A former professional soldier and cancer survivor is looking to shake up parliament. THEO PANAYIDES meets a woman standing for MP with a difference
We’re not the first newspaper to run a piece on Janet Zenonos. As prospective MPs go, she’s not exactly a shoo-in – she’s running with DIKO in the Famagusta region, where DIKO only elected one MP in 2011 – yet her story has captured the imagination, garnering publicity and enabling her to stand out from the middle-aged lawyers and party apparatchiks whom we’re largely being asked to vote for on May 22. She’s 31, unusually young to be running for public office. A cancer survivor. Half-Australian, on her mother’s side. And, lest we forget, a former professional soldier, having served for a decade in the Australian armed forces and been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan at the height of the Western ‘intervention’.
“I was always very driven,” says Janet, a fair woman with muscular arms and fine, almost doll-like features. “I always feel that our time is limited, and I have to make the most of it… Which is why I’ve condensed quite a lot in my few years”. At 16, just before she moved from Limassol to Adelaide with her parents, older brother and younger sister, she made a list of “life goals”, a strategy she’d heard about from self-help guru Tony Robbins. “I wrote a list of the things I wanted to achieve in my life, and I steadily ticked them off as I went”. The list wasn’t meant to cover her whole life, only up to the age of 30 (last year she made a new list, for ages 30 to 50). She listed 100 goals as a teenager, “and they ranged from the most simple to the most complicated”; she ended up achieving 84 of them.
Can she give us some examples?
“Sure,” she replies at once. Her manner is forthright and chatty; I seldom get a sense that she’s scanning her answer for ‘how it will sound’ before saying it, maybe because she’s not a career politician. “One of my goals was to join the army,” she goes on, “that was one of my big goals. The other one was to finish a degree in Political Science, and also a degree in Law”. That got ticked off as well; we meet in her office at DF Achilleos & Associates, a Limassol law firm. Some goals were small and silly, “like cooking a cheese soufflé”. Others were bigger and more of a challenge, like climbing one of the world’s highest mountains, “which I did”. She and a friend climbed to the top of Mt Kilimanjaro in 2009.
The friend in question was another woman, a captain in the army like her. They “set some travelling goals together” – many of her military colleagues have the same laser-focused personality type as her, admits Janet – and travelled all over the world. Kilimanjaro was just after her deployment in Afghanistan, which may be part of what made it such an “emotional experience”. Other expeditions included the Inca Trail in South America and glacier-climbing in New Zealand, during which she came very close to killing both herself and her friend. They were tied together, walking across a ledge so narrow there was room for only one foot at a time, with sheer cliffs on both sides (think of an icy tightrope, basically). A gust of wind blew her off balance, and she started to topple over the edge – but the friend, walking behind her, immediately leaned to the other side, balancing both of them. “That was the one time I thought ‘I’m gonna die. And I’m gonna die on this random mountain no-one’s ever heard of!’,” she recalls, laughing merrily.
She’s done a lot, and especially seen a lot. That’s easy to forget, sitting here in a corporate office talking about the elections. She was a Transport Officer in Iraq in 2007 (the time of the famous ‘surge’) and an Intelligence Officer in Afghanistan two years later. She recalls seeing women in Afghanistan being whipped with a cat o’nine tails, right in the street. She recalls the “barbaric” story – she heard about this, didn’t actually see it – of the 14-year-old girl who was sold to an old man for marriage then, when she tried to escape on their ‘wedding’ night, had her ears and nose cut off by her would-be husband, and was thrown in the street to die.
She recalls a fellow soldier who was jogging in the camp doing his morning exercise when, in a monumental stroke of bad luck, a mortar hit him full in the chest, a bolt from the blue. She recalls, on the other hand, the soldier who for some reason woke up one night, and for some reason decided to go out for a smoke, only for a mortar to hit the container where he’d been sleeping two minutes earlier. She recalls the corporal who became known as a jinx because, almost every time he went out on patrol, his car got blown up (yet he somehow emerged unscathed); in the end no-one would go on patrol with him, and he had to be sent home.
All this made her rather “fatalistic” about life and death, she says – which is partly why she remained calm when confronted with a diagnosis of Stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma (a cancer of the lymph nodes) a couple of years ago. She’d felt a lump on her neck, and remembered that some of her colleagues in Afghanistan had had similar lumps that turned out to be cancerous (it’s unclear if that was just a coincidence, or related in some way to their tour of duty). She caught the cancer in time, before it spread below the diaphragm, and four months of chemo got rid of it – a time during which “I set myself a programme” (her driven personality showing through again) that allowed her to eschew the usual drugs for treating side effects. She changed her diet, focusing on clean protein like quinoa and lots of fruit and vegetables washed in vinegar (it kills the bacteria) – “and then I would also go and run after chemo… I would go to the beachfront and just smash myself from running”.
Why do that, when she was already weak from the chemo?
“It gave me a sense of control,” she replies significantly. It was psychological, a trick she played on herself: “So, when I was feeling sick, I would mentally think I’m feeling sick because I trained hard – not because of chemo.”
