THEO PANAYIDES meets an activist bar owner who has lost his fiery side but still skirmishes with authority
Who is he? More to the point, where is he? The second question seems more urgent than the first as I scour the unfamiliar environs of the Turkish half of Nicosia, looking for ‘Fidel’. Our initial appointment was for 12.30, but his voice was rough and unhurried when I called to let him know I’d arrived: terribly sorry, he drawled, but I just woke up. Half an hour later, I finally cross the checkpoint – but now the heavens have opened, and I’m dodging puddles on streets which (even though I spend my working day just 200m to the south, on the other side of the checkpoint) I barely know.
Fortunately, my half-Turkish contact is on the ball – and, a short phone call later, we track Fidel to a nearby café restaurant called Ada Mutfagi, sitting outside with his dog Zeyto (from zeytin, meaning ‘olive’). He apologises for being late: “I’m an alcoholic, so I went to bed at five,” he explains with a ghost of a smile – though his voice isn’t slurred like an alcoholic’s, his brown eyes are alert and he’s sipping Efes beer, not the hard stuff. His beard is like Fagin’s in Oliver Twist and he brings out a comb to groom it before I take a photo, his eyes twinkling with a touch of irony as if to say he’s aware it looks ridiculous. A cigarette dangles from his lips; a Rasta cap hides his hair.
When did he become a Rasta? Was it during his time in the UK?
No, no, he demurs, “I’m not a Rasta. I like the colours and yes, I like Bob Marley’s vision, his music and philosophy. I mean, I am a Communist but I also like ‘One love’, the slogan… Love everybody, unification of the people, you know?”
But is he a musician, like Marley?
“No, no, I’m just…” He pauses, looking for the word. “I’m just – a survivor, shall we say.”
Yes, but who is he? He shows me two ID cards, Greek and Turkish Cypriot. One has him down as Mustafa Shevki Kemal – but in fact ‘Kemal’ is a remnant of his father, who deserted the family when Fidel was two. His own preferred surname is Yoldash, meaning ‘comrade’ in Turkish – but it’s fair to say that few people know him by either surname. He was known for years as ‘Barish’, or ‘peace’, because of his peace activism (or sometimes ‘Bob’, after Mr Marley), but adopted ‘Fidel’ when he went to London (he was there from 1986 to 1997) and it seems to have stuck – though old nicknames die hard, and a passerby calls out a greeting as we talk in which I discern the word ‘barish’. “The voice of peace,” translates Fidel, the passerby having made a pun about Mr Peace being interviewed. Other passersby call out greetings in the course of our chat; he’s obviously something of a fixture. “I’m quite popular,” he admits amiably.
He is, as they say, a character, one of those lifelong free spirits who starts off as a rebel and eventually becomes an institution. He’s edgy, but not too edgy; he inspires more sedate, conventional types with a vision of life on the margins – though also reassures them, since many will inwardly feel that he’s wasting his life compared to their own steady existence. He drinks too much, though not as much as he used to. How he makes his living is a bit sketchy, though he sells jasmine necklaces in summer and hemp seeds (for snacking) in the winter. He’s 54, an atheist and a Communist; he’s never been married – he doesn’t believe in it – except once in England “for political reasons”, when he wed a Turkish refugee in a marriage of convenience so she’d be able to stay in the country. He’s also able to say certain things that many Turkish Cypriots would perhaps be reluctant to say in public: “We consider Turkey an invader in Cyprus… We are being ruled by Turkey. And this is not a good situation with Cyprus”.
We’re interrupted by a loud, furious bark; Zeyto’s being pestered by a cat – though it’s not just the cat, says Fidel sympathetically, it’s because she’s been tied up (what can we do? “this is a restaurant”). Zeyto had some problems in the past, he reports; another dog “tried to be an older sister to her, and she didn’t accept it”, so the spurned mutt came back with her violent boyfriends to “punish” Zeyto: “She was on the run for nine months”. Dogs take after their masters, or perhaps vice versa – and Fidel too has a lifelong aversion to being tied down, not to mention his own eight-month exile in a British prison for forgery. This, he suspects, is why his British passport (his dad was born in England; his paternal grandmother was Irish) hasn’t been renewed, because the old one was dog-eared due to being in his pocket as he crossed the checkpoint back and forth every day. Officialdom in Britain was suspicious, and refused to issue a new one – probably because “I was tried in England for forgery, [and] they thought I’m doing it again,” he concludes, and shakes his head at people’s prejudice.
Even when he did it, it was in a good cause; the presiding judge admitted as much, calling it “an exceptional case” as he handed down a sentence of eight months instead of the usual 4-7 years. “I was a professional activist,” explains Fidel, forging passports and documents to help dissidents escape from Turkey – though he also, quite illegally, forged car registration papers to sell cars outside the UK, changing their number plates and using the proceeds to finance the organisation. He seems pretty sanguine about the whole thing, maybe because he has a history of falling foul of the law. Has he always been part of the radical Left? “Radical, yes. I mean, I was arrested since I am 15.”
