Cyprus – “Siga, Siga”

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.

no-mans-land[1]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.
venetian-walls[1]Walking through Nicosia and traveling around Cyprus, I am struck by the modern day waves of immigrants. Instead of conquerors and colonizers using military might, a shifting of labor markets is happening, perhaps not well documented by the International Labor organization. At an individual level it is a human story full of hope and emotion, and devoid of the coldness of statistical tables that don’t tell the richness of individual stories. I find them everywhere: The Cameroonian sales clerk in the music store who makes recommendations to help me pick contemporary Cypriot music by Anna Vissi and Alkinoos Ioannides; Basheer from Bangladesh, who is both a student and mans a news kiosk (He loans me his cell phone to call a taxi); Meekness from Zambia who staffs the Clinique counter at the airport advising newly rich and badly sun burnt Russians going home after their holiday in the sun on how to care for their skin; Pepe from India who provides home care to an elderly Cypriot woman; The beautiful Hungarian waitress who shares a taxi with me from Larnaca and discusses the Paul Coelho book she is reading; The Nepali waiters who scurry around the seafood restaurant in Agia Napa; Yannis the former professional football player from Georgia, who arrived to play for a local team until his bad knees killed his football career; ( Now he drives a taxi and has become my official taxi driver); The Sri Lankan nanny who takes care of the two year old brother of Diamandis, the psychology student at the University of Cyprus I meet during a shared taxi ride. Each story is labyrinthine in its detail of hope, opportunity, economic migration, and cultural displacement

If there were an Olympics for culinary events, the Cypriots would be in the finals. And their winning entry would be Meze. I am at the Xe Foto restaurant in the old city of Lefkosia. Andreas Loizides the owner is explaining to me that he picked the name because of the play of light streaming through trees into the courtyard around which the restaurant is set. Foto is the Greek word for light he clarifies for me. His house band has been performing Rembetika and more contemporary Cypriot music for 20 years. Andreas himself gets on the mike in between and his guests break out into Syrtaki and other Greek dances This is one of the best places to try Meze, which is as much about food as it is about bonding with friends and family around a dining table in that uniquely Mediterranean way. The waiter keeps bringing in Mezedes, little delicacies. Much of the experience has to do with the sharing and passing around, savoring each dish, and recommending it. First comes the olives, salads, bread, tahini, talatouri, and hummus. Next comes the vegetables, garnishes, raw pickles, all served with haloumi. The meats follow in an assembly line of lamb, chicken, beef, pork dressed up as souvlaki, klefliko, sheftalia. Just when you think it is over the waitresses reappear with fresh fruit and pastries. The secret I discover is to pace myself and listen to the advice of my Cypriot friends, siga, siga, slowly, slowly.

I am walking around Lefkosia’s old city. Surrounded by Venetian walls that from the top look like a snowflake or a sliced Grenade. The Venetians built the fortifications in 1570 to keep the feared Ottomans out. The bastions were named after wealthy Venetian merchants who paid for the them in a clever fund raising model long before Harvard and Wharton learnt to name their buildings after wealthy alums. But they turned out to be a complete failure. Well, the Ottomans arrived just three years later, scaled the walls, took over Lefkosia and stayed for 300 years. Another reminder that walls don’t really keep anyone out.

Driving us around the old city is Ahmet, a Turkish Cypriot with a handlebar mustache. There is a sense of gravitas about him. He bikes across the international border everyday to come to work and drives a quaint school bus that looks like it could be from the 60s. I almost look around to see if beat poets and hipsters Alan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Wavy Gravy are on the bus. Ahmet tells me that he used to be a truck driver who drove tractor trailers from Finland to Bangladesh in marathon 20 day trips across all the central Asia “sthans”, and Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan and finally across the Indian heartland. “Anda, Kela, Aaap Khana Kaho” he tells me using the few Hindi words he remembers from his trips and guffaws loudly.

Evie, a tour guide is guiding me through the old city. At one point she leads us to the border that separates the two sides of Cyprus. The watchtower set up by the UN forces are now deserted. The forces are long gone since things have become more peaceful. An elderly Cypriot gentleman comes out to greet us. His house backs up against the border. He probably grew up and lived all his life in this house till one day someone drew the green line across his backyard and arrived with rolls of barbed wire to prove it. Beyond the barbed wire fence behind his house is a no mans land where houses, schools, hotels, sit dilapidated, abandoned and out of bounds for everyone to avoid people stepping on land mines.

Evie herself is a refugee from across the border. Her family were wealthy farmers on the northern side when history came calling. They abandoned their orange orchards and everything else they had and were forced to hit the “reset” button on their life. Even though the border is now open she has not gone back. The memories are too haunting for her to confront them.

