Sound does not respect barbed wire fences. As I sat outside a cafe on the Greek Cypriot side of Nicosia’s old town, the warbling melody of the muezzin’s call cascaded towards me between the low rooftops. There are plenty of mosques on the Greek side, or as Greek Cypriots calls it ‘the Cypriot side’, of the island, but naturally they are more abundant on the 37 per cent of Cyprus that has been occupied by Turkey since 1974. On this balmy afternoon in early March the call to prayer I heard was unmistakably coming from the Turkish part of this divided capital city. Its fluid cadences might have been tendrils, reaching out across the slender buffer zone that splits old Nicosia, inviting recollection of its storied multicultural past. They might equally have been a clarion call, demarcating physical and cultural territory, a permanent reminder of the Other at the door.
The green line that jigsaws arbitrarily through Nicosia is like the scene of a cultural car crash. You can be zig-zagging between prim picture postcard streets adorned with angular Greek lettering and suddenly smack headfirst into twisted metal fencing and oil drums, packed tightly in between dusty stone walls. If you don’t see a uniformed soldier standing atop a corrugated iron guard post you will notice his cartoonish likeness staring back at you from a tin plaque, urging you not to take photographs. If you glimpse behind into no-man’s land you will see decaying houses tumbling down onto unkempt mossy streets. It is jarringly skeletal; a wasteland abandoned to fossilised atrophy.
You can cross the ceasefire line at the head of busy, commercial Lidras Street. A sign proclaims, almost proudly and in several non-Cypriot languages, that this is ‘the last divided capital’. As you shuffle around a rope line to pass immigration you get the feeling that you’re queuing to see a trademarked curiosity. The Greek Cypriot official scanned my passport and narrowed his eyes. “This can’t be right” he said, looking at me sternly. I gulped. “There is no ‘h’ in your name, why is this?” He grinned impishly. If this was novelty customs I was wondering where my goody bag was. I muttered something about my parents not knowing how to spell, crossed a street, showed my passport again and suddenly found myself somewhere totally different.
Turkish Nicosia is like Istanbul on sedatives. Bars advertise Efes beer and ‘pide’ pizza, a bazaar curves steeply off to the right and the inimitable smells of frying meat, spices and fresh tea wriggle into your nose. There’s even a hamam, its venerable old domed roofs and tessellated symmetrical antechambers clogged up with steam. Wander ten minutes from the tourist centre and you come across dilapidated residential streets. Old churches with tacked-on minarets rise splendidly in marked contradistinction to the empty shells of abandoned properties; paint flaking, windows bricked up, roofs collapsing. If the inhabitants who are left don’t seem trapped in desperate poverty their living conditions are certainly far less auspicious and far less modern than those of their immediate neighbours.
These jagged half-moons of old town feel like two separate countries, sawn off and grafted onto each other. The ghostly buffer zone that runs through Nicosia is the heart of the scar, the indelible proof that this was a botched job. And yet prior to the Greek-sponsored coup d’état and subsequent Turkish-sponsored invasion of 1974 that divided the island and drove scores of Greek and Turkish Cypriots into their respective ethnic zones, these two communities lived side-by-side relatively harmoniously. The green line that haunts the capital was, within living memory, the town’s main artery: its thriving shared heart. Most Cypriots I met, on both sides, want to return to something approaching this cohabitation. The political intricacies of reunification, however, remain deeply complicated. Where the muezzin’s cry can vault effortlessly over the barbed wire, tearing it down will mean hard graft and the risk of cut hands.
On the Turkish side of Nicosia a UNDP-sponsored exhibition has been opened called ‘Topographies of Memory’. Curated by Anita Bakshi, it highlights the economic degradation of Nicosia’s buffer zone by virtually reconstructing its busy mercantile past. Its goal is to interrogate the selectivity of memory and to challenge one-sided historical narratives. In seeking to educate about ‘the nature of coexistence and conflict between diverse communities on Cyprus’, it joins the ranks of other recent initiatives which aim to facilitate dialogue and understanding between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.
The Home for Cooperation is hard to find despite the myriad signposts on the Turkish side bearing its name, nestled in the buffer zone by the less frequented checkpoint at the old city’s Western edge. It serves primarily as a cultural centre, hosting events designed to unite citizens from both sides of Cyprus based on common interests. As I walked into its trendy cafe a film screening had just started as part of its women in cinema week. I asked a young Turkish Cypriot woman who worked there if they did more than just cultural events. She smiled ruefully and told me she’d just come from a meeting where she had discussed the need for the Home to do more outreach work.
