By JONATHAN GORVETT.
And who can make himself heard?
Each dreams alone without hearing the other’s nightmare.
— George Seferis, Salamis in Cyprus, 1955.
BOXED UP FOR months in the dank, tight bastions of medieval Famagusta with an Ottoman Turkish attack expected any day, Shakespeare’s Othello famously undergoes a psychomachia – a ‘soul struggle’ – his mind slowly degenerating into murderous passion.
“Farewell the tranquil mind!” he declares, “farewell content!”
Nowadays, nearly five decades after a much later (and far more successful) Turkish invasion and occupation, Famagusta still bears the scars of such pathological mind-melts.
There is little content and still less tranquillity here, whether in the local kafeneion, south of the city on the Greek Cypriot side of the UN Buffer Zone, or in the kahvehane1 on the Turkish Cypriot side. While the economy, corruption and the pandemic are the top three subjects of discontent in both, it also goes without saying that a major bone of contention remains the ‘Cyprob’ – the current journalistic shorthand for the 47 years of narrative sediment that has built up around the island’s seemingly endless division, otherwise known as he ‘Cyprus problem’.2 In fact, the ‘Cyprob’ is now something akin to a force of nature, a complex, slowly revolving storm system, or the carefully nurtured war child of a metastasizing nationalistic cancer, with not only its own demands, but its own language, developed over decades of rhetorical deposition.
Indeed, as a visiting journalist, the Cyprob’s orbit is entered the very first time you ask a Greek or Turkish Cypriot politician almost any question at all. More often than not, your enquiry will result in the Cyprob’s deadweight being handed over to you – sometimes with an audible sigh.
The first time I heard that exhalation and saw my interviewee settle back, ready to begin the recitation of this long Eastern rite, was when I first interviewed the Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktas, back in 1997.
My first question was about two Greek Cypriots recently shot dead by Turkish troops at a protest in the Buffer Zone, which still separates the territory under the control of the southern, largely Greek Cypriot and internationally-recognised Republic of Cyprus (ROC) from the largely Turkish Cypriot breakaway state recognised only by Turkey – the ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ (“TRNC”). My question elicited an “answer” that referenced the Balkan Wars, the Cretan revolt and Anglo-Ottoman relations at the end of the nineteenth century.
That was a comparatively history-lite introduction, too. A couple of years later, a Greek Cypriot taxi driver from Larnaca began his handing over of the Cyprob’s leaden mass to me with a blistering attack on the Athenians for failing to aid Cyprus against the Persians.
Yet, the ultimate Cyprob ‘beginning’ can even be Mesozoic. While ‘Turkish’ north of Cyprus is dominated by jagged, igneous uplift – really part of the ‘Turkish’ Anatolian mainland, forty odd miles away to the north – the ‘Greek’ south’s Troodos range is a more worn-down ophiolite, its rock, mud and shale mass long separated from the northern peaks by a shallow sea – today’s plain of Mesaoria, onto which Famagusta now backs.
Context, explanation, a seemingly endless regression through the schoolhouse picture history books can thus all too easily get a grip. Increasingly dubious accounts and theories, beliefs, anecdotes and unsupported claims are produced, filling out the unknown with a misplaced sense of comprehension. A plot by Kissinger to divide the island – or a plot by George Ball3 to do likewise? Or no, a plot by the British (now surely we’re getting somewhere) – or what about a plot by Venizelos, or Abdulhamid, or maybe the Doge of Venice? And what about the Ottoman foundation that once owned all the land here, or did they, in fact, steal it? Or is it about oil, or gas, or the Israelis, or the crusaders – or the Suez canal, or a battle between Hittites and Ancient Egyptians?
THE ACTORS IN this narrative also tend to flatten out under the weight of the rhetoric, turning into one dimensional heroes, villains, victims, perpetrators. A recent Turkish state TV series, Once Upon a Time in Cyprus,4 purporting to tell the tale of a Turkish Cypriot community senselessly attacked by the Greek Cypriots and then saved by a James Bond-style agent from Ankara, has Greek Cypriot villains apparently able to communicate by pure evil alone, as they silently regard each other, eyes bulging and glinting, wordlessly contemplating the coming slaughter.
