Tuesday, March 31, 2009

So, What Are (Greek) Cypriots Like, Then? (Comments Welcome :>)

After going to the Independence Day parade last week, I called Lise. “You’re brave,” she said. “I haven’t been to one yet, and I’ve lived here longer than you!”

We considered the contradiction of Cyprus being such a conservative, conformist society made up of such diverse, non-conformist individuals, and reached no conclusions: “Someone asked me the other day what Costas (her husband) is like,” she related. "And I said ‘He’s a typical Cypriot’. Then I said ‘No, actually he’s not like most Cypriots!’ and suddenly thought ‘What is a typical Cypriot?’”

I realised that I, too, use the adjectives ‘typical’ and ‘unusual’ in describing Best Beloved’s own manifestation of Cypriotness – often in consecutive breaths…

So what is a Cypriot? He or she might be a blend of almost any race. Some – like Phil – are dark, short, and stocky with kinky hair – possibly, in the Paphos area anyway, descended from the people who built the mud houses at Lemba five millennia ago. Others inherit their swarthy colouring and tall, slim build from Arab or Phoenician traders. Still others are fair-skinned and blue-eyed: often blond, they say that their appearance comes from the Achaeans who ended up on these shores at the end of the Trojan War. These days, with around twelve percent of all marriages contracted on the island taking place between a Cypriot and ‘a foreigner’, a Cypriot could look like anything. Although most of the foreigners marrying Cypriots today are European, there are quite a few Philippinas or Sri Lankans who have also chosen to stay. The gene pool is getting quite a shake-up.

Many threads bind the people of this island into a community – or two communities – or many communities. A predominant one is a shared history of colonisation.

Not until 1960 was Cyprus independent. Until 1960 it had answered to a procession of conquerors: Assyrian, Egyptian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Arab, Byzantine, Crusader, Frank, Venetian, Ottoman, British. In 1960, under the Presidency of the Archbishop Makarios it finally became free of tithe or tribute, free to decide its own destiny.

Two main communities flourished on the island. Roughly eighty percent of the population spoke a dialect of Greek closer to the archaic than the modern language (and rich in loan words from French, Italian, Arabic, Turkish, and English) and embraced Orthodox Christianity. They were often farmers and traders, but also professionals and the intelligentsia. And about eighteen percent followed Islam and spoke a dialect of Turkish. They were predominantly farmers and small traders and made up the bulk of the police force. Small Armenian and Maronite communities enjoyed good relations with both Greek- and Turkish Cypriots, and the main communities also got along well. Intermarriage was not common, but villages, towns, and cities were mixed, and many people spoke each other’s language. They shared business partnerships, celebrated each other’s weddings, and mourned at each others’ funerals.

For a host of reasons too complex to discuss here (but that included the less-than-shadowy machinations of the British and American governments) Cypriot independence led shortly to inter-communal bloodshed, which culminated in a Greek-sponsored coup used by the Turkish government as a pretext for invasion in 1974 and the Occupation of 40% of the island that continues to this day. Previously mixed communities were sundered, with 50,000-60,000 Turkish-Cypriots moving north of the Cease-Fire Line and 160,000 Greek-Cypriots fleeing Turkish forces into the government-controlled areas. In one brief month, the Republic of Cyprus lost forty percent of its lands, 65% of its tourist accommodation capacity, 56% of mining and quarrying output, 41% of livestock production, nearly half of its agricultural exports and industrial production, more than a third each of its housing stock and school buildings. The total number of Greek Cypriot casualties was around 5,000 – with over 1,000 unaccounted for and still listed as missing.

The years following the Invasion saw a haemorrhage of population as families and young people went abroad. They went to England and America and Australia, they went to Greece, and they went to Libya and the Gulf. And they worked. The money that came back, coupled with loans from the international community rebuilt the infrastructure in the government-controlled areas and improved it.

Meanwhile, the Turkish controlled areas continued to suffer. Although free of the fear that had blighted many Turkish Cypriots’ lives once the decade of inter-communal strife was over, Turkish Cypriots found themselves living in a country unrecognised internationally, without international support, and with an increasing influx of settlers from mainland Turkey which the leadership brought in to bolster its own position. Turkish-Cypriots, too, began to leave. Abroad, they often found themselves living cheek-by-jowl with Greek-Cypriot former neighbours but relationships on the whole were good. Perhaps united by exile, they cursed together their own politicians and they Great Powers that had brought about the ruin of their country – then settled down together to enjoy a souvla. Turkish- and Greek-Cypriots are more like each other than they are like either Turks or Greeks.

This is getting all together too much of a dry history lesson, but it has a lot to do with the questions ‘what is a Cypriot’ and ‘why do they behave like they do’?

The 1974 Coup happened on Best Beloved’s eleventh birthday; the invasion five days after. He has clear memories of fleeing the family house in Nicosia, of Turkish jets bombing across the river, of a friend's father killed in the fighting outside the capital. The family lost valuable lands, and relatives became refugees -- still unable to return to their homes and fields. Although both Mili and Phil had jobs, Best Beloved started work at thirteen, giving his wages to his mother to ease the burden of housekeeping and help to support displaced relatives and friends. And his situation was by no means unusual.

Foreign occupation, war, and fractured society are some of the themes that colour Cyprus – and Cypriots. ‘The long view’ is hard to find here; people tend to get what they can while it’s available. Cash in on good fortune. Next week someone might snatch it away. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” And what’s the point in developing a national identity when it will only be trampled under the boots of the next wave of conquerors? Better to hunker down and endure. To contract within the proscribed boundaries of tradition, to be hospitable to strangers, to reserve judgement, to preserve the family.

… But this will have to continue another day. Tomorrow is another anniversary: on April 1, 1955, the EOKA rebellion against English rule began. We Anglo-types used to dread it for our half-and-half children: they were always made to play the role of the oppressors in commemorative school plays and often suffered as a result. “Oh, no! It’s Hate the English Day!” Lise and I used to say, dealing with the inevitable tears.

But for now, it’s time to cook lunch.


  1. I learn so much from you. Your writing is amazing!

  2. It's good to hear information from someone who has lived it, or at least knows someone who has. We live in Derynia, overlooking Varosha from our balcony and it both fascinates and saddens me.