By Theo Panayides
2013 was the year of the big-shot. I interviewed 43 people for our Sunday profile page, and they included some major political players. We even had a former President of the Republic – the genial George Vassiliou, still going strong at 82 – a club so exclusive you can count its members on the fingers of one hand (or you could, till Demetris Christofias became the sixth ex-Prez).
Then there was a former Mayor of Nicosia – Michael Zampelas, now more involved with his Art Museum in Kaimakli – as well as Constantinos Petrides, the 39-year-old Undersecretary to the President who’s among the small coterie of people tasked with leading the country out of the crisis. (Needless to say, 2013 was the year of the crisis.) And of course we had Andreas Mavroyiannis, our chief negotiator in the never-ending talks on the Cyprus problem, who turns out to have a soft spot for poetry, especially Cavafy.
Speaking of negotiators, I also interviewed Roelf Meyer, one of the four men who carried out the talks to end apartheid in his native South Africa (Meyer and F.W. de Klerk on one side of the table, Cyril Ramaphosa and the late Nelson Mandela on the other). For some reason, profiles came in pairs this year. We had two negotiators, two Turkish Cypriots, two Israeli artists, two spiritual mystics (or charlatans, according to taste) and two women in their mid-20s – NGO worker Alexandra Mitsidou, based in dangerous Tegucigalpa, and visiting American anthropologist Jordan Johansen who explained that, at least for her lost generation, “the rules aren’t working right now”.
2013 was also the year of the website. The Cyprus Mail site (www.cyprus-mail.com) has been around for years, of course – but last June brought a re-launch, meaning more hits, more traffic, and more comments by our sometimes delightful, often exasperating readers. The aforementioned two Turkish Cypriots elicited the most comments: Imam Shakir Alemdar, the head man at the Hala Sultan Tekke mosque in Larnaca, and Deniz Birinci, an up-and-coming politician whom we termed a “frustrated high achiever”. “You run for a position in the Cyprus Government, Deniz, and you have my vote!” gushed one reader. “I wish this ‘high achiever’ well, but she is wasting her time on both sides of Cyprus,” wrote another, more cynical commenter – and Deniz, to my delight, added her own comments, replying to each reader and initiating a dialogue.
Moments like that are perhaps my fondest profile-related memory of 2013. There were other memorable interviews, of course – going to a Nicosia club in the wee hours to interview R&B diva Ms. Dynamite, in Cyprus for one night only (“Can you make 1.30?” asked the promoter; “Of course,” I replied, then realised he meant 1.30 a.m.), or meeting human-rights lawyer Eleni Meleagrou, ex-wife of the iconic Christopher Hitchens who liked to call her “the Cypriot terrorist”. But the real thrill lies in journalistic midwifery, introducing readers to the life of a person they might never have met otherwise.
It’s a truism that today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s fish-and-chip wrapper, and that’s fair enough for news and reviews – but profiles are slightly different in that they offer a fleeting snapshot of a life in progress. My subjects keep going after the profile is published – which is why I think back most often to the ordinary people in dire straits, the migrants I interviewed caught in seemingly impossible situations.
Once again they came in pairs (albeit with an assist from Michalis Paraskevas, another human-rights lawyer and self-proclaimed anarchist who specialises in such thorny cases). In October, through the good offices of KISA, I met Rasul Yagudin, a Russian journalist from Ufa, capital of Bashkortostan; then, just a few weeks ago, I spoke to Nadir Yousif, an Iraqi-born Palestinian who was once a top pastry chef at Le Meridien in Baghdad. Nadir isn’t allowed to ply his trade here, gets no benefits, can’t get a residence permit, is saddled with a sick 92-year-old mother – and, worst of all, is separated from his wife and son, who live in Jordan (a country that won’t let him in without a Cyprus pink slip). Rasul is being hunted by the Russian police and KGB, has no passport, no money, lived rough in Limassol and Larnaca for over a year, and is likely to have his asylum application rejected (to avoid trouble with Russia) if and when our authorities get around to examining it. Gaining a glimpse of these turbulent lives was a chastening experience – and of course the hope that, by writing a profile, one can somehow offer some help makes the whole thing worthwhile. Never mind the big-shots; 2013 was the year of the little man.