Turning to the late Joan Didion, there is something about her description of post-9/11 America that certainly rings a bell here:
“The irreconcilable event had been made manageable, reduced to the sentimental, to protective talismans, totems, garlands of garlic, repeated pieties,” she wrote in her 2003 essay, “Fixed Opinions, or the Hinge of History”. Within a short time, the event itself – also rendered into journalistic shorthand by the convenience of ‘9/11’ – was “finally rendered less readable than it had seemed on the morning it happened.”5
Sifting through the metres of rhetorical sand and mud now deposited, hunting for ground zero, can be exhausting, too. Add that to the fact that Cyprus is only a small island – smaller than its Mediterranean cousins Sicily and Sardinia, with a population of perhaps 1.5 million in total – and that is usually enough to see visiting hacks back on the plane, never to return.
But don’t let the Cyprob’s apparent smallness fool you; it can suddenly have a megaton density – become a spoon-full of neutron star. The psychomachia remains, the bullet holes in Famagusta’s solid, Venetian land walls still catch the eye (or are they the marks of cannon shot from the final, successful Ottoman Turkish siege of 1571?). To the south of those battlements, you can even now wander some of the streets of the long fenced-off and abandoned Greek Cypriot suburb of Varosha. This rusting, slowly decaying freeze-frame of a resort town – once one of the most popular in the Mediterranean – was abandoned by its entire population back in the summer of 1974. Fleeing ahead of Turkish tanks and bombs, the 10,000 or so permanent residents have been unable to return since. Nowadays, though, tourists can walk or cycle past their long-looted souvenir shops – which still promise to develop your Kodak or Agfa films within two hours – while on its deserted avenues, peeling and faded Coca-Cola signs proclaim “It’s the Real Thing”. At the Cyprus Airways ticket office – near to a looted Toyota showroom – discounted flights to Beirut and Ankara are on offer. Nearby, too, you can check in to your hotel by walking through the blown out front wall at reception.
Here, then, in Varosha, in this malfunctioning, unreliable and disintegrating time machine, and with the last Mediterranean light now fading along its empty beaches, is it possible – despite all the difficulties mere memory now presents – to return to that relative clarity Didion felt, on the morning it happened?
EKREM’S SURNAME IS Atili, which means something like ‘horseman’, or ‘man of horses’. He was a commander in the Turkish Cypriot paramilitary organisation, the TMT,6 in Famagusta during much of the ‘60s and ‘70s. His two brothers, wife, parents and parents-in-law were all killed by gunmen belonging to EOKA, the Greek Cypriot paramilitaries. The last five were killed by EOKA-B, in fact, a later, more far-right offshoot of the ultra-nationalist group, in the largest single massacre of civilians so far recorded to take place during the 1974 conflict. That event saw Turkish troops invade the island after an Athens-backed coup tried to unite Cyprus with Greece.7 The massacre happened in and around Ekrem’s village, Atlilar.
“In Greek, it is called ‘Aloda’,” Ekrem says, harking back to the time when many of the villages around Famagusta had both Greek and Turkish Cypriot populations. “Both names mean the same thing,” he adds. “Horses!”
According to the UN, which uncovered the bodies shortly after the massacre, then reburied them, 37 old men, women and children from Atlilar were machine-gunned, burnt, smashed with shovels, then bulldozed into a mass grave.8 The younger men had earlier been shipped off to prison camps in Limassol, returning later to find their homes destroyed and their friends and families obliterated. The neighbouring villages of Sandallar and Murataga suffered a similar fate, with a total of 126 civilians killed. No one has ever been arrested or charged with the crime.
Recently, the Committee for Missing Persons (CMP), a joint Greek and Turkish Cypriot body supported by the UN, has been exhuming the bodies again, identifying them and handing them over for individual burial – at last – to their still-grieving relatives. During the 46 years the Turkish Cypriot authorities have controlled the area, the mass graves have been presented as patriotic memorials, complete with sign boards, flags and podiums, and have been a required stop for foreign journalists visiting the ‘TRNC’, where Atlilar – and Famagusta – are now located.
