By Theo Panayides
It was the strangest feeling to get lost in your own town,” muses Deniz Birinci as we sit at Sabor, probably the swankiest place in the Turkish half of Nicosia – and her words echo in my mind a little later, as it literally takes me an hour and a half to walk the short distance from Sabor to the checkpoint (a kilometre, maybe less; ordinarily a five-minute walk). It’s dark, I don’t know the streets, I get hopelessly lost. I go round in circles, keep coming up on the same few landmarks again and again; I panic, sweat profusely, venture down dark alleys and nearly get mauled by a vicious black dog. The whole thing is ridiculous – almost as absurd as the preamble to our interview, when we go back and forth wondering whether to meet on ‘this side’ or ‘that side’ before settling on Sabor, a compromise choice since it’s just a few minutes from the ‘border’. At least if you know where you’re going.
Deniz’s own reference to getting lost harks back to 2003, when the checkpoints opened and she started driving around in the Greek half of Nicosia – though she soon got un-lost, and now divides her time more or less equally on both sides of the checkpoint. She’s entirely bicommunal, maybe even more Greek than Turkish. (Does she still feel a twinge of alienation when she crosses over? She shakes her head: “I feel strange when I cross back to this side, to be honest. Especially to the old town, when I see so little development on this side and it’s buzzing on the other side.”) Many, or most, of her friends are Greek Cypriots, and she dated a Greek Cypriot man for two years (more on this later). She’s fluent in Greek – she actually speaks six languages: Turkish, English, Greek, French, Italian and Spanish – having spent two years doing night classes at the University of Cyprus. She’s passed Level 3 Greek, meaning she could even apply for a public-sector job on the ‘other’ side. She’s a big fan of Greek singer Haris Alexiou, and dreams of bringing her together with Turkish diva Sezen Aksu in a bicommunal concert.
Deniz is young (32), beautiful and obviously driven. She plants her elbows on the table, orders a chocolate cake and sparkling apple drink and talks unstoppably, pausing only to greet the occasional acquaintance and berate the waiters for forgetting to bring my 7Up. Sabor is right on the square, next to the Gothic lines of what used to be Ayia Sofia Cathedral and is now Selimiye Mosque – and we’re interrupted by a passer-by, an elderly Greek Cypriot gentleman who greets Deniz warmly.
“Hello!” he calls. “Did you win?”
“No, no,” she laughs, “our party leader won.”
“I saw your pictures,” he says vaguely. “I’m not in the Facebook anymore, I don’t like the Facebook. [But] I saw that your heart is in the right place.”
“Yes, my heart is always in the right place.”
“I know, I know. Carry on, carry on…”
The man is with the Nicosia Master Plan (a bicommunal UN project), explains Deniz later – and he was asking if she’d won in the Turkish Cypriot ‘parliamentary’ elections, which took place last month. She stood as a candidate with the small Social Democratic Party, knowing she had little chance of success though in fact she did well among party members, garnering even more votes than the party leader (she lost in the villages, where nobody knew her and she didn’t have time to campaign). This is a big deal for her, possibly the start of a new career. She’s been a “civil-society activist” for years, as well as Director of International Relations at the Municipality of Nicosia on the Turkish side – but this is her first-ever stab at actual political office. In fact, she admits, “I only walked through the door of a political party about a month ago.”
So why did she do it? “I was – and still am – very frustrated about the way things are in Cyprus,” she replies instantly. “Not just on this side, but on both sides”. She’s always been “a pro-peace, pro-solution, pro-reunification person,” but her frustration isn’t just about the Cyprus problem – or rather it is, but the Cyprus problem isn’t just about borders. “We cannot omit the fact that there’s a lot of corruption, on both sides of the divide. And [to fight] that I believe we need clean blood, clean faces, new faces, youth, and more women to enter into the decision-making mechanisms. And all this ties into the Cyprus problem very closely.
“The Turkish Cypriot public sector is based on nepotism,” she goes on. “There is no meritocracy. People who are qualified, young people who go and study abroad, they come back and have the biggest disappointment of their lives”. You can’t find a good job without being ‘approved’ by a political party – so the parties (on both sides) rule the roost, and of course have a vested interest in perpetuating the division so as not to dilute their power.
It’s always the same politicians, she points out, “people who have been trying to secure the same seats for the past 40 years. People that I may call the old wolves. The old men. I mean, on both sides of the island you see men above a certain age who have been in certain positions where they create a stumbling block for young people, and just literally take away their ambitions, their hopes for a better future. They create this feeling that they are there to stay – and we as young people, as women, always have to stay in the background, and we’ll never be able to get our voices heard. And it’s always going to be the way the old men decide, and how they want to rule us”.
She could always wait a few years (or decades) till it’s her generation’s turn, I offer mildly. “I’m 32 years old,” she bristles, “and I believe that I’ve waited long enough to see progress in my own land. We don’t have the luxury of waiting anymore.”
