flight from Dubai brought me to Larnaca on a hot summer afternoon. It is a
small port city on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, inhabitated by 50,000
people, but with a history that stretches back to 13th century BC when it was a
city state named Kition, home to the philosopher Zeno, founder of the Stoic
school of philosophy. In the 3rd century BC, Zeno lectured his students on apatheia
or equanimity. For the master, wisdom was earned by reining in one’s desires
and emotions. Modern day Larnaca, by contrast, is a hedonist’s paradise with
its beach side resto-bars and clubs.
Besides the 9th century Church of Saint Lazarus, it boasts the Hala Sultan Teke or the mosque of Umm Haram, believed to have been built by the Ottomans at the site where Umm Haram, Prophet Muhammad’s foster-mother is said to have died after she fell off a horse during the 7th Century Arab invasion of Byzantine Cyprus, led by Muawiyah, the Umayyad governor of Syria.
Larnaca’s only claim to fame in modern times is its pristine beaches and an international airport, which connects Cyprus to the outside world, especially Dubai and Heathrow. At the modest but busy Larnaca International Airport, I followed the signposts to security and passport control, and found myself in a huge, high-ceilinged hall packed with people waiting in long queues. The hall buzzed with tongues, Bulgarian, English, Greek, Rumanian and Russian.
Most people in my queue and the one parallel to me were white, with the exception of a few brown faces. I am not sure I saw a single black soul. Contrary to the belief of hyper-globalists, I often witnessed in intercontinental air travel what the noted African-American intellectual Du Bois called the “problem of the colour line.” The queues moved at a sluggish pace and after a wait of little less than an hour, I cleared immigration, and was soon out of the building.
I hailed a cab and handed a piece of paper to the taxi driver, which had the address of my final destination, a hotel in central Nicosia. A sturdy man in his 50s, clean-shaven and sporting a greying Pyramid moustache, he had spent over two decades on the road as a cabbie.
Like many working class Greek Cypriots, he had been a guest worker for some years in the United Kingdom and spoke fluent English with a hint of a Greek accent. Born and raised in Nicosia, he knew the city intimately. An hour-long drive which was smooth and uneventful through the barren and arid landscape of Cyprus brought us to Nicosia in the afternoon. I checked into the hotel with ease and was struck by the desolation of the place. The air was humid and I sweated profusely.
The next morning, I got ready to leave for the Ledra Palace Hotel, where I was to attend an academic conference on reconciliation in Cyprus and other divided lands. Map reading has never been my forte so I asked the hotel receptionist for directions. The receptionist, who turned out to be the owner of the hotel, was a man in his sixties. Wearing a haggard beard and long hair that fell on his shoulders in curls, he could have easily passed for a hippie visiting the Himalayas in the late 1960s.
Learning that I was going to an event inside the United Nations compound in Nicosia, he shook his head and dismissed the intergovernmental body as an impotent institution. Struck by his words, I asked him if he was a local and a brief but friendly conversation followed. His family of Greek-Cypriot ethnicity was from the city of Kyrenia, a coastal piece of paradise in northern Cyprus.
Kyrenia for Greek-Cypriots and Girne for Turkish-Cypriots, the city abutted the sea on one side and was overlooked by the Five Finger Mountains on the other. The family fled the Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus in 1974 to settle in the Greek-Cypriot controlled part of Nicosia. He was nostalgic about his birthplace, which had become a favourite tourist destination, but with little hope of reunification had resigned himself to living in Nicosia. Compared to northern Cyprus, Greek Cyprus was more prosperous and its European Union membership afforded his family more mobility in Europe.
It took me a tentative walk of 15 minutes and some guidance from a few friendly pedestrians to arrive at the Ledra Palace. Built in the late 1940s, it was one of the most imposing and stylish hotels in British Imperial Cyprus, until the 1974 civil war and Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus, when it fell within the buffer zone created by the UN and served as a home to the Blue Helmets.
