In a grumpy old man with a love for retro trinkets and nostalgia for the good old days, THEO PANAYIDES finds an ‘anti-person’ trained in antique restoration in Switzerland
We stand on the pavement, in old Nicosia, just below the sign for ‘ANTIQUES’, surrounded by faded pictures and a couple of birdcages. The street is narrow and busy, and a car will occasionally slow down, its driver shouting something out to Haig Indjirdjian – sometimes asking for directions, sometimes a friend calling out a greeting, sometimes a possible customer. A man in the last-named category asks if Haig has any old wooden Coca-Cola boxes. Haig answers in the negative, and the man drives on.
“Karagiozides [clowns]…” he mutters darkly after the car has gone. “Back when we had the boxes, I’d say ‘10 shillings’ and everyone was like ‘Oh no, that’s too much’. So I burned them all!” ‘Now they’ve suddenly decided that they want them’ is the grumble implied in his eloquent grunt, aimed in the direction of the departing car.
The driver of that car shouldn’t feel too insulted – because Haig has something grumpy to say about everyone, even those he considers good friends. To be honest, the interview doesn’t go as expected. I thought we’d be browsing through rooms piled high with antiques, and I’d be asking about the provenance of this or that piece – but in fact antiques are barely mentioned though they are indeed present, a poky shop next to us being full of retro items, if not quite antiques per se. There are old alarm clocks, cameras, heaters, a creepy old doll, the elegant tin boxes in which cigarettes used to be sold (he has all the old brands, ‘555’ and ‘Craven A’), periscopes and military paraphernalia, a large model ship – not for sale – which he made himself as a child. “I have to like it first,” he explains, that being apparently the main criterion for why an item ends up in his collection.
There are three small shops, but only one contains antiques. That didn’t used to be the case – but then, in January 2017, a passing car swerved to avoid a stray dog and crashed into the first of his shops, smashing both blinds and window. That shop is now boarded up, and has been turned – along with its neighbour – into a warehouse and workshop filled with boxes of hooks, screws and bushings, servicing the watch-repair business Haig carries out in addition to selling antiques. (Watches are the family business, the Indjirdjians having imported and fixed them for almost a century; Haig himself trained at Rolex in Switzerland, back in the day.) It’s now 18 months since that car destroyed his shopfront, but the insurance people still refuse to pay. They too, it appears, are among the clowns and incompetents who make his life a misery.
We should note at this point that talking to Haig is great fun, this irascible 66-year-old being a sober version of the angry guy you meet in a bar, the one who has theories on everything and a cutting quip to make about everyone. “Just ask the questions,” he tells me, switching from Greek to English (he also speaks Turkish, French, and of course Armenian). “Ask me, I don’t care. Am I lying? When you tell the truth, you’re always a bad person”.
We talk about lazy teachers, venal doctors, civil servants in general. Well-known names – Nicos Shacolas, Demetris Christofias – get bandied about. We talk of the haircut in 2013, in which his family lost a staggering €700,000. “They couldn’t care less,” he says, of the governments and various officials who engineered the bailout. “‘I’m all right Jack’, go and f**k yourself!”. We talk of the breakdown of society, the low standard of journalism in Cyprus (I don’t take offence), the awfulness of the EU, the glut of migrants, the deterioration of public services. We talk – above all – of corruption, the mutual back-scratching and rampant greed that’s destroying the island. It looks like the system may have worked in the past, I venture – or at least there was money enough for everyone – but now it’s no longer viable, only nobody knows how to stop it. “Yes, because they’re going to lose five votes. Unfortunately. But you can’t say that. You’re a bad person. You’re an anti-person.”
Another car slows down, and the driver asks the price of a vintage Kenwood mixer that’s sitting on the pavement next to the birdcages. “€70,” says Haig. The man drives on; Haig chuckles darkly again. That’s not the real price, he tells me, but what does it matter? No-one can be serious about buying when they don’t even stop the car. I know a thing or two, he assures me, “I’ve been in the business since I was seven years old”. That was in Eoka days, when Haig and his fellow urchins thought it might be fun to chant “F**king bastards!” at the Brits; a British soldier chased the boy – I don’t blame him, says Haig; he wasn’t much more than a kid himself – and split his head open with a rifle-butt, after which Haig’s dad put him to work in the shop to keep him out of trouble.
The family wasn’t grand but certainly respectable, a well-off Armenian-Cypriot family. His dad graduated from the English School, and was classmates with Rauf Denktash (whom he knew by his birth-name, Rauf Raif). Haig himself studied antique restoration in Switzerland, and thought about emigrating there after the invasion. He seems to have enjoyed life as a younger man – “I ate it up with a spoon!” – and mentions various girlfriends, a fiancée, a phase in his 20s when he used to frequent high-end cabarets in Limassol (“It’s a phase, you have to go through it,” he muses), incidentally moving in the same circles as a young, just-qualified lawyer named Nicos Anastasiades. “I was carefree, I was happy,” he recalls. “No responsibilities. No government of thieves to support.”
And a lot more positive about life?
Haig looks at me sourly. “Well, show me – you are younger than me – show me a positive future here,” he challenges. I shrug; he nods, as if to say ‘There you go then’. “So why am I being criticised for being negative?”
You just seem a little bitter, I note.
“Yes, I am bitter… After the bail-in or whatever, you tend to become bitter. You work, you fight for your country, you do this, you do that. And what do you get for appreciation?” He pauses significantly: “Zero!”.