If one word could describe Deniz Birinci, that word would be ‘frustrated’. She’s a high achiever who’s unable to achieve, an irresistible force meeting two immovable objects – first the stubborn inertia of the Cyprus problem, then the stagnant landscape of northern Cyprus, lost to corruption and the rule of the ‘old men’. She gives me a detailed disquisition on her troubles with her public-sector employers at the Municipality – she sued them two years ago for what she alleges were unfair practices (the court case is pending), has been hindered and harried ever since, and currently takes home an insultingly low salary of about €1000 “while everybody else works for €3000-plus” – and an almost equally long list of her educational accomplishments, from a Fulbright scholarship at 15 (being a “Christmas baby”, she was always younger than her peers at school) to a Masters and an MBA preceded by a degree at Cornell and a spate of impressive internships at MTV, ABC, the Washington Post, etc. “If you say you’re a student from Cornell, a lot of doors open for you,” she explains, adding wryly: “It’s only in Cyprus that people don’t know about Cornell”. Don’t they? “On this side, nobody knows about it. On this side, Near East University opens a lot more doors!”
Does she sound bitter? Well, yes, a little – but it must be exasperating to return to your small, troubled country with an Ivy League education and a boundless desire to help, only to be stymied at every turn and constantly passed over in favour of somebody’s nephew. “In the US, people encourage you to take initiatives. Here, if you take initiatives you get punished … People want you to be like one of them. In the elections, for instance, my CV was a huge target”. Other candidates were intimidated, because “their CVs were only two lines” whereas hers was massive. The party kept asking her to trim it. Some didn’t like that she campaigned with a bilingual Facebook page in Turkish and English (“They kept telling me ‘Your electorate are the Turkish speakers’”) and even her facility for languages was belittled. “Why do we need foreign languages?” griped the naysayers, according to Deniz. “As long as we can speak Turkish, isn’t it enough?”.
Then there’s the Cyprus problem, the political chasm itself, still yawning stubbornly despite all her attempts to bridge it. Bicommunal feeling runs in her genes; her dad is from Paphos, and stayed in touch with all his Greek Cypriot friends even before the checkpoints opened – yet the borders in (most) people’s minds remain, even as the physical borders have cracked open. “What we lack is to sit down and communicate with one another, and have empathy for one another,” she says sadly. “When was the last time you saw Greek Cypriot politicians having a live debate with Turkish Cypriot politicians? Never! I don’t remember anything like that”. Both sides talk amongst themselves about the other, rather than talking directly to the other.
Deniz is living proof of how difficult it is to find true empathy across the divide – because she went out with a Greek Cypriot for two years from 2008, an experience she describes as “eye-opening”. It’s empowering, she says, to engage so intimately with the so-called enemy – though it also takes courage, because some are bound to treat you as an outcast. Was she treated badly? Now and then, she shrugs, but “because I was so open about it, I was so cool about it, nobody could judge me about it. But I have to say I was a lot braver than my boyfriend. He had a lot more issues about that”.
The boyfriend loved her – “I knew that he loved me, with his whole heart” – but couldn’t get past the ethnic baggage; “Oh my god, you’re the first Turkish Cypriot I ever met in my life,” she recalls him saying when they first met (“He was looking at me as if I was an alien, and I was just smiling at him”). He tried to work through his issues, but ultimately “there was this huge dichotomy inside him”, between Deniz on the one hand and his family on the other. “He was afraid he was going to be stigmatised by his community if we took the relationship to a serious level,” she recalls. “He had the courage to go out with a Turkish Cypriot girl, but he didn’t have the guts to take it further, to make it more serious”. After they broke up she tried for a year to change his mind, but in vain; the Cyprus problem got in the way. “He was telling me ‘if I carry on with you I would be legitimising the occupation of the island’,” relates Deniz without apparent irony.
Once again, the word is frustration – a high-achieving woman trying (and trying) to change the seemingly unchangeable. “For me it would’ve been a dream to have a bicommunal baby,” she sighs. “Because I believe that would be a real Cypriot baby. But some people may not see it like that. Some may say, what a problematic child – are you going to give that baby a Greek or Turkish name, what will be the religion, is it going to have circumcision, is it going to have vaftisha [a christening]?” She sighs again: “You know, it shouldn’t be that complicated”.
We’ve been talking for almost two hours; the restaurant is filling up. Immediately behind us, a long table has been set up for a group of UN dignitaries. Alexander Downer, the UN Special Adviser, arrives and takes a seat midway down the table; Deniz gets up to shake hands and schmooze a little (I get the impression that she knows him, but not very well). “Good on yer!” booms Mr Downer when she relates what she’s been up to. I assume they love her at the UN, or at least would like to see her succeed: she’s young, female, pro-solution, extremely well-educated – the antithesis of the ‘old men’ and their old ways of thinking. She even did her Masters at SAIS (the prestigious Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies), which is also the alma mater of UNICEF head Lisa Buttenheim.
How much longer can Deniz Birinci keep banging her head against narrow, conservative mindsets? Maybe not much longer. “I think it’s time for a career change,” she tells me, thinking of a job in the private sector or perhaps the EU. And of course she’s a politician now, and can dream of a seat as MEP (though it’s near-impossible for a Turkish Cypriot) or even a post in a reunified Cyprus. “I ran for the Turkish Cypriot Assembly,” she declares of her recent electoral bid – “but my real dream is to run one day for the United Republic of Cyprus Assembly!”. Then we shake hands, I make my way home – and spend 90 minutes in a nightmare labyrinth of dark alleys, anonymous streets and vicious dogs, the very strange feeling of being lost in my own town. This is no way to run a country.