For me the border manifested itself as heavily mined terrain, electrified barbed wire fences and motion sensors, haunted by staccato bursts of gunfire and artillery duels. Nicosia completely overturned my imagining.
onwards, Ledra Palace has served as the headquarters of the UN Peacekeeping
Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) and as a hub of pro-reconciliation efforts between
Greek and Turkish Cypriots. The Peacekeeping Mission was established in 1964 to
prevent hostilities between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Along with the United
Nations Military Observers’ Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) formed in
1949 to oversee the ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC, then known as the
ceasefire line)) in my homeland Kashmir, the UNFICYP is among the oldest UN
Peacekeeping missions active in the world.
Ledra Palace is a stone’s throw from the Green Line or the de facto border that splits Nicosia into two parts—a Greek Cypriot half and a Turkish Cypriot one. At the Ledra Palace our Cypriot hosts—a group of pro-reconciliation Greek and Turkish Cypriot intellectuals—invited us to cross the “Green Line” and dine with them in the part of Nicosia under Turkish Cypriot control.
When the conference concluded in the evening I, along with a bunch of international participants, assembled outside the Ledra Palace to wait for our hosts who were to accompany us across the Ledra border crossing. It was thrown open for civilian movement in 2003 as part of wider reconciliation efforts between Greek and Turkish Cypriots supported by the United Nations.
y idea of a border had hitherto meant the de facto Kashmir border or the Line of Control, which for more than six decades has separated Kashmiris living within shouting distance of each other. For me the border as a cartographic imaginary manifested itself concretely as heavily mined tracts of rugged and hilly terrain, electrified barbed wire fences and motion sensors, sandbagged bunkers and watch towers perched on sky reached by mountain, a nature lover’s El Dorado lost to the expansionism of the British Indian Empire’s successor states of India and Pakistan. A space haunted by staccato bursts of gunfire and artillery duels between Indian and Pakistani armies, and a no-go zone for the natives of Kashmir.
The walk along the Ledra Palace crossing in Nicosia completely overturned my imagining of a border. We were welcomed by a small check-post on a fairly wide road, manned by half a dozen Turkish-Cypriot soldiers, who seemed quite relaxed and at ease with their job. I walked slowly with an air of expectancy, unsure how I was going to be treated by the border guards. My subconscious expected a thorough questioning as past experiences of crossing military check posts in Kashmir often reminded me of tense and unfriendly interrogations. The relaxed gait of my group, which included some Palestinians, Israelis, South Africans, Greek and Turkish-Cypriots felt reassuring.
The guards looked at my passport and greeted me politely. I was handed a piece of white paper and asked to fill in my name and passport number. I put down the required details and gave it back. The officer made some entries in his database and after five or seven minutes returned my passport. There was no frisking and no questions were asked. I thanked the officer and joined my flock, which was sauntering across. The passport contained a loose piece of paper, which had my name and passport number, the day’s date scribbled with a ballpoint pen and a stamp of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).
In long and animated conversations with my Greek-and-Turkish Cypriot companions, I got to know that Greek-Cypriots, who formed an overwhelming majority in Cyprus, did not recognise the TRNC, considered the de facto border illegitimate and saw it as an unpleasant reminder of the division of their country.
The 1974 division of Cyprus eroded support for Enosis, giving rise to Cypriotism, or a formal Cypriot civic nationalism.
postcolonial zones of conflict Cyprus was overburdened by its past. It was
annexed by the Ottomans in the 1570s, who ruled it for some 300 years until the
British replaced them as the new overlords in 1878. The advent of British
colonial rule in Cyprus was followed by the rise of Greek-Cypriot nationalism,
whose defining credo was Enosis or unification with Greece. The
irredentist Greek-Cypriot nationalism in Cyprus had to contend with a
concomitant rise of Turkish-Cypriot nationalism that clamoured for Taksimor,
partition of Cyprus along ethnic lines.
