A Cyprus Dispatch

By Ravi Shankar

The capital city of Cyprus, Nicosia, is encircled by stone walls shaped like a star with eleven heart-shaped bastions that once served as military fortification for the Venetians who were one in the long line of occupiers on the island. The old city is also bisected by the infamous “green line” making it the only divided capital in the world, the South side part of the Greek Republic of Cyprus and the EU, the North side the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and recognized as an autonomous region only by Turkey. In some ways this stunningly designed city run through by a jagged and seemingly arbitrary boundary line, is the perfect metaphor for this fascinating, vexed place where I’ve spent the last four months teaching English literature in the North.

In my time here, I’ve discovered that Cyprus has a mélange of mixed identities, with the Greek Cypriots, the Turkish Cypriots, the Turks, the London Cypriots, the Armenians, the Maronites, the Iranians, the descendants of the Lusignan and Venetian upper classes and the British retirees; a population that might have the potential for a true cosmopolitanism if everyone were not so ensconced in their own separate and hermetic enclaves. Luckily, literature (as is often the case) seems to be one of the few areas that reconcile the people with the politics, creating substantive conversation and interesting aesthetic formulations that transcend the narrowly provincial and unremittingly insular.

My first taste of this came at the International Poetry Meeting 2010, held at the Kastelliotissa Medieval Hall in Nicosia on March 21, 2010. The performances resonated in the sublime 13th-century space, the subtly shifting spotlights shining on the Gothic archways in a seamless fusion between the ancient and the modern. The poets who read that day all read in their mother tongue, which unfortunately for this relative monoglot was translated neither in the program nor on stage. Still it was wonderful to hear the Russian of Regina Derieva, the French of Maite Clerides, the Spanish of Alex Susanna Nadal and the Greek of Dinos Siotis, among others. My favorites though, no doubt due to my linguistic bias, were Lisa Suhair Majaj, the Palestinian-American poet and scholar, whose poignant and elegiac poems about loss and the memory of her mother collectively stilled the audience in reflection; and on the other hand, Alev Adil, whose name means “flame,” and who emerged on stage in a scorching red dress to perform her dynamic and gestural poems in Turkish and English, including the standout “The Fire Collector,” which begins “I collect turn pages, faded tunes,/ leaking bottles, the echoes of lost scents./ I agglutinate these accumulated archives/ with spit and spunk and tears/ and call them poems,” and ends, “I’ll let the blaze bless me/ with its emptiness./ If you say my name/ with my own name/ you unname me.” British poet and Beckett scholar Paul Stewart was also exemplary, his measured poems and linguistic evocations reminiscent of Seamus Heaney from Death of a Naturalist.

One of the guests that day was Stavros St. Karayanni, chair of the English Department at European University Cyprus and editor of the trilingual journal of literature and the arts, Cadences who had recently hosted a dinner party where I was introduced to more of the island’s literati. The very premise behind the journal, as taken from the Cyprus College Web site, is “to publish high quality work by both established poets, fiction writers, and critics as well as students and less-known writers from the community. It is open to writing in the several languages that inhabit the island of Cyprus, including Greek, Turkish, English, American, Arabic and others.” The pluralism evoked by that objective stands in such contrast to the prevailing ideologies of an island where the Turks are not allowed to cross into the South and are routinely slurred in both graffiti and official pamphlets and where an entire former quarter of Greek life in Famagusta (Varosha, the ghost-city) has been fenced off and left to molder into ruin. It seems to this transient that there’s plenty of blame to disperse on both sides of the green line, but a journal like Cadences not only attempts but accomplishes a literal reunification of the island—in the issue I have, American poets such as Natasha Tretheway and David St. John are published in English, Greek and Turkish.

Among the writers I met during the evening were Aydin Mehmet Ali whose feminist and postcolonial short story collection Bize Dair or Pink Butterflies offers vivid vignettes of the difficult and fulfilling life of being a woman in Cyprus; Maria Thoma, former recipient of the Cyprus State Prize for young writers; and Neşe Yaşın, a Turkish Cypriot poet whose poem “Which Half” has become a song and anthem for those who live with the reality of life in a divided country:

They say a person should
love their homeland
that’s also what
my father often says.
My homeland
has been divided in two
which of the two pieces
should I love?

Another artspace that accomplishes true cross-pollination and global interchange is Sidesteets, founded by scholar Johann Pillai and his wife, the artist Anber Onar. With locations in Nicosia and Kyrenia, Sidestreets presents art exhibitions, film screenings, literary readings and theoretical seminars, and hosts artists-/architects-in-residence program, English-language classes, and forums for public activism on a range of topics from health care to environmental preservation. I saw a talk sponsored by them on “Urbanism in Byzantium,” presented by Dr. Luca Zavagno, and read my own poems there on Sunday, May 30.

The prehistory of this tiny island, about three-fifths the size of the state of Connecticut, has long been contested. From the Assyrians, the Egyptians, and the Persians, all of whom ruled the island, to when Alexander the Great conquered it, followed by Ptolemy. To when Marc Antony gave the island as a gift to Cleopatra before the apostle Paul converted the population to Christianity. Before the Arabs invaded and threw out the Byzantines, who regained power until Richard the Lionheart occupied the island, followed by the French Lusignans, and then the Venetians. That’s not to mention the Ottoman Empire, that held sway until the late nineteenth century when the British annexed the government of Cyprus as a protectorate—how chillingly the term glints in the glare of a postcolonial scope—laying the groundwork for all that followed: the Republic of Cyprus, splintered by the promise of enosis (union with Greece) for Greek Cypriots, begetting the ethnic violence that ensued until the Turks invaded and never left, bifurcating the island as it is today. There are homes once owned by Turkish Cypriots in the South now lived in by Greek Cypriots and entire former Greek Orthodox neighborhoods draped in Ataturk’s visage and the Turkish flag. So then the present incarnation of the Cyprus Problem perhaps need not be seen as particularly remarkable, though the levels of complication and mutual recrimination are multilayered beyond any easy comprehension (a good timeline and historical overview can be found at this site). In a place of such instability though, the one constant remains the power of literature to eradicate boundaries and create sustainable dialogue. I’m certainly indebted to the richness of Mediterranean culture, for the hospitality my brief stay engendered, and in spite of ubiquitous trivial and more profound annoyances, it was no hard chore spending my days in the place Shakespeare’s Othello and Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons were set and where such talented and conscientious literary artists make their lives.


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