By Alper Ali Riza
Shortly before she died, my mother famously told a journalist who had impertinently asked her how she came to marry a Turkish Cypriot that by the time she realised my father was Turkish it was too late! She had fallen in love and according to the Ancient Greeks, whose sayings my mother loved to quote, love is invincible! In plain English love conquers all!
I confess that when I first heard of her reminiscence, I was mildly annoyed and took her to task over the implication of her remark which, as it seemed to me, was that had she realised he was Turkish earlier on she would have held back. But when she explained her comment in the context of the nature of courting in Limassol in the 1940s, I found her explanation compelling.
She said that in those days in Limassol and, it has to be said to avoid inter-city rivalry, Larnaca also, romantic relationships blossomed on the promenade and pier which provided a balmy romantic setting for young women to meet young men and fall in love. She explained how my father had mingled socially so imperceptibly with his Greek Cypriot friends as he strolled up and down the promenade that she assumed he was Greek Cypriot. And as every ardent lover of that generation knows, falling in love in those days was a visual experience to begin with. One could fall in love by looks and furtive glances with someone for whom one felt a mutual love interest.
Marriage across ethnicity did not flourish in Cyprus. It did in Sarajevo in Bosnia where apparently it formed twenty five per cent of relationships, even though it made no difference to the ethnic violence of the 1990s in former Yugoslavia. But friendships did flourish in Cyprus at various levels before the start of the Cyprus problem in 1955. Importantly, there were strong friendships between Greek and Turkish Cypriots amongst well-connected prominent persons who wielded power and influence who thought alike and wished Cyprus well.
British colonial rule was not ideal. Indeed from 1931 onwards Cyprus was run by executive diktat from Government House. But the rule of law prevailed and the British encouraged the formation of an inter-communal Cypriot establishment at the forefront of which were the English School in Nicosia and the Inns of Court in London.
It was a journalist called Henry Fairlie in an article in the Spectator Magazine in 1955 who coined the use of the word establishment to identify the informal institution we know today. He defined it as “not only the centres of official power – though they are certainly part of it – but rather the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised. The exercise of power in Britain cannot be understood unless it is recognised that it is exercised socially.”
Cyprus had an inter-communal establishment. Its best known members were Glafcos Clerides and Rauf Denktash, although they would deny it if they were still with us. But both were products of the Inns of Court and Rauf Denktash was not only an English School Old Boy he was also very active in the parents’ association. Just before the 1974 war these two former members of the colonial establishment reached an accommodation on the Cyprus problem precisely because they had come from the same stable so to say.
The English School is still there although a shadow of its former self. Instead of being a source of inter-communal friendship, it is a source of inter-communal friction. I was only there for a couple of years in the 1960s. My first love has always been its rival, the American Academy in Larnaca, yet I am saddened by the fact that narrow-minded nationalists have taken over the Old School. Alas, it is symptomatic of the spirit of the times in Cyprus.
There are few real friendships between Greek and Turkish Cypriots these days. With the exception of my best friend from my English School days who spends more time on the Turkish side than any other Greek Cypriot, and who rejoices in his Turkish Cypriot friendships, most Cypriots take the Cyprus problem personally: They take it so personally it impedes their ability to form and sustain friendships across the green line.
It has been possible to move across the green line since 2003, but people do not engage with each other socially. There are a few exceptions from the academic world but there is no “matrix of official and social relations”.
There is no reason why this should be so except that people from each side believe their own propaganda. Time was when Turkish Cypriots like my father and his friend Judge Vedad Dervish, and apparently even Rauf Denktash himself, dined and sang and danced in Limassol to the songs of Sofia Vembo and Nicos Gounaris. As Verdi once said to his music students: “Let us return to the past, it will be a mild step forward!” The time has come to shake off prejudices and preconceived ideas of the present. It is possible to differ about the Cyprus problem and still be very good friends.
I end where I began. My mother married a Turkish Cypriot but remained fiercely patriotic about being Greek. Likewise my father was a fervent admirer of Kemal Ataturk and wished to be buried in a Turkish cemetery even though in life he did my mother the favour of not moving to northern Cyprus. His wish was fulfilled. He is buried in a Turkish cemetery in Pyla, which is the only place that remained together, although even in Pyla there are two coffee houses, one Turkish and one Greek, which means the two socialise apart.
My parents had a long and happy marriage. I do not remember them having a single serious argument, least of all about the Cyprus problem. Not even when my father found out that my mother had secretly christened me behind his back, which he laughed off as feminine guile rather than Byzantine intrigue. He was right since what matters is what happens as a matter of choice. I am as much a secular Kemalist as my father was.
Alper Ali Riza is a Queen’s Counsel and one of HM part time judges in England