of ‘progress’.

It works both ways, of course. Some would say that Emily herself is in denial about Cyprus, superimposing her romantic idea of the country – gleaned from childhood memories – on the place itself. Even her youthful spirit could be seen as a kind of denial, a denial of the fact that she is, after all, almost a senior citizen (“Our major denial is our mortality,” she admits); why can’t she just ‘act her age’? Then there’s another kind of denial, all the grubby instinctive feelings beneath her veneer of progressive liberalism. She recalls the day when her son Constantine came to her with the news that he’d fallen in love with Beran, a Turkish Cypriot girl. “Guess what my first reaction was?” she recalls shamefacedly: “‘They’ve taken my home away, they’ve stolen my city, and now they’re taking my son!’”. Later, of course, she met Beran and found her to be “a sweetheart and an amazing human being” – but you can’t deny ethnicity, even when you feel you’re ‘beyond’ ethnicity.

Maybe not; but at least you can work on it. You can learn, and try to become more compassionate. “The only thing I aspire to,” says Emily Markides, “is to truly, truly learn not to just love family and friends and Cyprus, but to learn to love the world”.

Really? The whole world? Won’t her love become diluted?

“No! It becomes intensified! The more you love, the more intense it becomes”. And it’s not just people, either: “What I’m beginning to find is that I love trees eno-o-ormously. I have enormous compassion in my heart for trees. When I see a tree being cut I grieve, I grieve so much. When I see a river being polluted, that I remember being pristine, I grieve. I feel it as a kind of death. I didn’t have that before.

“I must have 45 plants at home, and I talk to them, and I play music to them – and they respond! I had an animal – I had a dog – and that dog became my teacher, the best teacher I had. I have a river in front of the house, and I watch the river – and the river is a teacher. And if you dare write these things down, people will think I am insane and I need to be put in an asylum, so you’d better not! But the truth of the matter is that everything around us – living, animate, inanimate – is there to teach us lessons”.

Everything? Yes. But one place is special. Things are changing, subtly, with Famagusta. There’s a real prospect of her old hometown – a ghost town for the past 39 years – being returned as part of an overall solution, and Emily Markides has plans: a proposal to create a truly ‘green’ city on the mildewed ruins of the old. “Turning the city into an Ecopolis from a necropolis will be a dream come true for me. And we’ve been working rather steadfastly – I even presented a proposal to the UN about it, back in 2006”. The next couple of years may witness the ultimate triumph for Emily, allowing her to marry her eco-ideals with her long-held dream of returning to the city of her childhood. Meanwhile she sits in the garden, trying hard not to sound too American.

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