I’d first heard of Ekrem from a retired local nurse, Hatice,9 who lives in Famagusta’s old walled city, not far from ‘Othello’s Tower’, a Venetian-era fortress so renamed during British colonial rule. She told me that Ekrem still wandered the streets of the old city, “completely mad, driven insane by all that happened to him”.
He turned out to be a friend of my friend Haluk Bey (‘Mr Haluk’ in Turkish), who runs an antique store in the old city. It lies just round the corner from Famagusta’s two great churches, the gothic, fourteenth-century St Nicholas Cathedral – now the Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque – and the ruined orthodox Church of St George of the Greeks. Like two giant liners beached inland by some medieval tsunami, these two great hulks tower over the few streets of one- or two-storey houses now remaining inside the city walls; a stumpy minaret on St Nicholas’ western facade sets an odd counterpoint to its Reims cathedral-style architecture.
Haluk Bey was a comrade of Ekrem’s in the TMT and has written a diary of his experiences. He also once sold me an old Olympic typewriter on which, he claimed, many of the TMT’s proclamations were once hammered out. To this day, its keys remain steadfastly locked, despite the application of gallons of oil, anti-rust and brute force – a refusal I have come to grudgingly respect.
That day, though, we met up at the old British imperial-era municipal market inside the walled city. A largely empty structure nowadays, it is, however, somewhere we can all go for a pee before setting off.
After all, all three of us are nowadays old men.
“You’re Jewish,” Haluk Bey says, rather than asks, as we stand beside each other at the tiled urinals, which still bear the Adamant logo – enough to trigger recollections of British and Irish pub lavatories, winter chill and the smell of cheap bog cleaner.
“No, no,” I offer. “I…I was raised a Christian, but really, I’m not very…”
“But ‘Jonathan’ is a Jewish name,” he announces with great certainty, and with that, I get the feeling that he has made his mind up; it’s another piece of shorthand, promising explanation.
Then we’re done and out and soon barrelling along the narrow, ruler-straight road out of Famagusta’s old city in Ekrem’s SUV, belting through the far larger new city to the north.
“My speed is 100kph,” Ekrem says, “but, if you like, 120, 140! Don’t worry! don’t worry!” he laughs.
“This road we are going along now was a railway line once,” Haluk Bey remarks, as the speed dial ticks upwards. “Before, here, the rivers were coming and there was a lake,” he adds, pointing to a clump of apartment and retail blocks, sprawling back into the distance. Next, we pass the UN camp, where a former-soldier friend of mine, stationed here with the Irish army in 1964 as a UN peacekeeper, accidentally set fire to a whole line of eucalyptus trees, which had then separated the camp from the road.
“They went up like Roman candles,” he said. “All that oily sap – like guns going off.”
In an earlier iteration, immediately after World War II, this place had been an internment camp for Jewish refugees, detained by the British trying to get into Palestine. The movie version of Leon Uris’ Exodus was partly shot here, with Paul Newman, its young star, temporarily a local beach goer.
At that time, EOKA was fighting British troops, with the colonial authorities highly concerned that the movie might have too anti-British a message. Armed guards were placed on the set, prop rifles inspected daily for any signs they had been re-bored.
THE TOMBS OF the Kings, where we’re heading, however, lie further on, close to the ruins of ancient Salamis – once a powerful Greco-Roman city in this part of the Eastern Mediterranean. The tombs, which date from the seventh century BCE, have never been fully excavated, but several structures, looking like ancient sandstone Nissen huts, have emerged anyway, poking their curving roofs up amongst the sparse, stripped-down plain around them. I think of George Seferis’ poem Engomi, based on his visit to that eponymous ruin, just a stones’ throw further away to the north.
… walls, streets and houses
stood out like the petrified muscles of cyclopes,
the anatomy of spent strength under the eye.10
We get out and walk across low gorse and tufts of heather, which cling to pockets of slight earth in the hard crusted bedrock.
“This was the cemetery of the kings of Salamis,” says Haluk Bey. “At that time, it was believed that when the king died, everything must be there at the funeral. So the horses were also sacrificed and put in the tomb,” and he points to the petrified bones of a stallion, sunken, half poking out from the parched sub-soil of an open grave; its skeleton seems alien, monstrous.