Since it opened in 2011, the Home for Cooperation has proven popular and demonstrated a real symbolic importance. “Both presidents have been here” the Turkish Cypriot told me, referring to the recognised President of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades and his counterpart Mustafa Akinci, elected last year to lead the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). She regretted, however, that it could be hard to get normal Nicosians to turn up. “We’re not in the city centre here, and many Greek Cypriots think that they have to cross onto the Turkish side to come here (they don’t). Many Greek Cypriots refuse to show their passport at a checkpoint whose legitimacy they do not recognise.”
The green line was opened up in 2003 but many young Cypriots have never crossed it. A tourist map given to me by my Greek Cypriot host, written by and for young people, only proffers recommendations of things to do on the Greek side of Nicosia. An inlaid box explains simply that this is because “this is the side we grew up with” and because the two sides are “not that integrated”. It finishes by encouraging you to visit the Turkish side and “see for yourself”. If regular traffic has been permitted for 13 years and doesn’t carry any insurmountable stigma, it is clear that it has not yet been become routinised.
My host recommended that I check out ‘Hoi Polloi’, her and her friends’ favourite bar on the Turkish side of Nicosia. The bar is owned by a Greek and by an Englishman and has only been open for two months. “The green line doesn’t really affect us” the Greek told me, apologising that he would have to give me change in euros for a payment that I made in Turkish lire. He was underselling his own significance as he generously rounded up my change. “This is the first place like it on the Turkish side” he continued. “We used to be on the Greek side, so we still get a lot of people coming over from there.” So the bar’s patronage is mixed then? “I’d say it’s about 50-50. It’s a bit of an experiment, but it’s going great so far.”
According to polling conducted by Dr Charis Psaltis in 2015, most Greek Cypriots do now have either neutral or warm feelings towards Turkish Cypriots. Whereas nearly 50 per cent of Greek Cypriots had a negative perception of their counterparts in 2010, now only 17 per cent do. Conversely, the percentage of those harbouring positive feelings has shot up to 51 per cent from just 28 per cent in 2010. Dr Psaltis also finds a marked correlation between the frequency with which a Greek Cypriot crosses the ceasefire line and the strength of their belief in their ability to live side-by-side with Turkish Cypriots. He concludes that intercommunal contact is proven to reduce “prejudice, sectarianism and secession claims in Cyprus” by “reducing the perceptions of threat”. Given that it was Greek Cypriots who overwhelmingly rejected the Annan Plan for reunification (named after its broker, the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan) in a 2004 referendum, these figures should provide encouragement. Initiatives like Topographies of Memory, the Home for Cooperation and Hoi Polloi are thrusting people together, even if they are still some way off reaching the limits of their potential.
What is less encouraging is another statistic to have come out of Dr Psaltis’ research: namely that older Greek Cypriots would be much more likely than younger ones to vote yes if a new reunification referendum were held today. Those in the 55-64 age bracket are most certain that they would vote yes, whilst 60 per cent of those aged 65-74 also tend towards a yes vote. By contrast only 38 per cent of 18-24 year olds are yes-inclined, slightly fewer than the 41 per cent who think they would vote no. The Turkish Cypriot at the Home for Cooperation told me that younger generations were more tolerant and hopeful of reconciliation. She was also, however, keen to stress the importance of direct memory. These figures make it easy to see why.
MAM is a specialist bookshop which only stocks works about Cyprus. It was shut when I arrived so I followed the instructions on the door and rang up the elderly owner, Mr Mikis, who told me to come back at 4pm. When I eventually got inside I found a musty treasure trove, its shelves stocked with politics and international relations textbooks, dense reports, the newsletters of interested parties like the UN Peacekeeping Force or the British-based Friends of Cyprus group and great tomes cataloguing the flora and fauna of the island.
Mr Mikis, like many of his books, remembers the days of cohabitation very clearly. “You wouldn’t go into a Turkish Cypriot café and notice that it was a Turkish Cypriot café” he told me. “I used to bring Turkish Cypriots into my club and no one would think anything of it.” Like his shop, Mr Mikis opened up only after some gentle probing. As he warmed to his theme he could not meet my eye, seeming genuinely pained by the division of the country in which he repeatedly stressed his pride. “Why Cyprus?” he demanded. “Do they think we are stupid?” He insisted that many Turkish Cypriots do not support the Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which refuses to relinquish its claims on the island.
