From being a soldier in the invasion to a fishing business in Australia to a think tank with no set agenda, THEO PANAYIDES meets a man who has put his faith in dialogue
Dinos Toumazos has a scar on his forehead. It’s not very noticeable, only when the light through the window happens to hit it, but it’s there nonetheless. “I had an accident at work,” he explains. “A container tipped over and threw me.” It seems they were unloading from one container to another, back-to-back, and Dinos was standing on the edge, six or seven metres above the ground (the height of a two-storey building). Unbeknownst to him, the container hadn’t been properly fastened – so, when the weight in the back suddenly shifted, the whole thing tipped over, throwing him up in the air then down on the concrete, hitting both containers along the way. It took him six months to recover.
That was in a different time, a different continent – and indeed a different life, when he and his brothers ran a fishing business in Australia, six years in Adelaide followed by 27 in Melbourne. The business was ocean-to-table, you might say, from catching the fish to processing, wholesaling, distributing and exporting it. They worked hard, seven days a week; the years flew by. Two of his brothers and their kids are still working in that business – but Dinos himself walked away four years ago, and now devotes his time to a very different project: Agora Dialogue (agora-dialogue.com), a not-for-profit programme “designed to encourage deeper reflection and reasoning” by introducing people to important ideas, and organising roundtables where those ideas can be expressed and debated.
“My interest was always more in humanities, let’s say,” he explains, sitting in his Nicosia flat with a fine view of the park. “Business was just a job, to survive.” Still, it’s worth taking a moment to note just how quixotic the whole enterprise is. This round-faced, pleasant man in late middle age (he turned 65 a few weeks ago), with his deep booming voice and shock of snowy-white hair, founded Agora Dialogue himself – based on an Australian model called the Cranlana Programme, which he attended in the early 90s – and now funds it himself, spending his days fine-tuning its website and organising colloquia and symposia. Yet Agora is also a very pure, progressive project, a long way from the hard-nosed, bang-for-your-buck approach he presumably took during his decades in business: “I believe we are one of the very few – if not the only think-tank around the globe which doesn’t promote a particular agenda,” he tells me. “Our approach, and our aim, is to encourage dialogue.”
More on the project later; what of the man behind it? Maybe he was always like this, born with a love of ideas and the ways in which they influence society (he studied Law in Athens, back in the day) – yet it’s also true that Dinos belongs to a generation of Cypriots who were deeply marked by the years when they came of age, those “interesting years” between Eoka and the invasion. One might even say – apologies if this sounds too fanciful – that the remnant of that long-ago fall from a container isn’t the only scar Dinos Toumazos bears. There’s a scar in his heart as well, and it’s taken years to try and heal it.
He’s from Famagusta, with a Famagustan’s almost irrational love of the place (he’s moved all the way back from Australia to Nicosia, a mere 40 miles from Famagusta – but it’s still not quite home, he tells me), born to an old-fashioned, deeply religious family run by a formidable-sounding patriarch. Dinos’ dad – a farmer who also dabbled in business, exporting produce and importing agricultural machinery – had been an immigrant himself, living in the US where he became the national champion in Greco-Roman wrestling (he competed in the 1928 Olympics, but lost on a technicality); then he came home, took up farming and had 12 kids, and was already in his 50s when Dinos was born (he’s “number 10 ½”, as he puts it; he has a twin sister). An older brother – No. 3 on the family ladder – was Panayiotis Toumazou, an Eoka fighter killed by the British in 1958; Dinos’ first experience of emotional scar tissue. And then came the invasion.
He fought in the invasion, in fact he was an officer, a 19-year-old lieutenant commanding a company of a few dozen men. They occupied four or five Turkish Cypriot villages in the Famagusta area, meeting stiff resistance (not from Turkish Cypriots, he clarifies; army officers from Turkey were already in place) and forced to fight house-to-house, then moved up towards Kyrenia, unaware that the Turks had landed and the city had already fallen. The radio didn’t work, he barely even knew his men’s faces (most were reservists who’d joined up the day before); “There was a lot of confusion,” he recalls, his expression clouding just at the memory. “It was like a nightmare.” He remembers being pounded from all sides, Turkish ships bombing from the sea, planes from the air, bombs also coming from Kyrenia itself (adding to the chaos, since they thought Kyrenia was still Greek). Then came the aftermath, the second invasion and the exodus from Famagusta, still in the army and trying to discover if his parents had made it out – then the long tail of the invasion, the family scattered and fragmented.
Dinos had no specific plan as an 18-year-old. “I think it was mainly to study,” he shrugs, “and come back to Famagusta”. Everything changed after they became refugees. His eldest sister went to the UK with her family, another sister was already in Athens; four of his siblings, having tried and failed to find work in Cyprus, moved to Australia – so he followed them in 1982, to be joined a few years later by their eldest brother, all of them working in the seafood business and trying to forget without quite forgetting.