“Horses here, horses!” Ekrem shouts. “Look, look here!” and he spins about slightly too wildly, pointing in all directions across the flat Mesaoria. This stretches for miles before the sudden jolt of the Kyrenia mountains to the north, their line of frozen detonations contrasting with the rounded, looming mass of the Troodos range, in shadow far to the south. “From my village – from Atlilar – the place of the king’s horses!”
And when I turn back, he’s gone, his long gait striding him quickly back towards the car.
So now we’re moving off again, inland, past the monastery of St. Barnabas – these days an “Icon Museum” – and now off-road, down a rutted track and onto a flat rocky carapace, dotted with short, stunted olive trees. It is early spring, and the Mesaoria has had its first sifter-shake of meadow flowers – white daisies and pink anthemis, yellow lapsana, sudden red poppies.
“Here!” announces Ekrem, and the car lurches to a halt.
Ahead are the remains of a small shepherds’ hut, next to a short, gnarled olive tree and a path, leading off into what looks like complete oblivion, the flatness and lack of anything much growing over a few inches tall creating an end-of-the-earth feel.
We get out. “One of Ekrem’s brothers was a good friend of mine at school,” Haluk Bey says. “Arif was his name and he was very good at sports – volleyball, basketball, and marathon running.”
“He was the first!” Ekrem joins in enthusiastically. “Same as horses, same as horses!” he shouts, striding towards the shepherd’s hut.
“During this holiday, in order to help his family, Arif was looking after the sheep in the fields with these two people,” continues Haluk Bey.
We’ve followed Ekrem and are standing by the low hut, its front wall leaning backwards, its straw and mud walls cracked and warping.
“So that day, Arif was here with Ekrem’s other brother, Huseyn, and another guy from the village, Hassan Suleyman, and so Arif was here from school looking after the sheep in this field. It was 1958. The EOKA people were hiding in the hut.”
“The three of them were about 200 feet away when they saw the gunmen. They turned and began to run, but Hassan Suleyman was an old man and he couldn’t get away, so he was sitting and he prayed to heaven and they came up and shot him. He was injured very badly and taken to Famagusta hospital, where he died later.”
Ekrem’s current orbit has begun to hurtle him back towards us.
“Arif and Huseyn, they started to run,” continues Haluk Bey, “and they were running so much.”
“Wooh! Like horses!” Ekrem offers, a comet arriving and then gone again, off into another wide orbit. He has clearly been crying. He now has a small bottle of water with which he washes his face as he strides along.
“But – and this is very important,” continues Haluk Bey, “when these two guys were running, ahead of them, there were Greek shepherds. The Greek shepherds cut their way.”
He pauses to let the implications sink in, before continuing. “So, the gunmen caught up with them and said ‘lie down!’ One of them they shot here,” he points to his heart, “and the other…
Ekrem has suddenly appeared again by our side. “The other… the other…” he repeats.
“…the other one in the mouth,” finishes Haluk Bey. “The English authorities brought the bodies to the morgue in Famagusta, and Ekrem was shouting that he wanted to see his brothers and the commissioner said okay and they took him in a Land Rover to where they were lying on a table, and he wanted to touch them and see where they’d been shot. He couldn’t see any injuries at first.”
“Nothing, nothing! I lift the sheet up…” adds Ekrem.
“But then he saw Akif had been shot through the heart and Huseyn through the mouth.”
We start walking back to the car.
“The people from the village, after hearing the gunshots, they came here and saw the old man who was injured crying out,” says Haluk Bey. “They took him by donkey to the village, but they didn’t know that Arif and Huseyn were shot too and lying ahead. It was only later that the English authorities came here and looked and they found the bodies of the two others.”
We get back in the car and Ekrem is silent for a long while, just sitting, not moving.
“Since 2007, this has been my wood,” he suddenly says, looking out at the low shrubs and stunted trees around him. “It was English government land back then, common land for grazing, for Greek and Turkish shepherds.”
“The Turkish Cypriot government fixed the irrigation a few years ago and we planted trees here,” adds Haluk Bey.
Few of them seem to have survived.