Memory and the age gap are critical themes, too, for the Mayor of Kythrea, a town in what is now Turkish Cyprus whose Greek inhabitants were forced out of their homes and back behind the green line by the occupation. “The young people are more tolerant, yes, but they do not remember coexistence. I have many Turkish Cypriot friends and I go back and visit them on occasion” Dr Petros Kareklas told me as I stepped into the municipal building that he runs from exile in Nicosia. “We are just like any other municipal government, except that we don’t have to spend money on sewage” he enthuses, ushering me into his plush office. Mayor Kareklas was elected in 2011 by the former inhabitants of Kythrea and their descendants, and is given a fixed budget by the Cypriot government.
Mr Mikis has devoted his life to passing an understanding of Cyprus down through the generations, his book collection deliberately scanning a multiplicity of perspectives so that readers might discover the “truth” for themselves. Mayor Kareklas is similarly committed to the upkeep of understanding, although his approach is less discursive, more proselytising. His mayoralty spends its grants on “keeping the flame of return alive”; be it through producing educational materials, organising occasional trips back to Kythrea, or campaigning for the restoration of historic churches and buildings that have fallen into disrepair under the Turkish occupation. The question remains whether synthetic, paper memory can ever faithfully reproduce the vivid recollection of living tissue. Psaltis’ polling suggests that it might not be a totally satisfactory substitute.
Popular sentiment is far from the only obstacle that needs to be surmounted if reunification is going to happen. Both Mr Mikis and Mayor Kareklas, as well as the Turkish Cypriot woman from Home for Cooperation, unequivocally blame outside forces for playing politics with the island. Turkey of course comes in for a great deal of criticism, as do the USA, NATO and the UK, the island’s former colonial power. Mikis is scathing about the British and the Americans treating Cyprus as their plaything and the woman from the Home agrees with him, adding “I don’t like NATO very much”.
She does see the EU as being more attuned now to the potential economic benefits of reunification than it was prior to the Eurozone crisis, which triggered a credit rating downgrade and bailout in 2012-13 as Cypriot banks found themselves exposed to Greece’s debt haircut. Both her and Mayor Kareklas, meanwhile, mentioned the impetus that could be provided by a mooted pipeline project that would route Eastern Mediterranean gas through Cyprus and Turkey to mainland Europe. The Washington Post reported in January 2015, however, that negotiations on energy sharing had hit repeated snags, with Turkish Cypriot officials accusing the Cypriot government of trying to unilaterally sell off supplies to private companies. With global energy prices now low due to reduced American imports and the prospective flooding of markets with Iranian oil (among other things), this type of incentive surely cannot promise the sort of guaranteed benefit that Turkey might need in order to bet the house on reunification.
Unsurprisingly, Mayor Kareklas does not trust Turkey’s President Erdogan, accusing him of having a “bazaar negotiating mentality”. “Greek Cypriots have made many concessions on bizonality” he insisted, referring to the idea that reunification would most likely entail a federal structure whereby Greek and Turkish Cypriot states would sit side by side under the mutual aegis of power-sharing institutions. Kareklas personally seems unwilling to compromise on his insistence that Turkish Cyprus must abide by the acquis communautaire, or the accumulated laws and principles that a state must accept before they can be admitted to the European Union. On the day I visited the municipality of Kythrea, Angela Merkel and other EU leaders promised to reopen the chapter on Turkish membership of the bloc in exchange for a deal which will see Turkey take back refugees who illegally crossed into Europe via their soil. I asked Kareklas whether he thought that the putative reopening of the Turkish accession process could spur a definitive solution to the Cyprus question, given that it has proven a chief sticking point in previous negotiations. He shrugged. “Only when Turkey goes against the West will the situation here be bought up again” he said.
If bizonality, meanwhile, is a relatively widely accepted principle, the institutional design of a unified Cypriot federation is still contested. The 2004 Annan Plan, rejected by 76 per cent of Greek Cypriots despite being accepted by 65 per cent of Turkish Cypriots, suggested a proportional presidential council chosen by parliament, a rotating presidency and vice-presidency chosen by the council, and equal representation on the Supreme Court. Greek and Turkish forces were to be allowed to remain on the island, subject to phased reductions, and a limited right of return was to be guaranteed. This loosely Swiss-style formulation might seem intuitively fair. Writing in the Cyprus Sunday Mail recently, political analyst Aaron Coatsworth suggested that a rotating presidency could work as long as it represented both ethnicities and was subject to a veto power. In the Friends of Cyprus newsletter I picked up from Mr Mikis, however, political scientists Costa Carras and Neophytos Loizides argue that Cypriots will not accept an executive branch that can be controlled at any one time by a member of either community. Their alternative suggestion for a dual presidency is meticulously detailed, its proposed checks and balances fiendishly complicated.