Those four words – ‘a sense of control’ – are surely central to a woman who’s methodically set down life goals since the age of 16 and methodically sought out new challenges, pushing herself to the limit. “Anything extreme is bad, in my view. Too much of anything is bad,” she opines – a surprising statement from someone who’s climbed glaciers and scaled Kilimanjaro, but she means ‘extreme’ in the sense of over-indulgence. “I try to control myself in all things, because I believe that discipline is very important in all things in life, across the board. So I try to be moderate in everything that I do.”
Doesn’t she have any vices?
“I do, I do have vices!” she replies, but has trouble thinking of any. She doesn’t smoke, and drinks in moderation. She’s not the type to go clubbing till four a.m.; “I was never really a going-out sort of person”. One bad habit is that, if she starts a book, she becomes so engrossed that she’ll neglect everything else in order to read it. (That doesn’t sound so awful, I point out. “But I can’t control it!” she protests.) Finally, she comes up with an undeniable vice: a tendency to lose her temper. “I’ve been working on it since forever, but I have a temper,” admits Janet. She’s getting better at controlling it, though. “My husband has been very good for me in terms of that. He’s been good at helping me find a more balanced reaction to things”.
Her husband is a gym instructor, though he’s now given up his job “to look after our son, and so that I can pursue my goals”. Their son is 10 months old, and family time for Janet includes exercising with both husband and child – first running with the baby down the Limassol seafront for half an hour (she has a special three-wheeled pram designed for parents who run), then training with her hubby at home, all between six and seven in the morning (she typically goes to bed around 10, and wakes up at 5.45). That’s the daily routine, though it’s slightly harder now with her election campaign taking up extra hours. “I’m doing as much as I can,” she shrugs when I ask if she’s doing the requisite self-promotion (including, I suppose, this very interview), “and we’ll see what happens”.
Presumably, going into politics is somewhere on her new list of life goals – and it does seem a little superfluous, given how much else she’s already done, but in fact her life is all of a piece. Her experience with cancer showed her the urgent need for a radiology centre in Limassol, so patients don’t have to trek to Nicosia – a “personal goal” she intends to pursue even if she doesn’t become an MP – while her years of soldiering match with some hawkish views on the Cyprus problem (DIKO is the most hardline party in this respect). Just as she’s pessimistic on the future of Afghanistan – her personal view is that “fanatic crazy people” will take over once Western forces leave – so she’s deeply mistrustful of Turkey, which she says is a proven sponsor of ISIS. “We are pinning our hopes on a country that actively supports ISIS. To me, that’s not logical,” she says firmly, calling for a “much more dignified approach” in the ongoing negotiations. “Apparently we’re bowing down to every demand of Turkey, and that’s not the right way to negotiate with a country like that – or with a leader like that. Because Erdogan was an Islamist, and I believe he continues to be one”.
How can we have a solution if we don’t trust the other side, though? Or does she think Turkey will magically vanish, leaving Greek and Turkish Cypriots to get on with it?
“Cyprus does have power,” she replies sharply. “It has the ability to become a proper power-broker in this region, we just choose not to do it”. Simply put, we don’t have to kowtow to Turkey. “We should be looking internally to create a strong, powerful, proud nation – which we are capable of becoming. We just don’t do it, for some bizarre reason”.
Janet Zenonos is a strange kind of politician; I’d almost say a new kind of politician, if it weren’t for the fact that most politicians tend to revert to type once they actually start playing politics. Still, there’s one detail that suggests she might be different, assuming she gets in. Politicians want to be popular, it’s part of the job – but Janet becomes uncharacteristically evasive, for instance, when I ask about her high school days. Did other kids resent this strong-willed 16-year-old girl who knew exactly what she planned to do with her life, and had a temper to boot? “Uh, I honestly can’t say what other people thought of me. I have no idea,” she replies – implying, or at least raising the possibility, that she wasn’t especially popular, and has learned to be fine with that. A politician who doesn’t need to be loved could do a lot of good around here.
There’s no doubt she’s a tough-minded lady. One almost feels sorry (not really!) for her unsuspecting son, whom she plans to raise as her mother raised her – with an emphasis on honesty, taking responsibility for his actions, and above all discipline. (Kids in Cyprus tend to get away with murder, I point out. “Oh no, he won’t,” she laughs.) “I’m not really sure what gives me this need to achieve, or try and achieve, so much,” muses Janet. “I’ve just always felt that we have to make the most of our time, it’s just a feeling I’ve always had. I hate to waste time, and I hate to – to just be. To me, you [always] have to be striving for something, striving to achieve something”.
Cyprus politics offers plenty to strive for. The €2.4 million being paid to this year’s retiring MPs just for leaving Parliament is “unfathomable,” she says. The ‘heroic No’ that ushered in the second haircut was a disgrace. As for the public sector and their culture of ‘fakelakia’ (little envelopes, i.e. low-level bribes)… well, in Australia you’d lose your job for accepting a bottle of water, that’s how strict the system is. Janet Zenonos fidgets in her chair, seething quietly: “Just wait till I get in!” she says. “I’ve got an Australian-type plan for them!”. Sounds like fun.