“I found my brother’s staff there,” says Ekrem. “Over there,” he points to a patch of ground indistinguishable from any other, except to him.
IN THAT 1997 interview with Denktas, held in the old British residency inside the Venetian bastions of North Nicosia, the Turkish Cypriot leader, founder-member of TMT and a lifelong Turkish nationalist, explained why it was that he had pushed through a unilateral declaration of independence for the north, back in 1983.
He had, of course, long argued for the partition of the island – taksim in Turkish – and was famously so excited when he learned Turkish troops were about to invade in July 1974 that he jumped the gun, announcing their invasion over public radio hours before they had actually begun landing. Fortunately for the Turkish forces, it seems, the Greek Cypriot military weren’t listening. Or perhaps they had just become used to not hearing.
Independence, he said, gave the Turkish Cypriots “political equality” with the Greek Cypriots, the rulers of the internationally-recognised ROC set up when the British left in 1960. ‘Political equality’, Denktas argued, meant that the repeated UN-sponsored negotiations aimed at re-unifying the island – which began after a wave of violence in 1964 and most recently collapsed in 2017 – would be on the basis of two governments talking, rather than one. The ROC would have to negotiate with the TRNC, rather than the less diplomatically weighty Turkish Cypriot ‘community’ and its leader.
While this may seem a very inside-baseball type digression, I mention it because it shows a key characteristic of the “Cyprob”. The argument Denktas advanced back then – and which, for nearly 40 years has failed to deliver ‘equality’, as the TRNC remains unrecognised – is exactly the same argument that the current ‘president’ of the TRNC, Ersin Tatar, makes.
Yet Tatar – former deputy treasurer at fellow Turkish Cypriot Asil Nadir’s fraudulent Polly Peck business empire – presents this argument for “political equality” as an entirely new approach. It’s time, he told the FT in August 2021, “for the world to recognise the reality”.
Despite the Cyprob’s repeated appeals to historical context, then, in practice, it has an essentially timeless quality. Indeed, the cyclical and repetitious nature of its narrative makes it capable of smothering any sense of time passing – in other words, of anything changing – in much the same way as a lengthy Covid quarantine. Is it Tuesday or Wednesday, 1964 or 2004? One argument, one event, blurs into another. Eventually, the Cyprob asks you to resign yourself to a kind of steady state, essentialist universe, to grab hold of cliched and nonsensical never-ending struggles, if that will help – Turks versus Greeks, East versus West, Christianity versus Islam, right versus wrong, us versus them, etc., etc..
In such a universe, what is, is what will always be. At that December 2020 reburial of some of the victims of the massacre at Atlilar, attended by Tatar and a battery of officials, a statement from the TRNC press office read, “President Tatar also underlined that this event shows that the two people of the island cannot live together.”
No – never ever. Timelessly apart, just as they are now.
We’re sitting next to the counter in the small bakal, Ahmet’s mum-and-pop store, just across from the Land Gate inside Famagusta’s Venetian walls. There are shelves of tinned food, packets of pasta, sweets, jams, Turkish tea and packets of crisps. There’s the hum of refrigerators and a smell of coffee mixed with exhaust fumes, the occasional car passing outside the open doorway.
“In ’63,” he starts, “one of my father’s friends was a Greek Cypriot, who worked with him at the Singer sewing machine repair shop here. It was located in a Turkish Cypriot part of Famagusta, and one night, while my father’s friend was trying to get home to the Greek Cypriot part, the TMT took him.
“So, later that night, my father said, ‘Go take my Greek friend some food’. So I went and I found the man, tied up under a tree. I was 12-13 years old. I went up, and I tried to give him some water and feed him. He was crying. I didn’t know Greek, but I could tell he was trying to tell me something. In the end, I understood he had something in his back pocket. He was trying to show me a wallet, with the photo of a small child in it. I thought, as a kid, if I took the wallet, I’d be in trouble for stealing money, so I didn’t want to take it, but he was trying to say to me, ‘Take it!’, ‘Take it!’. In the end, I understood and I took it and gave it to my father, as he knew the man’s family and might help. But when I gave it to him, he grabbed me and shook me and said, ‘Don’t tell anyone about this! Don’t say a word!’