Life was good, once upon a time – but now “we’re getting screwed on a daily basis. And some people, just because they have a tongue five metres long, what you make in a year, they make in a month. And they have all the benefits”. Haig shakes his head: “What we have done now is we have erased the middle class… Generally, I’m bitter – because they have erased the middle class and they have created a new class of people: the ‘nouveau poor’, and the poor!”.
I see his point, as we stand on the pavement in the mid-August heat. The ground-floor shops opposite (in a building whose roof he once climbed with an RPG on his back, as a soldier in ’74) have been turned into low-income flats, and pop music blares into the street – Adele, Bonnie Tyler – blending cacophonously with the Greek music from Haig’s own radio; “The girls are on holiday,” he explains indulgently, indicating his Filipina neighbours. The old town is neglected. The rubbish skip down the road “has been broken for five years, they don’t come to clean it. The stench, the bees, the wasps…” His own situation isn’t much better. Look, he says, we’ve been standing here for nearly an hour: how many customers have come in? (The answer is none, of course.) Even when they do, he adds bleakly, it’s more often people wanting to sell – many of them migrants who’ve found some old junk while painting or cleaning houses – than looking to buy.
So how does he live?
“With a wonderful pension!” he replies with heavy irony. “And I sell what I can”. The internet helps, with its global market for retro trinkets – but his ‘wonderful pension’ is a mere €356 a month. Is that all, after 45 years? “What did you expect? I’m not a civil servant.”
So how does he live on that?
“Ask me!” he responds with grim enthusiasm. “Yes. I used to live in a house, a proper house. Now I’ve collected all my belongings, and my household, in a big warehouse”. That’s where he sleeps, in a former packaging plant that’s functional (and cheap) but not very pleasant. He gets up early and comes to the shop, just to see a bit of life. What does he do for fun? “I’m here, where am I going to go? Wherever you go, it’s just unnecessary expense”.
I thought we were going to talk about antiques – and we do, in a way, but less about old objects than about the old days, the good days, before Haig Indjirdjian joined the ranks of the ‘nouveau poor’. His friend John Vickers once wrote a song called ‘It Was an Island’, he muses, and it’s true, “it used to be. Now it’s not. It was a paradise. Now it’s a paradise only if you’re a high-ranking government employee, or a thief, or an ex-banker or a banker”.
The haircut was one major factor in Haig’s disenchantment. Another must’ve been his divorce in 2001, after eight years of marriage, at which point his English wife took their twin daughters back to the UK with her. He accused his ex (with some justification, it seems) of having abandoned the marital home and illegally abducted the children – but “our justice system saw fit” to side with the mother, he says sullenly. He demanded to see the minister, but the secretary wouldn’t let him in. “With my name, for two weeks it was impossible to see him”. Then he tried again and it was a new secretary, so he gave a different name: “Ali Mehmet [a Turkish Cypriot name]. In three minutes, the minister was outside!”.
Some may wonder at the point of that story – but Haig isn’t ‘anti’ Turkish Cypriot, any more than he’s ‘anti’ refugee (though he fiercely resents all the benefits they get in “the hotel called Cyprus”); the sad truth is that, when you’re unhappy with your lot, everyone else seems to have it better than you. He’s pretty obviously not an Elam supporter – at one point he pokes fun at the nationalist version of history where “the sun shines out of our ancient Greek ancestors’ behinds” – but I also suspect that, if a populist party appeared in Cyprus as it has, for instance, in Italy, promising to soak the rich and kick out the foreigners, this smart, cultured man would probably vote for them. (Why wouldn’t he? Why keep voting for the same gang of crooks?) Still, the bulk of his vitriol is directed at the Civil Service, this slavering monster in our midst: “The people who are supposed to be served by them, they have turned into their slaves. And he talks to you,” he adds, meaning this or that government functionary, “he comes here with a brand new car – and you wonder, does he even have an education? Is he even worth the dirt in my nail?…”
So it goes on, the litany of grievances, the collection of clowns big and small who’ve ruined the life he once led. There’s no self-pity in Haig, he makes it entertaining. Like the guy in the bar, you want to keep buying him rounds and listening to his stories.
Still, he does seem to run into more than his share of chicanery and foolishness. He was all set to buy the house he’d been renting for 20 years (which would certainly have made life easier today) but was beaten to the punch – despite having made a down-payment – by a last-minute interloper who also happened to be deputy mayor of Nicosia. He applied for a birth certificate, but the clerk insisted on changing his middle name George (his father’s name) to the Greek ‘Giorgos’. His 40-foot boat, his pride and joy, was destroyed when a jetty collapsed at Larnaca marina; he sued the CTO and, after eight years, the Supreme Court recently awarded him a puny €5,200 (which doesn’t even pay for the valuation of damages, let alone the damages themselves). It almost makes you wonder if unhappy energy attracts more bad fortune, turning itself into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
At least he has his treasures, the sundry antiques he loves to hoard. (The items in the shop are just a sample; he has many more stored away.) “I love seeing the old things because they were functional, they were practical, and they were built in a different era of – you know, craftsmanship,” he says, implicitly contrasting those virtues with today’s dysfunctional Cyprus. He’s had enough, he assures me. His daughters (now 22) are in England, and he’s hoping to join them: “I’m not going to die here!” The story of his boat comes with a punchline, the perfect irony for this grumpy, long-suffering man – because the name of the boat, the boat that was wrecked by bad craftsmanship and is still, eight years later, moored at the marina, still being charged a daily rate by the same CTO that destroyed it… the name of this boat is ‘Ypomoni’, which of course means ‘Patience’! You couldn’t make it up.