In a man who may well become the island’s first Turkish Cypriot MEP, THEO PANAYIDES finds a fiery, long-time supporter of a united Cyprus. How far he will progress depends on next Sunday’s vote
Looking back, it was never going to be easy. It’s 9am on a Monday, and Niyazi Kizilyurek is in a mad rush. “I have a campaign,” he notes rather brusquely at the end, when I wonder what’s next – and it’s true, he does, being among the six Akel candidates (a remarkable case of a Greek Cypriot party fielding a Turkish Cypriot candidate) standing in next Sunday’s Euro-elections. At one point he stops to take a phone call from Antenna, inviting him to appear on a TV panel in a couple of days. A few hours later I see him on Sigma, taking part in yet another panel with two MEP candidates from Diko and Disy.
Our interview has been rather ill-fated. We were due to meet on Friday but he was detained, leaving me to sit outside his office at the University of Cyprus perusing old Turkish guide books from the 80s (“In the world gastronomy list, the Turkish Cuisine comes third following the French Cuisine and the Chinese Cuisine,” says the section on ‘Dining’, listing “grilled bastard-mackerel” among the local delicacies), so we rescheduled for Monday morning. He was very polite on Friday, sending someone to explain that he was running late and agreeing to pose for a photo – but he seems impatient today, even bad-tempered. He pauses for another phone call, and (though he declines to say who he was talking to, or what about) his tone sounds decidedly fed-up. I’m not surprised when I see him arguing heatedly on Sigma later, getting into yet another of those pointless TV skirmishes – in this case angering Katerina Christofidou of Diko by allegedly “equating” Greece and Turkey – that serve as clickbait for TV-channel websites and allow politicians to preen in public.
He unlocks the door of his office, panting slightly from having walked up the three flights of stairs to the Department of Turkish Studies. He looks fit for his age, a shaven-headed 60-year-old with stern, owlish features. He sits in a chair beside the desk, restlessly raring to start – but doesn’t take off his shades, a sign of a man who’s not too invested in the meeting and doesn’t plan to linger very long anyway. His English is excellent (he speaks five languages, also including French and German) but not, I suspect, quite as fluent as his Greek, let alone his native Turkish.
Looking back, there are various reasons why it was never going to be easy – but another reason is that Niyazi (at least in public) is a volatile man at the best of times, known for being fiery and combative. Is it fair to say he has that reputation? “Maybe, yes,” he allows. “Because I, at a very young age, started thinking and writing. I mean, I published my first book 35 years ago. Because I was challenging Greek and Turkish nationalism, and of course that means a combat” – he says the word in the French manner, with a silent ‘t’ – “by itself. So it has been very difficult. I have been attacked by the regime of [Rauf] Denktash over many years. I had difficulties with Greek Cypriot nationalism when I came to university. So I find myself in the middle of a combat either way.”
Does he ever have trouble when he crosses to the occupied areas?
“We have to differentiate two epochs,” he points out. “I mean, until 2003-04, it was very difficult, my life. First of all, I was not allowed to cross the Line and see my family. I was forced to fly always from Larnaca to Athens, then Istanbul and north Cyprus.”
“Because of what? Passport problems?” It is, I suppose, a rather lame thing to ask – but I don’t know the specifics, and I’m trying to prompt him more than anything.
Niyazi chuckles, a scathing chuckle mixed with a snort. “No, it was political obstacle. It was Denktash’s regime punishing me not to cross the Line! What do you mean ‘passport problems’?” He shakes his head disbelievingly: “You have to Google a bit before we talk, eh?”
He’s right, of course – though actually I did Google ‘a bit’. I did what I usually do, i.e. check out the general contours of a subject’s life and allow them to fill in the rest (that way I can be genuinely curious when they talk about themselves). Sometimes, of course, it’s a rush-job, and I gather all the answers in advance – but he assured me we’d have time to talk, at least on Friday. We continue, increasingly awkwardly, Niyazi getting antsy and unhappy and me trying to elicit information without seeming ignorant.
The basics can indeed be found on Google. Born in 1959 in the village of Potamia, to a farming family; moved in 1964 to the enclave of Louroujina – thousands of Turkish Cypriots fled to ghettos after the violence of 1963 – where he remained for about seven years, essentially cut off from the Greek Cypriot side. Studied at the University of Bremen, all the way to a PhD (his thesis was of course on the Cyprus problem) – though, even before finishing his Doctorate in 1990, he was writing books and being “very active in the peace movement, I was always supporting the idea of a united Cyprus. I came to the Greek Cypriot side in 1988 and gave a lecture on ‘Oliki Kypros’” (‘Cyprus as a whole’). He joined the faculty at the University in 1995 and has been there ever since, now a full Professor and the author of some two dozen books.
Tell me something, I ask, thinking back to his time in the enclave. When did you become conscious of a Turkish Cypriot identity as something separate – i.e. over and above the Cypriot one?
Niyazi looks pained. “Well, there was no ‘Cypriot’ identity among Turkish Cypriots anyway. First identity is the Muslim one, and from Muslim community of Cyprus we developed into Turkish Cypriots, and introduced Turkish nationalism… But I’m sorry to do this interview with you.”
