Impressions on Cyprus

от Виделина Димитрова

Questions about people and places I miss unroll like the scenery outside the windows of the rented car, eating theirs heads and tails, not caring to wait for an answer. I have a strange jet lag where I find it difficult to situate myself in space rather than in time. Then reality gets a firm grip on me and I get it: we are heading straight to the heart of the divided island, Nicosia-Lefkosia-Lefco?a, the ancient seat of certain Crusader kings which was later fortified by the Venetians, but failed to hold back the attacks of the newly born Cypriot patriots. Meanwhile, I try to focus on the road which proves to be a problem as road signs bear triple instructions in English, Greek and Turkish and you risk getting lost simply because of being overdirected. Quite a promising start, I say to myself.

In the late afternoon, Easter Lefkosia seems calm and lazy. Two-storied houses that could have been part of any 17 c. Bulgarian village line the main street, tiny craftsman’s shops on the ground floor and living quarters above, wooden shutters in a sparkle of Mediterranean style. An old lady is selling popcorn with cocoa flavour promoting her business with sales of cheeping chicks. Poor things that survived the egg-painting rush of Maundy Thursday… Then the street comes to an abrupt end, or rather it goes on cut through its most vital parts, bandaged up in barbed wire as an old wound that has been left to heal up with all the ugly scars. I realise we have reached the „green line“, the buffer zone maintained by the UN. No more fancy shops, no more popcorn-chickens, this other kingdom seems by far… dead.

We flee away from this bisected life-knot, away from its malicious stench and back into the tangle of dead end sokaks around the centre. One of them leads us to the dragoman’s palace, a most eclectic building comprising an old Venetian house with one protruding wooden window over the central gate. Dragomans performed a special mission in the Ottoman Empire: as Ottoman Turks were reluctant to speak the languages of their non-Muslim raya, a certain need for translation was felt and hence the dragoman interpreters’ boom. Later, political mediation was added to their responsibilities, but considering the zeal of Cypriot Christianity, in that particular case mediation seems to have been of no good. And as if to confirm that, the goliath silhouette of Archbishop Makarios III rises up in the twilight, thrice the height of a normal human being, a guard to the entrance of the archiepiscopal palace. In the distance, I hear the mumblings of the priests, fathers of the misunderstood Cypriot identity, offspring of corrupt dragomans’ misinterpretations. And here he is, the greatest father of them all, black and granite-hearted, unbending and firm-willed in his statue afterlife, though in this one, they say, he did bend enough to sign up the controversial agreements that granted independence to Cyprus, former British colony, former province of the Ottoman Empire, former military base of the Venetian Republic, former kingdom of the disgraced Crusader kings, former territory of Byzantium, former conquest of the Ptolemies of Egypt, of Alexander the Great, of the Persians… a never-ending line of possessions and transfers of power supplemented with Arab raids, recurring massacres, plagues and the life-giving touch of an ever-present Aphrodite cult.

As we move on towards the archiepiscopal church, the mumblings grow thunderously loud. They sing on the mike, K. says. There’s no place for us inside, all we get are a few bittersweet oranges that we swallow somewhat guiltily at the gates of God’s home and a hurried walk a hundred yards away from the barbed wire, past the Beware of the Sniper bar, closed for good, now it’s time to trust the rats, along the fortified walls, accompanied only by the howling call of the muezzin somewhere from beyond the darkness of the spooky zone.

The morning sun pierces through the net of the tent and catches me dreaming lazily of a world without action, but it’s time for action, K.’s voice resounds. It’s a fresh morning on a green grass meadow at the foot of the Troodos Mountains, so calm and so peaceful that I start doubting what I’ve seen the previous night. Today is the day, which means we are off for the Turkish part of the island. We expect problems at the border, even to be sent back as Western Berliners who have been too curious to peep into the lives of their Eastern neighbours, but none of that happens. The Greek officers don’t care, the Turkish ones give us some slips of paper which should stand for temporary visas, free of charge and limitless, for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

At first sight, Lefko?a seems unchanged, the same narrow streets leading God knows where, the same tiny shops and wooden shutters, and even the car plates are of the same kind and you surely have to drive on the left side. Then, we come to the central square and my eyes fall on the Father. In this one of his myriad avatars, Kemal Ataturk is more of a stargazer, his eyes fixed dreamily on a faraway light. In the street below, a waiter with a tray laden with steaming glasses of apple tea rushes past two men playing backgammon right in the middle of everyday life’s hubbub oblivious to their shopping bags, as well as to the moony gaze of their Lord. Now I know we are in Turkey. However, a few steps away we come across a most untypical sight: a casino with a mosque in the background. In Islam gambling is forbidden, but not on Cyprus. For once, Allah granted the faithful a land for unrestricted gambling with a fate of its own that has been gambled away.

