THEO PANAYIDES meets a former pastry chef stuck in a life of poverty in Cyprus because of a string of red tape
The letter dates from the very early 90s, just before George Bush Sr. went on TV to proclaim that “the liberation of Kuwait has begun”. It’s from the Babylon Oberoi Hotel in Baghdad. “I wish to put on record my sincere appreciation and thanks,” it begins, “for an outstanding job done for the New Year’s Eve functions held in various outlets of the hotel…” The letter is signed U.C. Sharma, Executive Sous Chef. It’s addressed to Nadir Yousif.
23 years, two Gulf Wars and an ongoing civil war later, I walk into Nadir’s small flat in Larnaca, where he shows me the letter in a file of clippings and documents. The flat is so small you can see the whole thing just by standing in the doorway. It’s really a room, divided into two smaller rooms. The first room is a kitchen, with a tiny toilet to the side; I note bunches of bananas on a wooden table. At the far end of the flat there’s a narrow balcony with a tablecloth hung across it – whether for privacy or to protect from the sun – and clothes hanging on a line.
In between is the larger room, the bedroom, with walls painted violet (he painted them himself, says Nadir) and a TV in the corner. Next to the TV is a photo of a little boy with spiky hair, and, incongruously, a big plastic bag from Jumbo. The bed is strewn, even more incongruously, with Winnie the Pooh pillows. The bed is on the right; on the left is another bed – narrower, more like a camp-bed or sofa, piled high with bedding. Suddenly the bedding starts to move; I hear whimpering and coughing, and a frail old lady’s face peeks out from under the sheets. This is Nadir’s 92-year-old mother Najdat. She looks unwell, and punctuates our interview with frequent dry coughing.
Nadir himself is 51, with a moustache and close-cropped grey hair. As befits a former pastry chef – having risen, he says, to head pastry chef at Le Meridien in Baghdad – he’s a big man, bull-like, with big meaty fingers and a face like Oliver Hardy from Laurel and Hardy. It’s a guileless, potentially sentimental face; you can picture him crying at movies, or making earnest speeches at family gatherings – but in fact that’s the problem, that he’s never there at family gatherings. Nadir’s wife and son (the 8-year-old boy in the photo) are in Jordan, he and his mother are in Cyprus. He’s seen his son exactly once, when they came over for a brief visit – I assume that explains the Winnie the Pooh pillows – but all his efforts to be reunited have come to nothing. He and Najdat are trapped, broke, and living in squalor.
I sit on the bed; he pulls up a chair. There are three of us in the room (four if you count the old lady buried beneath the mass of bedding), the third man being Vasilis, a Syrian Greek who came to Cyprus as a technician with Nova and decided to stay on. Vasilis is his “best friend”, says Nadir, looking ready to enfold him in a bear-hug. He drove Nadir’s mum to the hospital (Nadir himself has no car) and never asked for money; he’s helped him every step of the way – and helps him now, by translating Arabic into Greek when Nadir’s fractured English proves inadequate. I suspect his second language may be French, after all he worked for French hotels and made French desserts. “Fraise…” he explains, taking out his mobile phone to show me pictures of various sweets; “Strawberry, with mousse”. Next up is a chocolate cake with sugar flowers, then a Danish pastry.
What kind of man has photos of cakes on his mobile? A man who loves baking cakes – though he isn’t allowed to do it here. “In Cyprus, go to Labour Office,” explains Nadir. “Because I am asylum seeker, sent me work in farm”. Working as a farmhand is the only job he’s permitted; anything else is illegal – but Nadir, middle-aged and not exactly slim, isn’t made for farm work. “We went to a farm in Dromolaxia,” explains Vasilis, “and the guy said ‘This man won’t do. We want young people. He’s 50 years old, if he bends over he’ll put his back out’.”
“I don’t refuse job, I go farm also,” says Nadir, picking up the story. “I want to work. I want to work. But I work maybe one day, the man say ‘You big [i.e. old], I don’t need you, I need one young. If you work three hours, maybe you cannot’”. Nadir told the foreman he had to sign his employment slip; “He say ‘OK, I send fax to Labour Office’. [But] when I go to Labour Office they say, ‘We closed your file. Because you refused job’.”
His file has been “closed” for months now, meaning he no longer receives benefits (at the same time, his request to open a confectionery together with Vasilis was rejected). At the moment, he says, they’re surviving on the old-age benefit Najdat gets – about €100 a month – plus whatever’s left of the money they brought from Iraq in 2009; he buys clothes second-hand, and looks for bargains like the cut-price bananas on the kitchen table. This is bad enough – but in fact it’s even worse, because there’s another piece to the puzzle, possibly the most important piece. Even though he was born in Iraq, Nadir isn’t actually Iraqi. He’s Palestinian.
Meaning what? Meaning he doesn’t have a passport. When he lived in Iraq he had travel documents, but no passport (needless to say, he left illegally, paying someone to smuggle him out then coming to Cyprus via the occupied north). He does have a Palestinian passport, but Palestine isn’t a country; no-one will let him in without a visa – and to get a visa he needs a residence permit from Cyprus, the so-called ‘pink slip’ which of course he doesn’t have. It’s a perfect stalemate, the cherry on the cake (so to speak) being that he can’t go back to Iraq either. Most Palestinians have left Cyprus in the past year, admits Nadir; “They closed all files” like they did his own, presumably part of a calculated policy – but he can’t go ‘back where he came from’ because Najdat was born in Haifa when it was still part of Palestine. Iraq won’t let her in, and Nadir can’t go back without his mother.
