HEARTS AND MINDS

The way for­ward for a re­united Cyprus also means look­ing to the past, writes Harry Ni­co­laides

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - The Spirit Of Discovery -

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: John Tiede­mann

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