Round the b?y?k hamam, tucked away under the ground, we enter the bazar area, busy as ever, crowded though not too much, and even the client callers are not so insisting and let us go undisturbed. In the distance, I recognize the two minarets of St. Sophia Cathedral, or rather the rosette of Selimiye Camii, a hybrid temple, tomb and crowning place of the Lusignan kings, descendants of Guy of Lusignan, king consort of Jerusalem, who purchased the island in 12 c. from the Templar knights as a compensation for being defeated by a Kurdish commander named Salah ad-Din at the battle of Hittin which actually resulted in Guy’s loss of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. I find that causal chain a little bit strange, but then these are the facts. Inside, the temple is filled with emptiness, stripped naked of all images. The light from the Gothic windows plays on the Quranic suras as if challenging to unravel their intricate lace and only the solitary minbar brings to the mind the dim outlines of a devout preacher. May the spirits of the brave kings rest in peace guided to heavenly abodes by the sermons of the imams!

In the street, just around the corner, business comes in a peculiar form. Christ from the street vendor’s stand absolves the satanic verses from their sins, and the sacred words of the Quran reveal His compassionate nature. I see absolution and revelation blended in the Turkish blue of evil guarding God’s eye. And while religions measure their weaknesses in heaven, down on the Earth a couple of boy scouts with camouflaged faces fight to draw my attention. Cake, ma’am. Te?ekk?r, sweeties. ?ok g?zel. Wanna see the picture? You look great. It turns out Good Friday is some unknown kind of carnival for the children here. The square behind the church-mosque is bubbling with life. The painted devils are all over the place, they scream and shout, they romp about, raving with joy, high on their own supplies, genuine freaks of nature that don’t need to go under the table as to be forgiven for their mischief…

Later on, the dolmu? takes us through a vast expanse of military bases and blossoming bushes along the road to Famagusta-Ammochostos-Gazi-Ma?usta. The city is known for being the deepest harbour on the island, the last Venetian stronghold against invading Turks and a prosperous town during and after the British rule, but history’s reminders seem to be deafened by a much stronger voice trumpeting in my eyes: Do you remember the sea and the engines, and the holds filled with sticky dusk? And that wild longing for the Philippines, for the huge stars over Famagusta? And while I still don’t believe my luck has led me to share the stars with the Poet, my weary legs drag me to a bench near another hybrid temple where I sit surrounded by ruins, fed up with ruins, drinking one more glass of this visual cocktail that mixes palms with unmixable Gothic-Muslim ingredients. A battered yellow sign in the corner of the left gate indicates the renaming of the temple: St. Nicholas Cathedral, then Aya Sofia, nowadays Lala Mustafa Pa?a Camii. Maybe the whole island is just a battered sign bearing the stigma of passions long dead, a desecrated procession of names as elusive as the Poet’s stars?

Othello’s tower is the only place where we can get a glimpse, though a faraway one, of the Varosha part of the town, in other words the former Greek living area that, after being evacuated completely in 1974, was sealed-off by the Turkish army and ever since left to the mercy of the elements. Nobody is allowed to go there, a ghost city of the day after tomorrow when a feline-serpentine order will prevail. K. gets carried away with plans to obtain a permit to that city as a way of inspiration for a new mind-shattering horror screenplay that will set him on the path to glory. You’re possessed by the old moor, let’s go. And we set, slowly and languidly, on the road back to a world of much more well-known conventions.

One day and one night later, we are sitting in the garden of Kykkos monastery high in the mountains. It’s a sunny and bright morning, a peaceful counterpoint to the bonfires of the previous night. I know the journey is coming to an end. We had it all: dead end streets, Byzantine mosaics, hordes of tourists, the lifestyle magazine of the British forces, Aphrodite’s birth rocks, a whole pest of forts, churches and giant Easter baskets full of dinosaur eggs. And now, after the three-day passions have subsided, it seems as though Christ has finally resurrected. Has He indeed? Cold comfort, even if He had. I would rather not rejoice in His sacrifice. Instead, I will take a walk in the mountains…

By Стефан Димов

The best labor-saving device of today is tomorrow.

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