Not that he’d want to, of course. You have nothing here, I point out: no job, no money, no family. “Yeah, but here I have my life,” he retorts. Life used to be good in Iraq, especially for a pastry chef in a swanky French hotel; “Before, we don’t have a problem with money. I have house, I have everything”. Then came Mr. Bush and the liberation of Kuwait – “You look at sky, all you see is fire in the sky,” recalls Nadir – then the second Mr. Bush and the US occupation that unlocked (or created) sectarian hatreds.
“Before, when we are in Iraq, we like Iraq too much,” he explains in his charming Arabic English. “We feel we are Iraqi. But after American occupation coming, change everything. You know, in Iraq before, in college – four years I am in college – I don’t know my friends, who is Sunni, who is Shia. No ask. No need to ask. All friends. But when occupation coming, make this problem between [us], like problem between Protestant and Catholic. But before, we don’t have”.
But surely it wasn’t that simple? After all, Saddam was a dictator.
“We know Saddam dictator. But he make security. Now we have democratic, but there is no security”.
Palestinians in Iraq were associated with Saddam, explains Nadir, making them targets of the murderous militias that roamed Baghdad in the late 00s (and still do today). Being a foreigner could get you killed, not to mention religious differences. “We see people killed, in the road. Every day. Every day. One time, this militia stopped the bus, minibus. Asked the passengers ‘Your ID, your ID. You are Shia, come’. Maybe another militia stopped another bus, [saying] ‘You are Sunni, come’. They take one man from the bus. After two days when I go down the same way, I saw this man killed in the road, put in garbage. After, I don’t go down this way never. I change my way”.
Nadir and his wife kept their heads down, made fake IDs to avoid detection, and just tried to stay alive. His brother, a rich merchant, fled the country when a group tried to kidnap his son, using his fortune to get to Britain (Nadir himself couldn’t afford to pay the traffickers that kind of money). His brother-in-law was murdered. Did they find out who did it? “No. They don’t know. You know Kalashnikov? Maybe three dollars you can take it. If you have a problem with anyone you can take Kalashnikov, gun, and you go kill him. All people see, nobody can say anything. Because all afraid. Because now, no government, no police. Nothing.”
In the midst of all this carnage, a miracle happened. Nadir and his wife had been married since 1989, and tried for 15 years to have a baby. There was no obvious impediment, it just wouldn’t happen; they even tried “a test-tube baby” twice, but without success. Then, around nine years ago, Nadir had a dream where he came from work to find his wife crying, and she told him she was pregnant. A few days later, he says – his earnest face filling with wonder – the dream came true.
“After, we become happy too much,” he recalls fondly – but Baghdad was no place to bring a baby into the world. Nadir’s wife has a Jordanian passport, and family in Jordan; it was relatively easy to dispatch the pregnant woman to her relatives while Nadir stayed behind, trying to save enough so he could leave with his mother. The baby was born. Time passed. Nadir, now in Cyprus, asked his wife to send a lock of the child’s hair, and clippings of his fingernails (“I wanted something, to see,” he explains) – but of course he was trapped here, unable to leave. “I waited 17 years to hear ‘Baba’ [‘Daddy’],” he sighs with maudlin sadness; “My hair now become white”. Yet the wait continues.
Which brings us to the small flat in Larnaca, with the pale old woman coughing in a corner and Winnie the Pooh pillows like a cruel reminder of the absent child – and of course the letters in Nadir’s little file, the congratulatory letter from Mr. U.C. Sharma at the Babylon Oberoi, back in the day, and some letters that Nadir himself has written. He’s written to the King of Jordan and the Palestinian president, pleading his case, and of course he’s written to our own Minister of the Interior. “I ask him, I want to see my son, please give me pink slip. If I have pink slip I can go to Jordan, I can go to see my son”. Yes – but a pink slip would also mean he could work in Cyprus, a dodgy proposition in a time of high unemployment. Then again, I don’t know how many pastry chefs we have who’d be unemployed if he were allowed to ply his trade – even if he stayed here, which seems unlikely.
“Believe me, all Palestinian like Cyprus,” says Nadir Yousif, sounding a lot like a desperate man trying to ingratiate himself with the powers-that-be. “Because Cyprus opened the door for us, and Cyprus received us, while the Arabic countries closed the doors in our face. And Cyprus make for us good treatment, give us money, take care of us – because, you know, relationship between Palestinian and Cyprus, between Makarios and Arafat. You see? We no forget. We read history. We know who is Makarios. We know history about Cyprus.”
He shakes his head, his big face rueful; his eyebrows slant up instead of down, giving him a worried expression. All he needs is a signature, he sighs, looking ready to cry. Just one little signature. “This needs decision from Interior Minister. If he sign, only. I need only sign. You see? Only sign, make me with my son. Only sign. Like this, exactly.” He takes my pen to show me, as if physically doing it will magically prompt the Minister to change Nadir’s life and solve the stalemate. “He take the pen, he say ‘I agree’. OK, give him pink slip. Only this”. I nod sympathetically, trying to ignore Najdat’s painful wheezing behind him.