Yesterday, July 20, was the anniversary of what they call their day of independence in 1974, when Turkey intervened in the intercommunal conflict between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. The intervention was backed by both the United States and NATO. Turkey still keep 30,000 troops stationed here, though you never see them. When I make my way down the cobbled streets alone, I feel safe.
Yesterday I sat outside in the dusky warm evening at a candlelit table on the Kyrenia (Girne) harbor, with a frosty glass of Efes, the local beer, and a cigarette. My new friend E. was telling me stories of North Cyprus; we had just finished a meal of fresh hot kebabs including my favorite and local speciality sheftali kebab, minced lamb in spices cooked in skin over charcoal. The harbor is quiet, full of fishing boats, but we can hear the faint sounds of celebration from across the water. It is a holiday today. E. tells me of his grandparents, now in their nineties, who live in a village where ‘it is as if time has stopped.’ He and his wife visit often – the island is not very large – and bring their children to see their great-grandparents. ‘Seeing the kids keeps them active, alive.’
His daughter is in a private school and stays with her grandparents during the week. His son just started university in England and is doing a degree in sports management. His son was an athlete as a teenager, excelling in track and field. E. beams with pride. Sending his son to school is expensive, like a mortgage, but education and family are paramount here. He and his wife just want their son to be happy, even if that means staying in England for work after university. Opportunities in North Cyprus are thin on the ground. Many people want to work for the government; it is a stable and dependable career. Though the border between North Cyprus and South Cyprus can now be crossed with relative ease, the history of the island and the uncertain political state deters both tourism and investment.
In North Cyprus today, you see perhaps 80% Turkish Cypriots and 15% Turkish mainlanders, with a bare smattering of expats and tourists such as myself. Everyone can tell in a quick blink whether you are Turkish Cypriot or mainlander. Some say the Turkish Cypriot men are more attractive and the Turkish mainlander women are more attractive, but there’s obvious bias. There are still villages where Turkish and Greek Cypriots live side by side. Some people think that the Cypriots have more in common with each other than they do with their mother countries. They share an emphasis on family, generous hospitality, education, and openness to strangers. People here remember that before the violence of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, the two ethnic communities lived together in peace.
Here, among the minority group, they remember what happened during the violence but those I spoke to had no bitterness. They want to move on but are pessimistic about whether the politicians on both sides can. I can’t help but be reminded of the war of my parents in Vietnam, which was semi-synchronous with the Cypriot conflict, and caused an untold and well-documented devastation among its people that lasts until today. Murder, mutilation, chemical disfigurement, rape, displacement, all the worst of war was represented in this slender country of rice paddies and fisherman. My parents became refugees, losing everything. Saigon fell nine months after the Turkish intervention here in Cyprus, in April 1975. When I return to Vietnam as an American, they remember, of course they do, but as a society are ready to move on. Everyone was done wrong but it has been 35 long years and there is no advantage to looking back.
We talk into the night, about trust and what is needed to put the island back together. Tourism, story-telling, private enterprise, university exchange programs, and it always comes back to people, individuals, gestures, gifts, looking someone in the eye. It is seeing yourself in the other, and saying ‘I go against my interests because I value this relationship.’ It is the first step, with no ask for response or recompense. It is hard, he says, that first step. But this is why it has such weight.
When the bill comes, he snatches it away and refuses to let me pay. I am mock angry, but we’ll have another meal and I’ll get it next time.