Exit polls in 2004 suggested most Greek Cypriots who rejected the Annan plan did so because of security concerns, feeling uncomfortable with the idea of a continued Turkish military presence on their doorstep. Even though Coatsworth is right to suggest that these fears have subsided to a degree, it is highly likely that they would resurface if a referendum deal were to be negotiated tomorrow. The fear that a unilateral, even if temporary, presidency could declare secession informs a continued aversion to any sort of unilateral presidential powers, which 70 per cent of Greek Cypriots continue to find unacceptable according to the Score Cyprus 2015 Index. A majority of Greek Cypriots, meanwhile, see Greece, Turkey, Britain and NATO as ‘unacceptable’ guarantors of a unified island’s security and, whilst slender majorities still see the EU and UN as ‘desirable’ guarantors, the popularity of both options has fallen by more than 20 percentage points since 2011.
The right of return, too, seems certain to be a bone of contention given that the Turkish occupation bought with it many settlers from the Turkish mainland who remain in situ today. Also writing for Friends of Cyprus, the academic Mustafa Cirakli suggests that settlers do not pose a threat to reunification given that many of them show a strong desire to integrate, rejecting Erdogan’s redoubled recent efforts at the ‘Turkicisation’ and Islamisation of Northern Cyprus. The fact remains, however, that many settlers are living on land that Greek Cypriots see as theirs. It is hard to envisage leaders like Mayor Kareklas willingly compromising on the idea of taking it all back when it is ‘the flame of return’ that guides their political path.
“Don’t worry it’s not a bomb going off.” I asked the man from Huddersfield sat at the table next to me whether the bang I’d just heard might instead have been TNT. “Oh no, it’s only a landmine” he replied. “They find them around here all the time because this was the front line of the war. If you see a red flag don’t go near it, it’ll be a land mine.”
In Pyla, a small village some 20km North-East of Larnaca, Greek and Turkish Cypriots never stopped living together. Pyla is entirely within the UN buffer zone. Its street names are marked in both languages. It has a church and a mosque, and a Greek bar sits opposite a Turkish bar on its main plaza. From the terrace of the Turkish bar you can look over at the whitewashed UN headquarters. Every so often a peacekeeper wanders onto the balcony and stares up through a binocular telescope at the Turkish soldier on the cliff overlooking the village. As I sipped an Efes two more peacekeepers sat languidly in their jeep, eyes transfixed on their iPhones. A second jeepload of men clad in pristine white football kit roared up off the road, a rare breach in the lazy, hot calm of the afternoon.
The man from Huddersfield and his wife have lived in Pyla for about six years. The man reassured me that “it’s not pistols at dawn, they (the Greek and Turkish Cypriot populations) talk to each other”. The couple certainly did not wear the air of people who had spent half a decade living on a political tectonic plate boundary, more concerned about the recent influx of casinos and the difficulties of buying cigarettes in Pyla and taking them out to the Greek side. “It’s like the Wild West here: lawless” the man jokes. “They can’t do you for anything, these UN policemen. They’re real policemen but all they can do is arrest you and invite the Cypriot police to come and charge you. The Cypriot police have to be invited here otherwise they can’t come.”
The expatriate couple reckon that the Greek and Turkish Cypriots mostly keep to themselves and they seemed to have a point. The denizens of the Turkish bar, for example, were clearly not Greek Cypriot. On the whole, however, I found people in Pyla to be friendlier than elsewhere in Cyprus, smiling without a trace of diffidence as I walked past their houses. It is tempting to believe that this village represents both the past and the future of this country, its lingering differences so respectful and amicable as to be almost unnoticeable. Pyla, however, has a nondescript, acultural quality that cities away from the buffer zone lack. At opposite geographic extremes, I visited Paphos and Kyrenia during my stay on the island. Both are pretty coastal towns overrun with tourists. If Paphos feels distinctively like a Greek resort, however, Kyrenia feels like a small Turkish town: more rustic, more Middle Eastern.
I did consider that maybe I was guilty of post-rationalisation, of internalising the physical separation and superimposing my preconceptions of national difference on either side of it. Foreigners who have been in Cyprus much longer than myself, however, have clearly absorbed it too. Back in Nicosia, I had been discussing politics with a waiter for five minutes before he told me that he was not Greek Cypriot but a Romanian immigrant. “I have become accustomed to Cypriot ways” he said to me. He certainly did seem to have developed a binary perspective. Describing the years he spent working in England he talked in terms of having visited ‘the Northern side’ (Barnsley) but not ‘the Southern side’ (Plymouth). I thought this use of language was telling even if he had lived in Watford, England’s equivalent of the UN buffer zone.