With the end of British rule in 1960, the conflict between Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots intensified. A coup d’état in1974 by some hardline pro-Enosis Greek-Cypriots, backed by the Greek military junta, prompted a Turkish invasion in support of Turkish-Cypriots and led to the carving out of a de facto state out of northern Cyprus in 1974. This breakaway part declared itself a sovereign state in 1983, and recognised by Turkey but rejected by the UN and the Greek majority inhabited Republic of Cyprus.
The 1974 division of Cyprus eroded support for Enosis, giving rise to Cypriotism, or a formal Cypriot civic nationalism, which tried to unite Cyprus on the basis of power sharing between Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots. Reunification attempts backed by the UN failed to convince the TRNC. Fears of Greek domination loomed among many Turkish-Cypriots as Cypriotism came to be viewed with suspicion, somewhat tarred by Greek-Cypriot ethnocentrism and a continued affinity with Greece.
Like most postcolonial States, Cyprus was unable to deal with questions of power distribution between majorities and minorities and the complicated interaction of domestic conflict in Cyprus with international politics. In late April 2004, the U.N presented the Anan Plan for Cyprus, which envisaged a united and federal Cyprus, comprising two constituent States, the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot one, to be overseen by a Federal government. This coincided with the European Union’s (EU) accession negotiations with Cyprus. Turkey keen to enter the EU and mend its relations with Greece encouraged Turkish Cypriots to vote for reunification. Majority of the Turkish Cypriots, roughly 65 per cent voted in favour of the reunification but most Greek Cypriots, some 76 per cent voted against it. Continued presence of Turkish troops in North Cyprus, the question of Turkish settlers in TRNC and the unresolved Greek Cypriot claims on their properties in TRNC were some concerns that promoted a Greek Cypriot rejection of the UN referendum.
The Greek-Cypriots’ way of underlining their territorial claim over the whole of Cyprus—including the territory of the TRNC—was to call the de facto border dividing the city of Nicosia the “Green Line”. By contrast, Turkish-Cypriots treated the “Green Line” as a border, proof of separate existence under the aegis of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and perhaps a guarantee of freedom from a possible future in a Greek-Cypriot-dominated united Cyprus. Turkish-Cypriot assertion of a separate national identity was reflected in the everyday lighting of a TRNC flag, painted on a vast stretch of the Kyrenia Mountains in northern Cyprus. The flag is lit by dozens of electric bulbs that shimmer like a cluster of stars but constitutes an eyesore in the eyes of Greek-Cypriot nationalists. It could be clearly seen at night from the second story of a restaurant in the Greek Cypriot sector of Central Nicosia, where I had gone to have dinner with some companions.
My former teacher, a Greek-Cypriot intellectual, who swore by Marxism and the idea of a united Cyprus, drew my attention to the flag. He punched the air with his fist in visible anger and blurted out his frustration, “I hate that ugly thing”. The professor quickly regained his composure and continued the conversation. He saw the flag as a deliberate provocation by the TRNC. At the dinner table our conversation veered towards the possibilities of reconciliation in Cyprus. It seemed a distant reality but Cyprus’ entry into the EU had made the idea of a Cypriot citizenship lucrative for the Turkish-Cypriot inhabitants of TRNC, who increasingly crossed the Green Line to work in the more prosperous Republic of Cyprus.
When I crossed the Green Line I almost felt like asking my Cypriot friends if it was not surreal to call our stroll across the Green Line an act of border crossing. However, I regained my sense of history which reminded me that the thaw on the Green Line was not very old and the Ledra Palace crossing, which had remained closed since 1974 had been thrown open only in 2003. The debris of war was still around in the form of rusting loops of barbed wire coiled around a destroyed bridge near the Green Line. There were bombed out buildings pockmarked by bullet holes and areas declared unsafe due to the presence of landmines planted during the 1974 War.
Buyuk Han or the Great Inn is one monument that has stood the test of time. Built by the Ottomans in 1572, Buyuk Han was the oldest caravansarai in Cyprus.