That’s the scar, not always noticeable but there nonetheless; that’s the tightrope an immigrant walks. Did he assimilate, I ask, as an Australian? “No,” he replies, slightly surprisingly: “I never assimilated, and I don’t believe in assimilation”. He followed the laws of the land, and swore an oath to the Queen of England (it pained him a little, but he did it) – but, for instance, for the first few years he always kept his watch on Cyprus time, “because I’m not Australian, I couldn’t accept that I’m Australian… Everybody, all the immigrants used to do that.” Life was all about comparisons. It’s 10pm here, but back in Cyprus it’s 3pm. Cucumbers cost $2 here, but back in Cyprus it’s £1.
Slowly, bit by bit, he stopped comparing. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to get married, I’m not going to buy a house or whatever’ – and then, whatever I said I’m not going to do, I did it!” admits Dinos with a chuckle. He did get married, to an Australian-born Greek girl – “a good marriage”, he says, though he and his wife divorced after 10 years (they have no children). He did buy a house, and became more Australian – but he also never stopped coming back, at least once a year, sometimes just a flying visit for a wedding or a funeral. More importantly, he increasingly lent his time to – and found solace in – public affairs, and ideas in general. “I was always involved with the Cypriot community, the diaspora… And then I got more involved – since I’m a refugee myself – with similar issues and organisations there, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, other human-rights and civil-rights projects.”
Dinos has a history of founding or joining worthy groups. As a student in Athens he co-founded Denek (translating as the Democratic Union of Cypriot Youth) whose “main idea,” he says, “was ‘Freedom for Cyprus’”. Later, in Cyprus (actually in 1983, just after he’d moved to Australia), he was among those who established Kykem, the Cyprus Research Centre which still exists today. What those groups have in common is that – like Agora Dialogue – they’re non-partisan, and seem designed to pursue a benign consensus more than a narrow agenda per se. Critics might say they’re talking-shops, or compare them to the noble-but-useless UN resolutions that continue to call for a free Famagusta – and Dinos might even agree, except that (unlike those critics) he doesn’t find such noble proclamations to be useless. He appears to have an old-fashioned faith in dialogue, a faith in ideas to change the world – and perhaps to heal his own throbbing sense of injustice.
His own politics are irrelevant to Agora Dialogue (the roundtables are run by experienced moderators) – but it’s worth noting that they seem rather abstract and idealistic. “For me, the Cyprus issue is just a matter of applying human rights 100 per cent for every legitimate citizen,” he tells me. “Then you can call that solution anything you like.” He’s supportive when it comes to migrants – having been a migrant himself – and seemingly unaware of how polarised debate has become in the world: “When I was growing up, things were black and white [politically]. These days I think we see a lot of grey areas as well”. Really? At a time when everything – the environment, hate speech, LGBT rights, even the coronavirus – seems to be part of a bitter, never-ending culture war? But perhaps the answer is (partly) that he doesn’t go on social media. “I’m only on Facebook,” admits Dinos mildly, using it to post the occasional interesting article. “But I will agree with you that a lot of people we see on Facebook, the level of their discussion is very immature”.
Again, his own politics are irrelevant to Agora – yet the project seems to come from a similar place, a sanguine belief that ‘mature’ discussion of important ideas is a good in itself. He saw it with the Cranlana Programme back in Melbourne, he tells me, how it helped participants become better thinkers and decision-makers (corporations used to send their staff as part of their training). The most recent Agora Dialogue Colloquium took place last December – Covid has made things more complicated, of course – a week-long event for about 20 participants at the Alion Hotel in Ayia Napa. Every day focused on a different topic (‘The Good Society’, ‘Freedom and Dissent’, ‘Individual Responsibility’), with “readings” from well-known thinkers ranging from Plato and Thucydides to Marx, Adam Smith, John Rawls, Hannah Arendt, Umberto Eco – participants are expected to have read the pieces in advance – acting as a prompt for discussion. “Everybody speaks,” explains Dinos, the aim being to keep it civilised and feature as diverse a range of views as possible. “And we don’t end up with any conclusions!”
A psychologist could tie it all together, I suppose. Dialogue without firm conclusions – the quest to understand, even as a done-and-dusted truth remains elusive – acting as a balm for a refugee whose burning desire to go back isn’t really matched by any plausible way of doing so. Dinos Toumazos has been dealt a bad hand, in many ways, brutalised by war at the age of 19, forced to flee the city of his childhood, forced to spend his life working (though he says he enjoyed it) at a job that was never his first choice. I suspect it’s heartening to know that ideas don’t change, even as life throws its curveballs. There’s something very pure in discussing things like ‘freedom’ and ‘human rights’, even – or especially – in the abstract.
Dinos doesn’t compare places anymore (except when it comes to swimming, Australia’s shark-infested beaches being no match for our own placid waters). “I got involved in yoga a lot, for many years,” he tells me unexpectedly – and one of the lessons of yoga is to live in the moment, to accept things and try to live life as an ethical person. These days, he prefers to spend his time – “20 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says – in the realm of thought, working on Agora with the same diligence he once applied to Australian seafood. “The duty of every responsible citizen is to try and better himself, and then society,” he explains soberly. “So, I’m on this journey.” He’s learned some lessons, and bears a few scars too.