HEARTS AND MINDS
The way forward for a reunited Cyprus also means looking to the past, writes Harry Nicolaides
IN 1958, when the first barbed-wire barricades were rolled out by the British colonial government across Ledra Street in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, it seemed inevitable the division would yield inter-communal conflicts, regional tensions and partition of the whole island.
Where minarets and churches once jostled happily together under the high, bright sun by day and moon by night, garrisoned troops took up positions in machinegun outposts and artillery turrets, effectively dividing the Turkish and Greek Cypriot inhabitants of Nicosia into two distinct groups.
Eventually, the age-old Greco-Turkish enmity found a new front line as the Hellenic and Ottoman civilisations collided once again along the UN-patrolled Green Line dividing northern and southern Cyprus.
In August, the leaders of the two ethnic communities, Mehmet Ali Talat and Tassos Papadopoulos, resumed discussions about the future of the island. Within the circles of the UN and the European Union, US Under Secretary of State for political affairs Nicholas Burns also added his voice to the growing number of diplomats and heads of state calling for a swift and final resolution of the Cyprus problem.
With a visit to Cyprus planned soon, Burns is expected to express his Government’s support for the most recent unification model: a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation. These recent conciliatory initiatives and overtures follow demolition work begun earlier this year on part of the wall that has divided Nicosia and the island since 1974.
When I visited Cyprus recently, Melissa, a traditional Greek-style cake shop in an old quarter of Nicosia, was still serving Turkish coffee in the same way it had for decades. Kateifi , baklava and other freshly baked cakes and sweets filled window displays. Hand-embroidered, white cloths covered the few rectangular tables where customers typically sat to enjoy their coffee. The day I was there only a few customers came in and seemed to pick up regular orders of sweets.
Before the erection of the barriers and partition of the island, Melissa was a perpetual hub of social life, the street outside bustling with bicycles, pedestrians and taxis. However, in recent years the view from its gilded window frames has been starkly different. The streets are empty. A rusty bicycle leans against a lamppost. Solitary figures occasionally emerge from dilapidated workshops that occupy the grand old buildings where boutiques once operated. Grass tussocks have sprouted around the ramshackle brick barriers and between the sandbags filling the windows of the surrounding old Venetian-style buildings.
Crumbling walls display the faded markings of political slogans from long since forgotten campaigns. Once buzzing with conversations about coup d’etat, the military junta and self-determination, sagging electrical wires that run from telegraph pole to telegraph pole look as if they have been gripped by a creeping paralysis. Indeed, the whole area seems to have been suspended in time, resembling a Hollywood backlot from a film of yesteryear.
My father, who was born in Cyprus in 1926, has fond memories of times spent in coffee shops with Turkish and Greek Cypriot friends. Once an electrician working for the Paphos Electrical Station (now a museum), he recalls three Turkish Cypriots with whom he had a close friendship.
Some of the Turkish Cypriots joined him when he decided to migrate to Australia. To this day, on my father’s forearm, is a faded tattoo of a sailing ship and the words: ‘‘ Cyprus to Australia 1951’’ in a pennant under the image. The small group of friends, Greek and Turkish Cypriot, all had the same tattoo pierced on to their forearms to commemorate their epic journey. As a boy I was fascinated by the likeness of the tattoos when the group would meet. As the years passed, the tattoos faded and the group dwindled. Today, my father and one other man, a Turkish Cypriot, survive.
For my father, Cyprus was never divided. Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots were never at war. After all, when my father lived in Cyprus there was a high degree of cohesion and integration between the two ethnic groups. This is how he left Cyprus and how he always remembers it.
Of course, in reality, when the yoke of colonial rule was finally shrugged off in 1960, the responsibility of forming a government representing both ethnic populations was great. Additionally, the geopolitical ambitions of the US and Britain in the Middle East and the posturing of Greece and Turkey over territorial sovereignty in the Mediterranean contributed significantly to inter-communal tensions. Eventually, as the two communities drifted further apart, ethnic enclaves grew as integrated villages fell in number. In time Nicosia was divided by a wall.
Earlier this year the wall started to come down. Although the demolition work centred on only a small part of the boundary of the historic Old City within Nicosia, it still had profound symbolism. Official efforts to unify Cyprus have failed, but on a municipal level Greek and Turkish Cypriots have been co- operating for years towards preserving and restoring the rich Ottoman, Venetian and Lusignan heritage of the Old City.
The demolition work paved the way not only for the opening of a pedestrian bridge on Ledra Street, a once thriving commercial centre, but for the latest talks between the two community leaders.
The pedestrian bridge has not only brought two commercial districts together but made foreseeable a new and old horizon.
If the ghosts of the dead and dispossessed inhabitants of old Nicosia, both Turkish and Greek Cypriot, could be seen by us today, they would be mingling together in the bustling markets and cafes such as Melissa. Harry Nicolaides is a writer of Greek-Cypriot ancestry born in Melbourne.