Evie leads me to the house of Zambella, the former mayor of Nicosia and one of the best known art collectors on the island. The first floor of his house is an art gallery with a treasure trove of works by Cyprus artists. Some of the paintings are of Zambella himself. I find it disconcerting that he looks like George Bush. Perhaps, it is one of the approved looks in the political reference books. I just hope he did not mess up the city he governed.

Evie and Ahmet then take us to the village of Kaimakli, where right on the village square is a 19th century traditional building known as the Monoportis house. Its current occupant is Julia Astreou-Christoforou whose family has lived here for six generations going back to the mid 19th century when the Patriarch Hadjipetris built a dominating central arch in the big room on the marriage of his son Tzirkako to Hadjikatina. This kind of history spanning many generations and easily traced and documented seems to come effortlessly to the Cypriots. Julia now weaves hand-loom fabrics in the same house using traditional Cypriot looms. Her beautiful daughter Daphne, a product of French design schools, now models the Arete shawls her Mom designed for Queen Arete’s costume for the theatrical production of the Odyssey. kourion[1]It is the contrasts in Cyprus that stand out the most. Contrasts in nature, contrasts in time, contrasts in life. At one point I am standing on the lovely sandy beaches of Kourion visually uncluttered by the resort developments that I find in other towns like Agia Napa. A few minutes of driving up the hill takes me to the excavation of the city of ancient Kourion, perched on a hillside overlooking the beach. It became a Roman settlement in the 13th century BC. Let me do the math for you. That is 3300 years ago. Walking through the remains of the ancient city, I note the number and elaborateness of the Roman baths. Clearly the Romans in the city were obsessed with personal hygiene. Or did the lack of water to keep the baths going lead to their downfall? I am not able to see any obvious water sources for miles around.

Pushing past Kourion into the mountains of Troodos Massif I am looking at the country’s highest peak, Mt. Olympus. For a small country, the variety of landscape in Cyprus is astounding. Winter dumps snow in these mountains and Troodos becomes a ski resort only hours from warm Mediterranean beaches. Around the bend, and up the hill past the village of Kalopanayiotis with just 290 villagers is the richest and most famous of Cyprus’s religious institutions – Kykkos monastery. The fabulous wealth of the monastery is displayed in the Byzantine museum where again with effortless ease the artifacts state that they are from several centuries B.C. kykkos[1]Kykkos is also the home monastery of Archbishop Makarios III, ethnarch and religious leader of Cyprus as well as its larger than life President in its brief period of independence as a united island from 1959 to 1974. While this juxtaposition of religious leadership and political leadership may seem strange in many parts of the world, Cyprus has had a long history of this model of governance. And then of course history had to rear its head again in Cyprus . A CIA-supported Greek Junta plotted a coup. The coup backfired. Makarios escaped. The Turks invaded the north. Cyprus was divided into two. The Greek Junta in Athens fell. Makarios returned to preside over a now truncated state. And so on it goes with Cyprus’s history.

Even the sleepy fishing town and seaside resort of Larnaca does not fail to surprise with interesting tidbits of history and contrasts. It offers the tomb of Lazarus. He of biblical fame, raised from the dead by Jesus and expelled by the Jews from Jerusalem, came to Larnaca and remained its bishop for 30 years. Then he died a second time and was buried here. 697AAnd then of course there is Agia Napa, once a tiny fishing village, with a few houses, fishermen, and a monastery. Now it is the gravitational center of Cyprus’s fun and sun tourist industry with the predictable and often not very pretty run away development, that has resulted in a Flintstone cave bar with the name Yabba Napa Doo and another one called Organ Grinder. For a town with a resident population of less than 3000 people it offers three dozen bars and nightclubs with a rotating stable of DJs from Europe.

Towards the end of my trip Evie and her erudite husband Costas invite me over for dinner. Evie tells me that in her 20 years as a tour guide I am only the second person to receive this honor and the previous guest was the secretary to the Archbishop of Canterbury. I am clearly not worthy and feel a certain sense of burden. A very well read and intellectual couple, their house is a delight. It has an excellent collection of art from Cyprus artist Christos Christou, classical music and a stupendous collection of books on art, philosophy, history, and geopolitics. The conversation veers from Oscar Wilde to Epictectus to Noam Chomsky. And in a telling reminder of the powers of globalism, their daughter Laura works in the hi-tech industry in Silicon Valley just miles from where I live and work in the San Francisco bay area and their son is a chemical engineer faculty at the University of Edinburgh. Together Evie and Costas roll out the very best of the famed Hellenic hospitality. Their kindness and graciousness to a complete stranger from half way around the world moves me deeply and remains etched in my heart as the most defining and memorable aspect of Cyprus.


Now I realize why Constantine P. Cavafy wrote around 1899 in “Going back home from Greece”:
“Well, we’re nearly there, Hermippos.
Day after tomorrow, it seems—that’s what the captain said.
At least we’re sailing our seas,
the waters of Cyprus, Syria, and Egypt,
the beloved waters of our home countries.
Why so silent? Ask your heart:”