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Cyprus

A child’s first encounter with politics: tribute to Cyprus’ Grand Old Man

By Timothy Spyrou

I WAS around five years old. It was a beautiful autumn day, suitable for an outing. Actually, it was a school day, and I was supposed to be in kindergarten. However, my mother took me out of class for the day because she wanted me to meet the President, Glafcos Clerides. The teacher gave her special permission. Actually, the teacher gave permission grudgingly, because I was what you called ‘slow.’ On the other hand, she had a break from my pestering her to read ‘Hansel and Gretel’ for the 50th time.

Being an American woman living in Cyprus, with a Cypriot-American son, my mother thought it would be a nice experience for me. She had been living in Cyprus for four years already, but she didn’t really know that much about the political context or what the different parties stood for. Although Mr. Clerides was only going to be cutting the ribbon for the Debenhams [formerly Woolworths] Olympia in the Limassol tourist area, it wasn’t every day people had a chance to see a President, especially when they are not in campaign mode. As for me, I didn’t have the love of politics and history that people have come to identify me with. However, I knew it was a special occasion.

Not only being slow on the uptake, but slow in movement, I of course made us late. When we got there, the ribbon cutting was over. However, we saw the President speaking from the windows of the top floor of Olympia, expressing enthusiasm for the store and the jobs it will create. He also announced that he was going to get a haircut, which was [and still is] adjacent to the cafeteria. It was then that my mom had an idea.

We went inside and moved through the crowded store and managed to get inside an elevator. When we got to the third floor, we spotted the hair salon, and of course we heard Mr. Clerides exuberant conversation. We waited in the vicinity, and then when he emerged, probably with Pantelis Kouros in toll, my mother gave me a gentle nudge and encouraged me to shake his hand. I was a bit shy, but after my mother nudged me again, I decided to take my chances.

I went up to him and his entourage, and proving that children often say the silliest things, I looked at him with a puzzled expression, and asked, in English and with a thick American accent,  “Are you sure you are President Glafcos Clerides?” The Grand Old Man of Cypriot politics already smiling, gave a hearty laugh, along with the rest of his entourage. His eyes twinkled a bit more than usual and, shaking my hand, he replied “I hope so”. I hadn’t really watched the news before, except for a few occasions, and I was surprised that this grinning, unassuming and grandfatherly figure who could have been taken for a white version of Bill Cosby was the President. I was also probably a bit skeptical that a President would be walking among ordinary people in a department store. I thought that Presidents always stayed in the big office, behind a big desk and sitting on a big, comfy chair, except for Election Day. I was also surprised that a President would exchange pleasantries with a little boy, especially one who was speaking in English, rather than Greek.

I always liked the Grand Old Man after that, even without fully knowing what his policies and political positions were. He was the President, and he was a man who gave years of service to his country, not least during WWII, but Mr. Clerides seemed to never put on a proud air with anyone he dealt with, be they voters, government officials, party leaders, foreign diplomats, or his lifelong sparring partner and friend, Rauf Denktash. As I grew older, I was also surprised that, despite representing opposing sides, Mr. Clerides not only treated Mr. Denktash with respect, but also enjoyed his company. At the time of the Annan Plan, although I was not old enough to vote, I was impressed that the former President was prepared to risk his standing among the people by campaigning for it. Even retired politicians are often uncomfortable with publicly taking a stand on a major issue that is at odds with the electorate, for fear of jeopardizing their legacy. The humble old war hero wasn’t afraid however. He probably thought, “I got shot down in WWII and sent to a POW camp. I tried to escape several times. I may be old, but I still have my political beliefs and my country to serve.”

It is fitting that he passed away within a week of Remembrance Day. I believe that the mourners should honor his memory by tolling the bells for each Cypriot youth who lost his life in the World Wars. Then, after that, people should head to the sea to watch boats sail by. After all, he was not only captain of the ship of state, but also a captain of his own boat. Sail on, Mr. President.

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