“When I lived in the UK the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities got on with no problems” he remembered. Did this make him hopeful about future reconciliation on the island itself? “Too many people have lived with this for too long” he replied. He shook his head but then checked himself. “More and more people are crossing the green line and now tourists are going to both sides. I would be interested to see what people over there are saying.” He jerked his head back towards the green line behind us. “It’s like moving into someone’s house and asking them ‘how do you feel about that’?” This Romanian waiter had in just a few sentences captured the essence of what I had heard at much greater length from Mr Mikis and from Mayor Kareklas and from the Turkish Cypriot at the Home for Cooperation and from my host. Sometimes, I thought, it actually takes an outsider to see things with the greatest clarity.
The idea of moving into someone’s house, of course, evokes the discourse around the conflict taking place immediately South-East of Cyprus. The Turkish Cypriot at the Home for Cooperation said to me, without any prompting, that “Cyprus is not like Israel-Palestine”. Israel-Palestine, of course, is grossly more complicated and intractable; an ongoing violent conflict nestled in an extremely volatile region, tangled up in fluid borders, deep-seated historical grievances and displacement and global superpower contestation. There are, however, very similar issues at stake. What is the status of ‘occupied’ land? What rights can settlers have? What would a right of return look like? How can two communities be expected to live together and trust each other when there is a clear imbalance of security considerations and when interaction has, for many years, been conditioned by checkpoints and barbed wire fences? How can young people born into such a tragic separation be expected to be able to look past it? How can their cultural differences be ignored and put aside?
And yet the woman was right that Cyprus is not like Israel-Palestine. I realised that this is not because it doesn’t face deeply difficult challenges but because, unlike that troubled part of the Levant, Cyprus has never seemed so close to a solution. Despite the differences in perception between young and old and the demands of Mayor Kareklas and the scepticism of the Romanian waiter, I do think that we can afford to be hopeful. I observed during my trip that Greek and Turkish Cypriots do not hate each other. They are not fighting each other and have not been for a long time. They are starting to come into contact more and more frequently and the barriers that separate them are being opened up rather than tightened. Unlike in 2004, there exists a real will among both communities to make concrete progress towards reconciliation and reunification.
The political situation on the island, too, looks more promising now than it has done for quite some time. The Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci was elected by a landslide in 2015 despite having publicly frosty relations with President Erdogan and his government in Ankara. Greek Cypriots celebrated his election in their droves, their President Nicos Anastasiades calling it “a hopeful development for our common homeland”. This tentative welcome has translated into tens of meetings in 2015, both in an official negotiating environment and in the more jocular settings of walkabouts, cultural events and even a shared New Year goodwill message. The UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and the US Secretary of State John Kerry have expressed cautious optimism that a solution to the Cyprus problem might be in sight. The Friends of Cyprus newsletter’s front cover asks ‘If not now, when? If not us, who?’ under a photograph of Anastasiades and Akinci seated, smiling, across from each other. These questions may no longer be entirely rhetorical.
During my downtime on the island I read ‘From Beirut to Jerusalem’, the New York Times correspondent Thomas Friedman’s personal account of Middle Eastern conflicts in the 1980s. In a postscript written to mark the early 1990s Oslo accords that sought a historic deal between Yitzhak Rabin’s Israel and Yasir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) he expounded upon his theory of ‘the Lexus and the olive tree’, arguing that the people of the region were keen to abandon the tribal conflicts of the past and participate more fully in globalised economic opportunity and supranational political institutions. That moment of optimism passed, dissolved not just in Israel and Palestine but all over the world by micro and macro forces of violence, economic failure and displacement. Despite this the Cypriots I talked to and read about do want a more open economy and a less isolated place in the world. If they haven’t quite stopped glancing suspiciously at the olive tree to make sure that it is still there, they long ago stopped fighting over it.
Friedman says that “peace begins with barbed wire”, but whilst this may be true it cannot end with it. As we have seen there are still many roadblocks standing in the way of a functional unified polity. Cyprus does, however, already have peace and so the barbed wire that binds together these impediments no longer seems necessary. Unravelling it will be difficult and painful. It will take time. Unlike in other divided areas of the world, however, the will to do it genuinely seems to be present. It is a process that must start in earnest now, before the political winds of change stop blowing in the right direction and before the precious memory of past coexistence exists only in the sepia clippings of Mr Mikis’ bookshop.