Published by the highly respected Saqi Books, a new anthology focuses on Nicosia as the locus of abnormality and absurdity
By Lizzy Ioannidou
There’s an ode to the world’s last divided capital contained in a new book launched this week which seeks to shake up the multifaceted external and internal barriers faced by the diverse groups of people that inhabit or have visited Nicosia.
Nicosia Beyond Barriers is home to 49 contributors who take readers through journeys across the city as they explore the ways in which Nicosia’s past, present and futures can be re-imagined. But they also unearth meaningful forgotten or repressed histories in the attempt to navigate a present where barriers abound, restricting the ability to imagine a future in different terms.
One of the four female editors and the person who pushed the idea forward, Aydin Mehmet Ali, took the Sunday Mail through a personal journey, full of obstacles and resistances, to which the current book is intricately tied.
“The term ‘barriers’ is very carefully chosen,” Mehmet Ali said, “because a lot of the work I do is beyond barriers, since I target erected barriers, whether they’re physical barriers like borders or disabilities, or barriers of the mind, the spirit, the soul, and I try to develop techniques on how to approach them: do I go over them, sideways, behind them, dig through them, or bash my head against them?”
Though the philosophy of the book is inseparable from the life and work of Mehmet Ali, the final outcome was the result of mutual efforts with the three additional editors, writer Alev Adil, Bahriye Kemal and writer Maria Petrides. Published by the highly esteemed London-based publishers Saqi Books, in partnership with Commonwealth Writers, the cultural initiative of the Commonwealth Foundation, Nicosia Beyond Barriers has already been stocked by various local and online bookshops.
When Mehmet Ali returned to a Cyprus of heightened intercommunal violence in the late 1960s with the hope of transferring from the UK her work as an established champion of anti-racism and multi-culturalism, she found what continues to be “a highly militarised society, where a functioning civil society and human rights don’t exist, particularly in Nicosia”.
Though the struggle for a united Cyprus goes beyond its capital, the anthology focuses on Nicosia due to its role as “a laboratory for the struggle, for the creation of new relations between all communities without barriers,” Mehmet Ali said.
“Nicosia is closest to the forbidden zone that we need to challenge, but also due to this proximity, we are closest to the attempts to impose an impossibility of change, the idea that you can’t imagine anything beyond these borders that have been put in place,” she added.
The importance of the anthology lies in the power that Mehmet Ali ascribes to literature, which she calls a revolutionary tool.
“The first rebellions and questioning start in literature, in the intellectuals, the writers, the poets, who dare to question, to imagine, to envisage, in people who have a vision which is reflected in their stories and their poetry, and which will impact what sort of society we want.”
Beyond being the field to put barrier-defying tactics to the test, Nicosia is also what Mehmet Ali views as the locus of abnormality and absurdity, an absurdity that is normalised to the extent that it is internalised, damaging its inhabitants’ intellectual and mental health, their spirit, vision and imagination.
“As a person born in undivided Nicosia, I think you must be crazy to accept that it is divided,” Mehmet Ali asserts. “Nicosia life is full of compromises: I have to carry an ID with me everywhere, something I never did in London, and show that ID four times just to cross and return from a 50-metre road.”
In a context where barriers are multiple and everchanging, Mehmet Ali says we can’t speak of a definitive solution to the problem, “which has a finality about it, a static end point”.
The point is, she says, to keep moving over, under, through barriers, to get unstuck from the limits imposed by them, as has been the goal of the bulk of her work, all of which seems to culminate in the ethos of the new anthology publication.
Founding Cyclists Across Barriers (CAB) in 2012 alongside co-director Costas Constantinou, Mehmet Ali wanted to show that “you cannot be stuck where you are now, putting a little line across as if you can’t cycle across it, as if you have to turn around and cycle in a sort of stupid roundabout, getting locked in that stupidity of mind that prevents you from imagining what is truly possible.”
The methodology of CAB rides, which told an alternative history of the capital, and which united the city but did not shy away from its ugly history, were soon transferred to the world of literature, with Mehmet Ali developing five workshops which took literature to the streets of Nicosia
In both workshops, Mehmet Ali described, she saw the disintegration of perceptions and identities of persons who have never crossed before, some of which had only mental images of places beyond the border in sepia, and others who subsequently went through the very painful process of having to rebuild their identity after they realised the myths they were fed by parents, schools, media.
Initially, Memet Ali said, the idea was to feature the work produced by participants of those workshops, but the strong desire to discover literatures of Nicosia that reflect the diversity of the capital and of Cyprus, coupled with the urge to not restrict or impose barriers on the anthology in any way, gave way to an open call launched five years ago.
“By then the Literary Agency Cyprus was also established,” Mehmet Ali said, guiding the anthology through the process to its current publication.
Nicosia Beyond Barriers: Voice from a Divided City is published by Saqi Books Price 15 euros