I beg your pardon?
“I’m sorry to do the interview with you, because I mean… Have you read anything of mine?”
Not the books, I admit. But I’ve read a bit about you.
“But about me, it doesn’t make…” He shakes his head unhappily. “Anyway.”
What’s the problem?
“Well, I’m getting all the wrong questions and I have to correct them. I mean, you don’t have the basic information about my view, writings, positions, etc.”
I see his point, and wish I’d done more research. Then again, we’re not really talking in his capacity as an academic. I’m talking to a candidate for public office, where the whole point of giving interviews is surely to explain – and hopefully ingratiate – yourself to voters who may never have heard of you. Admittedly, it’s not like he’s running as an independent; the Akel faithful are reliably faithful – and his status as the sole Turkish Cypriot on the ballot is bound to attract some symbolic votes, in addition to those who know and admire him. Already “his candidacy has proved controversial,” to quote Wikipedia, with the right-wing parties attacking Niyazi’s promise to make his opening speech (if elected) in Turkish, and fretting about the ‘danger’ of a Turkish Cypriot MEP representing only Turkish Cypriot interests.
Clearly, his attackers also lack some “basic information” about his views and positions, or they’d know that Niyazi has spent a lifetime ensconced between (or more accurately above) the two communities. “Let me tell you one thing, all right?” he says fervently. “I am in a combat with [both] Greek nationalists and Turkish nationalists. This is a combat. So they do their dirty propaganda, I answer with historical research and arguments”. His inner lodestar has never been ethnic, only ideological: even his surname, Kizilyurek, which he chose himself (all Turkish Cypriots had to choose a surname after ’74, part of Denktash’s policy of Turkification), means ‘Red Heart’, the colour referring not to blood but Communism. “I was a left-winger,” he confirms, a fellow traveller from way back. “I was an activist, in high school.”
His political philosophy (obviously simplified down from his 25 books) is reliably Marxist, emphasising class war above all. Nationalism, he tells me, is “about elites, first of all. It’s an ideology of elites. They internalise it – then of course they dominate, and create a hegemony”. The most intriguing part of our conversation comes perhaps when he talks of Louroujina, and how he emerged from that ghetto not embittered against the Greek Cypriots but merely against war in general, “a young man striving for peace” as he puts it. So he didn’t feel victimised?
“I was a victim,” he agrees. “But I didn’t feel victimised.”
That’s quite rare, no?
“It’s not rare at all. There are people that were coming out of Auschwitz, and they are not anti-German.”
But isn’t it human nature to feel abused and hard done by?
“There is no such thing that we call human nature,” replies Niyazi. “There is human thinking.”
That, I suppose, is the crux of it – a stringent ideology that’s hard to argue against, even had I been more well-versed in Niyazi’s work. The argument that national identity – twisted into nationalism – fills a basic human need to connect with the ancestral past (a need that often goes unmet in a globalised world) cuts no ice with someone who rejects the idea of human nature in the first place. He’s an ideologue. Everything, to him, is an exercise of systemic power – yet his temperament is also as volatile as his ideology is cerebral. He speaks out, and has suffered for it. “I had threats on my life,” he reports. “I had people trying to attack me when I was going to give a lecture. From nationalist circles on both sides, I always had harassment, until very recently… Once, when I opened my apartment door, I saw a Turkish flag with a grave on it.” Was he scared? “Of course. This is terror. And I also had many telephone calls telling me, you know, ‘You’re a dead man’.”
Maybe that explains our rather prickly meeting, even more than his urgent need to head off to Sigma and engage with rival candidates: a lifetime of confrontation, and instinctively raising his hackles whenever people ask the ‘wrong’ questions. His abrasiveness verges on the comical, as when I ask if he also teaches classes – as opposed to writing books and doing research – at the university, and he goes into a full-blown hissy fit: “You didn’t check who I am?… What are you talking about? I am a full Professor and I was a Dean of Humanities”, etc etc. There’s a certain vanity, for sure. Do his friends have any common thread? “Yeah, they read a lot of books, like me. They speak several languages. They are cosmopolites.” Yet there’s also courage in this very unusual figure – a man who plunges into the politics of a divided island and stubbornly refuses to accept that division, courting opprobrium from both sides.
That prickly energy can, I suspect, be delightful, when channelled into fun rather than politics. He enjoys life, he tells me: “I dance, I sing. I travel a lot”. (Does he travel for pleasure? “For discovery.”) He dances to rock and rembetiko, and reads insatiably. Even now, with his usual routine upended, “I’m reading philosophical essays of Nietzsche and Hegel, just to relax a bit and go out of this campaign thing”.
Our own meeting wasn’t really so delightful – but I’ll blame the campaign, and his nerves being on edge, and my own line of questioning. Niyazi Kizilyurek is undoubtedly thin-skinned, his 60 years having left him with a touch of the attack dog – yet he stands a good chance of becoming our first Turkish Cypriot MEP, despite (and because of) the current controversy. As for those he engages in ‘combat’, they can take it or leave it. “I am a public intellectual daring to challenge nationalism,” he declares. “That’s all. I don’t expect them to like me.” Just as well, I suppose.