As we moved
into the Turkish-Cypriot part of Nicosia’s old walled city we encountered
Venetian walls and hundreds of deserted houses. They had mostly belonged to
Greek Cypriots, who had migrated from northern Cyprus in the wake of the civil
war. We also encountered some decaying Armenian churches and houses, which
stood as testament to the history of a small Armenian minority that had
populated the region. Some of the houses were now occupied by migrants from
Turkey, who had steadily migrated from 1974 onwards to TRNC and come to
constitute some 16 per cent of the entity’s total population. Mete Hatey, our
Turkish-Cypriot companion in this history walk, explained that the migrants
were largely Turkish underclass. They exerted limited influence on the internal
politics of the TRNC. Yet for Greek Cypriot nationalists, the new inhabitants
represented a threat in the politics of demography.
The Turkish areas of Nicosia, particularly the parts of the old walled city, looked less affluent than the Greek parts across the Green Line. Some of the locals had moved out to the more affluent areas of the expanding metropolitan Northern Nicosia, which contributed to the old city’s decay. We passed through twisting and narrow streets that were dusty and deserted. The desolation was occasionally broken by a rare car or a few kids cycling by.
Occasional historical monuments provided a refreshing contrast to the bleak neighbourhoods of the old city in northern Nicosia. Buyuk Han or the Great Inn is one monument that has stood the test of time. Built by the Ottomans in 1572, Buyuk Han was the oldest caravansarai in Cyprus. This sprawling stone building, with its 68 rooms spread across two floors and a huge courtyard is now home to a mosque, gift shops and art galleries. Though not rivalling the grandeur of the humongous Mughal monuments in South Asia, the architectural finesse and style reminded me of medieval Muslim architecture in Granada and Cordoba, and the Mughal monuments in Delhi and Lahore. The horse-shoe style arches of Buyuk Han mirror a common architectural motif in the Muslim world but the rocket shaped minarets pointed towards a unique Ottoman past.
We passed a TRNC government building, which reminded me of a familiar site back home in Kashmir. The entrance was partially hidden by a bunker where an alert soldier sat behind a rifle jutting out as if war was around the corner. One of our Greek-Cypriot guides pointed out that the soldier was Turkish. A large Turkish military force of 35,000-40,000 had remained in TRNC since Turkey’s invasion in 1974. For most Greek-Cypriots, the Turkish soldiers represent an occupation force but for most Turkish-Cypriots they are ethno-religious kin or soldiers from an ally country who serve as a bulwark against potential Greek-Cypriot attempts to militarily reclaim TRNC.
The Green Line is only a notion, not even a border in name. The LoC in Kashmir is a hard barrier, stifling human movement and hope.
90-minute exploratory walk through the walled city, we ultimately arrived in
the busy Mehmet Akif Avenue, home to many restaurants and bars. We dined at a
Turkish-Cypriot restaurant, on Turkish and Middle Eastern delights like
Kleftiko, a local kebab with Cypriot potato, and humus. The dining was enhanced
by soulful Turkish music, which formed a pleasant background and provided a
diversion from our group’s long and intense political talk. Mete Hatey, a
scholar of Cypriot cultural history and native of Nicosia, talked about the
similarities between Middle Eastern and South Asian music and how music had
historically diffused across frontiers and defied borders.
When we crossed the Green Line back into the Greek-Cypriot sector of Nicosia, the TRNC guards barely paid any attention. I walked hesitantly expecting the soldiers to order me to stop but none of them uttered a word. They watched like mute spectators witnessing a daily and mundane ritual of people walking by. No one bothered to check our documents.
Back in my hotel room in Nicosia, I wondered if the LoC in Kashmir would ever morph into a version of the Green Line or dissolve, where Kashmiris from either side could stroll across, free from Indian and Pakistani border controls. The divided lands of Cyprus and Kashmir in many ways mirror each other but in terms of freedom of movement, the Green Line is only a notion, not even a border in name. In stark contrast, the LoC in Kashmir is a hard barrier, stifling human movement and hope.