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Are the only true Cypriots the donkeys of Karpasia?

By Levent Akbulut

Divided by time but united by hope! We’re all Cypriots now! Solution now! These slogans show an admirable sense of positivity. However, the existence of a division, politics and history aside, suggests more than one kind of Cypriot. What is the real Cypriot identity? How many kinds of Cypriot are there? And could some of us be more Cypriot than others?

According to the late Turkish Cypriot leader, Rauf Denktaş, the only true Cypriots are the Karpasia donkeys. While this is little more than a quip reflecting the nationalist sentiment that Cyprus is an island populated by Greeks and Turks and never the twain shall meet, it raises an important issue about the flexibility and fragility of identity is raised. Can there be a common Cypriot identity?

To answer this question, we need to look at the primary ways in which Cypriotness is assigned, defined and expressed. Identity can, broadly speaking, be considered to be both how we see ourselves, and how others see us. This means that while self-defined, how we see ourselves and how we get to see ourselves is influenced by how others assign identity to us. How we then express this identity is largely dependent on situation.

This view of identity suggests that our interactions with other people are often more influential than our own personal notions. To be Greek or Turkish – ignoring similar localised debates – is to hold an established ethno-linguistic identity with its own nation state. The original Republic of Cyprus was founded as a nation state with its own nationality and what were originally two self-defining ethno-linguistic groups. Whether or not they saw themselves as Cypriots was largely immaterial, they found themselves being called Cypriots. Fast forward 50-odd years and you still have two primary groups. However, the parameters of what constitute a Cyprot identity have become more complex and more politically motivated.

For some people, a Cypriot is anyone with a bond through birth, relationships or migration to the island of Cyprus. For others, those bound to the island through the administration in the north are excluded from this identity category. This is unless they have at least one Cypriot-born parent. But even then, they’re not really Cypriot.

When talking to some Turkish speakers, it is clear that a Cypriot (or Kibrisli) is simply someone who is Turkish but hails from the island – the Greek speakers in the south may well be Cypriots too, albeit ‘Kibrisli Rumlar’ (Cypriot Greeks). This defines being a Cypriot in a regionalist sense and relates back to Denktaş’s sentiments when referring to the Karpasia donkeys.

On the other hand, for some Greek Cypriots a Cypriot can only be someone bound to the island through the ethnic and cultural bond of Hellenism, regardless of national citizenship. Turkish Cypriots are sometimes Cypriots, albeit seen to be somehow less Cypriot. This relates to Cypriot identity being seen strictly as a Greek identity, or rather Turkish Cypriots being seen as a subclass of Cypriots. Some Turkish Cypriots in the diaspora report that when they were growing up younger Greek Cypriots were often surprised to hear there were Turkish Cypriots before 1974, let alone with islander heritage going back hundreds of years.

Then of course, there is the issue of when is a Greek Cypriot a ‘Greek’ Cypriot or a Turkish Cypriot a ‘Turkish’ Cypriot. Constitutionally, all Christian minorities are defined as Greek Cypriots. Equally, in theory all Muslim minorities are defined as Turkish Cypriots. While there were important practical and geopolitical reasons for this, it is important to remember that there are traditionally, Armenian Cypriots, Maronite Cypriots, Latin Cypriots, and Muslim Arab Cypriots, as well as people of often unknown African heritage. These people are sometimes Cypriots. They have a historic bond to the island of Cyprus, often going back centuries, but their Cypriot identities are invoked only when useful to the larger communities.

Now we have, Cypriots of Bulgarian, Romanian, Russian, British, Filipino, Greek from Greece, Turkish from Turkey, Kurdish, Indian, and all kinds of heritages. What role are they going to have in a future united Cyprus? Are they supposed to be hellenised, turkified or cypriotified?

The Turks from Turkey are typically portrayed as ‘settlers’, people brought in by Turkey to challenge the ‘natural Greek majority nature’ of the island, as opposed to immigrants who inter-marry with Turkish Cypriots and contribute to the local economy, while Greeks from Greece are simply immigrants.

Whoever the real Cypriots are, it is clear that the ability to assign people a Cypriot identity is deeply divisive and linked to competing power relations on the island. As the Cyprus problem is inherently one of competing ethno-nationalisms, defining people’s Cypriot identities and therefore their rights to live on and associate themselves with the island, is a political act.

Cyprus is a very small island with a lot of proud peoples. Whether or not the Cyprus talks are successful, we are still going to need to live next door to each other. With increasing immigration, citizens on both sides of the island are going to find themselves with ever more neighbours from different countries. Cyprus will find itself being what it always was, a melting pot of cultures. The success of the Cypriot project depends on the flexibility of the island’s peoples to accept each other, and to allow as many people as possible to ‘cypriotify’. If the Cypriot project is to be one that spans the entire island, Cypriotness will need to be based on a multi-ethnic, or civic, notion of belonging to the island.

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