“The next day, they shot the Greek. His body was found under the walls. Later, when we could go to the Greek parts again, my father went to his family and gave them the wallet.”
Two of Ahmet’s uncles were later killed by EOKA and Ahmet himself joined the TMT when he was 14. “They gave me an old British WWII rifle that was taller than I was,” he recalls. “The TMT was inside the walls, the Greek Cypriots, EOKA, outside. We were under a kind of siege. We were dependent on the TMT for everything. Turkish businessmen bought food and other things from the Greek Cypriots and then sold them to the TMT and they sold them on to us inside the walls at exorbitant prices. It was like the mafia.”
Later, he shows me his TMT helmet – a small metal bowl, like an upturned saucepan.
“There was no rule of law,” he says. “If the TMT thought you were a traitor, they’d kill you.” He pauses. “It’s strange though, but most of the old TMT ones, the really bad ones, ended up dying of cancer. They were eaten up by it, by their egoism. The EOKA ones too. In the end, we’re all human.”
I ask him if he thinks Greek and Turkish Cypriots can ever live together.
“In 2004, they reopened the crossings between the north and south of the island,” he recalls. Until then, it had been impossible to travel into and out of the TRNC, except via Turkey. The road south from Famagusta, which runs past Varosha to Derinya, on the other side of the UN buffer zone, was blocked by Turkish troops, minefields and barbed wire.
“If what they say is right,” Ahmet continues, “that we can never live together and hate each other and so on – then there should have been a riot, killings, mass slaughter when those gates reopened, right?” he asks. “But there wasn’t, was there?”
“Instead, people were just happy. We could move about again, we could see people and places we hadn’t seen for decades. Nobody was attacked, nobody even seemed angry.”
The Cyprob is a thought that forecloses thought, as Didion might have put it. Yet, despite its huge power, shown in the comforting disconnection between the narrative rhetoric of a phrase like ‘a wave of violence’ and the photo of the child in the Greek Cypriot prisoner’s wallet, the body dumped beneath the walls, one can sometimes seem to strike bedrock.
The stanza after the one quoted at the start of this essay from Seferis’ poem Salamis in Cyprus, written after the great poet had once walked the streets of Famagusta, makes the point, linking this island’s Salamis to that other, the famous sea battle of 480BCE, when the Greek city states defeated the Persian fleet.
Who can change the opinions of the mighty?
And who can make himself heard?
Each dreams alone without hearing the other’s nightmare.
–True. But the messenger moves swiftly
And however long his journey, he’ll bring
To those who tried to shackle the Hellespont
The terrible news from Salamis.
Perhaps he will arrive here one day too, then, finally and breathlessly gasping out his news. Perhaps, too, it will be after he has crossed the rocky plain of the Mesaoria, running like a horse.
Jonathan Gorvett is a journalist and writer who has spent many years as an international correspondent, with a particular focus on the Middle and Near East. His Fortnightly essay on happiness in Dubai, “Arabia Felix”, is here. He currently resides on Cyprus.
- Kafeneion (Gr.), or kahvehane (Tr.) both mean ‘coffee house’.
- Coining of the term should be credited to Kyriacos Iacovides, currently managing editor of the Nicosia-based Cyprus Mail.
- US Under-Secretary of State during the 1964 Cyprus crisis, working for President Lyndon B. Johnson.
- Bir Zamanlar Kibris, TRT1, first broadcast April 1, 2021 (an official holiday in the ROC, celebrating the 1955 start of the campaign by the Greek nationalist paramilitary group EOKA against British colonial rule over the island).
- Joan Didion, “Fixed Opinions, or the Hinge of History“, New York Review of Books, January 16, 2003.
- Türk Mukavemet Teşkilatı, or Turkish Resistance Organisation.
- I place this here as a sequence of events, rather than as any kind of explanation of them.
- UN Monthly Chronicle, Vol. 11, 1974, UN Office of Public Information, p.98.
- Name changed, due to local sensitivities.
- George Seferis, Collected Poems, 1924-1955, Bilingual Edition, Princeton Legacy Library, Princeton University Press, p. 391.