Most of his stories revolve around that, tales of unjust harassment and skirmishes with authority. “This was since my childhood. I was naughty boy, maybe because of the family situation,” i.e. growing up without a father (he seems quite attached to his mother, and came back from England to look after her; she helps him make the jasmine necklaces in summer). As a younger man, he read Marxist literature and organised demonstrations. Later, he took part in the anti-government peace protests of the early 00s, making himself a target for subtle reprisals. Police raids were a weekly occurrence at the Living Room, a bar/hangout he owns in Nicosia, arresting him “for drinking and loud music” and locking him up for 24 hours. Then there was the time someone smashed his shop window and the cops came along, dragging their feet – “and I was loud again, and I was arrested again”; he was charged with assaulting an officer (in fact, he says, the opposite was true) and ended up with his passport confiscated, unable to leave the country for five years.
It seems a little odd hearing these stories as he sits there so amiably, sipping beer and greeting passersby, but I guess he must’ve mellowed a bit in middle age – and besides, even now, he’s not that mellow. The laid-back, one-love, friend-to-all-the-world demeanour is a bit misleading. “I am a difficult man. I’m not an easy person,” says Fidel frankly. “I am annoyed if people are not respecting, or not understanding”.
Long-term relationships aren’t his forte, whether personal or professional. By the time he left London, his relations with his activist comrades were “not so good”. He’s not the type who plays well with others. Romantically speaking, it wasn’t till his mid-40s that he managed a serious relationship, staying with a woman for one and a half years. “I like a free life,” is how he puts it. “Responsibilities I can take, but only for myself. I mean, if I want to drink, I drink. And this is usually the reason for not having long-term relationships – because I’m drunk, [and] I don’t come home for a night.”
Does he really drink that much?
“Well,” he replies, “four years ago I was drinking from morning till I was…” he makes a gesture to indicate total collapse. (“Passed out?” I offer. “Passed out,” he agrees.) “And the amount was five bottles of raki.”
“Yes. The large bottle. 70 cl.”
Friends were worried, justifiably so. He was drinking so much that his skin was changing colour, turning dark and greyish. Then one day he found himself in the Living Room: “I was playing music and I say to myself what a nice, beautiful day it was. It was spring, sun was shining. I was listening to Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, Doors, whatever. And I say ‘I have a nice life. I have good friends. I have good music’.” Just like that, for no reason in particular, he decided to stop drinking – and didn’t touch a drop for four months, though of course it couldn’t last forever. Fidel is never likely to become a poster-boy for temperance and moderation. He still drinks, and indeed gets drunk – just not every day, and not to the point of passing out.
Does he change when he’s drunk?
He looks suddenly thoughtful. “Lately, yes,” he replies. “I’m a bit aggressive – I mean, verbally aggressive. I am tired, I think, of people who are not respecting. And I get annoyed, and I swear a lot these days.” Did he used to be more patient? “Eeh…” he shrugs. “I have been like this, most of the time. But recently it’s – rising, shall we say.” He gives a rather dry, awkward chuckle.
Fidel plays his role, the beloved eccentric. People buy him drinks, or stop to talk; “Wherever I go, people want to take a photo with me”. A local TV channel sat him down for a one-hour interview. There are videos of him on YouTube, filmed by devoted friends. Yet there’s also a hint of weariness, both with his own life and the life of his isolated pseudo-country. He himself isn’t politically active these days, or at least not affiliated to any organisation. (“I have friends,” he shrugs. “When there is a demonstration, we are alerted and we go”.) He barely even hangs out at the Living Room anymore. He seems a little tired – and Cyprus too is tired, depleted by the bad economy and the endless, interminable Cyprus problem.
It may be even worse in the north, with the “unspoken dividedness” between Turkish Cypriots and Turkish settlers (though of course, on a personal level, he has many Turkish friends, he adds hastily). “They say that, because of the bad economy, [the settlers] are turning back to Turkey, but this is bullshit. If one goes back, two come here. And the postponing of a reasonable agreement is not helping the situation in Cyprus.” There was optimism for a while – maybe there still is – thanks to the “better atmosphere” between the two leaders. “People relaxed, they said ‘There is Anastasiades and Akinci, they will solve this. Barish is coming’. Something like this… But time is passing, [and] it makes them bitter. But, yet again, there is hope, I think.”
He himself is ‘Barish’ personified, of course. ‘Talat’s mouth is bitter because of Barish’ punned the newspaper headlines some years ago, when he heckled then-leader Talat at the so-called ‘Bridge of Peace’ and added another little brick to his local celebrity. (Talat meant well, he says now, but any Turkish Cypriot leader is inevitably going to end up giving way to Turkey; “You have to find some ground to survive. Cyprus is a survival situation, I guess”.) Barish is peace, and ‘Barish’ – or Fidel – is a peace-loving sort, despite a lifetime of combat; he is, like he says, a survivor. “I’m a calm person,” he insists, “but sometimes I get – what do they call it? – lighted”. Lighted? “You know, a spark,” he says, and flicks his hands to suggest an explosion.
He looks around, contemplating the scene: the restaurant tables, the rain-slicked pavement, Zeyto chafing at her leash. “I’m an entertainer nowadays,” he admits, with amusement. “If you were not here, I would be helping – I would be working like a waiter here. But without money”. He chuckles amiably. “We enjoy life here. After we finish the job here, we sit, we drink for one hour. Then I start going to the bars, you know.” He gestures vaguely at the streets of the walled city, and takes another tiny sip of Efes.