Saturday, October 31, 2009
"Siga, Siga" - Slowly, Slowly
From the sky Cyprus looks like a lotus leaf floating in the Azure blue Mediterranean basin. With fewer than 800,000 people it is smaller than San Francisco in size and population. When my plane lands in Larnaca airport the ground crew wheels in a staircase for us to disembark. I know instantly that I have arrived in a place where I can truly get away . From Banjul in The Gambia to Ulan Bator in Mongolia, to Thiruvananthapuram in India to Liberia in Costa Rica this test has always worked well. The reassuring sight of stairs being wheeled in means you are getting off in a place very different from most International business cities around the world which have increasingly started looking and feeling like each other – Chicago, Frankfurt, Shanghai, Dubai.
This has been a year of saying “Yes” for me; A year of saying yes to interesting experiences in life. So when a long time friend, Alka called me and told me that she was moving from Hong Kong to Cyprus and invited me to come visit, I told her, “Yes, of course”. From India to Hong Kong to Cyprus her house has been a haven and every time I step through the door I know I have come back home .
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Surrounded by Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt, Cyprus is a testimony to the aphorism that Geography is Destiny. The island is divided into two uneasy, disconcerting parts – a Greek side and a Turkish side – that continue to sear the soul of a nation. Over the centuries invaders, settlers, and immigrants have come through – the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Lusignans, Genoese, Venetians, Ottomans, British, Turks, each leaving their stamp on Cyprus. Reading about Cyprus’ past and all the occupation evokes Churchill’s definition of history in my mind - “One damn thing after another”.
Cyprus has a love affair with love. Cypriots are quick to tell me that Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of sexual love and beauty arose from the sea off the south coast of Cyprus. She was born out of the white foam produced by the severed genitals of Ouranos when they were thrown into the sea by his son Kronos. After emerging from the sea she entertained her lovers, leaving behind her an amorous scent that continues to intoxicate lovers. Richard the Lionheart married his wife Berengaria at Lemessos in the 12th century. The British continue to come here to get married in large numbers, resulting in a shortage of priests to officiate at the weddings.
I walk through downtown Lefkosia, the capital, through Ledra street to the Ledra street crossing. A pedestrian-only street it is a quaint medley of cafes, music stores, boutiques, and a monument to modern day commerce. At the end of Ledra street I walk across the “Green Line” past a sign that says “Last divided capital in the world” from the Republic of Cyprus side towards a sign that welcomes me to the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus”. The very existence of this country I am now standing in defies logic; it is recognized by just one other country - Turkey.
In 1963, when the British were occupying Cyprus (why does this sound strangely familiar?), in response to communal disturbances between Greek and Turkish Cypriots the British military took a green pen and drew a line on the military map, creating the “Green Line” dividing Nicosia into a Turkish and Greek side. I suspect that when the British colonise a country and predictably there is discontent among the local population, they reach into a colonial handbook, thumb through the index for the entry that says “How to govern local population effectively”, and there find instructions from a British civil servant that say with clinical precision, “Take map, take green pen, draw a line across map, tell population to shift from one side of the line to another based on tribal, ethnic or religious lines”.
I grew up in India which was similarly divided into two countries by the British before splintering finally into three – India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan – a situation that continues to cause a simmer to this day. And in Palestine, Arabian Gulf, and much of North Africa, the British colonial pen across maps has reorganized and splintered populations across divides that has led to much strife.
In 1974 after military activity involving Greece and Turkey, Cyprus was divided into Greece and Turkish parts and the Green line extended across the entire island. As George Santayana once famously remarked, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Another partition tragedy for humanity repeated as hundreds of ordinary Greek and Turkish Cypriots who did not have a choice in the matter had to abandon their homes, farms, and livelihood, uproot themselves, and to cross over to the other side of the Green line to start their lives over.
In 2008, abruptly the borders were opened by Raul Denktash the leader of the Turkish Cypriots. For 29 years the Green Line had divided a people from their friends and families. Similar to the fall of the Berlin wall, in emotional scenes, people from both sides crossed over to see for themselves what life was like on the other side, sometimes traveling back to homes and friends they had left behind.