“We would break fast together”

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Ülgü, me, Serpil, Ibrahim, James

On 24 July 2015, I drove from my pappou’s village of Agia Irini (Akdeniz) in the north-west of Cyprus to the nearby town of Morphou (Güzelyurt) to interview two women who grew up in Agia irini. One of them is the wife of my friend Ibrahim; the other, her cousin.

My travel partners James and Alex also joined me for the trip. “Hoş geldiniz” said Serpil, as she welcomed us into her home; I replied “Hoş bulduk” in my beginner’s Turkish. As we sat down in the living room, Serpil’s cousin Ülgü greeted us with fresh lemonatha (Cypriot lemonade). We sat there happily sipping on our lemonatha whilst the cooling breeze of the room fan provided us with sweet relief from the sweltering heat outside.

Serpil and Ülgü were very warm to us and they revealed many details and stories of their lives growing up in the mixed village of Agia Irini. Serpil and Ülgü were born in 1949 and 1948 and both speak fluent Turkish and Greek, and a little bit of English too. They recalled many stories of friendship and cooperation between Turkish and Greek Cypriots prior to the 1974 war.

Both women had entered the village church for Orthodox Christian events and welcomed their Greek Cypriot friends into the Jamii (mosque) for Muslim events. Ülgü told me that her father went to the village’s Greek school as a child; she said that he was very close with his Greek Cypriot class-mates during that time. Her great-grandmother was a Maronite Cypriot from the nearby Maronite village of Kormakitis (Kurmajit in Cypriot Arabic); however, she did not convert to Islam when she married.

Serpil assured us that intermarriages were very common before the intercommunal violence of the 1960s and the war of 1974, between not only Turkish and Greek Cypriots, but Maronite Cypriots also. “In fact”, Serpil said, “intermarriages still take place today!”

Ülgü spoke of her childhood, when she and her Greek Cypriot neighbours would play all day together. “We would break fast together, for both Easter and Bayram”.

Ülgü had six years of schooling and, like many of the residents of Agia Irini, she worked in the citrus fields. Serpil’s journey was different: She had twelve years of schooling and was the first woman from Agia Irini to ever attend university! She is very proud of her education and her subsequent career as a school teacher.

Ülgü moved to Morphou when she married in 1968, as her husband worked there with his close Greek Cypriot friend. Serpil, on the other hand, moved to Lefkosia in 1973. Although both women recall tension and signs of conflict arising in Agia Irini in 1963, they maintained friendships with many Greek Cypriots up until 1974.

Since the border opened in 2003, Serpil and Ülgü visit their Greek Cypriot friends in the south regularly, “and they visit us here too!” Serpil said with a smile. Both women wish for Cyprus to be reunified; however, like many Cypriots, they are concerned about outside interference from the United Kingdom and the United States.

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Me, Gülten

Our next stop was Gülten’s home, also in Morphou. Gülten was born in Pelathousa in 1935 and moved to Euretou in 1949 – after she was married at the age of 14! She then moved to Polis Chrysochous in 1956 and finally to Morphou after the war in 1974. She has been a refugee twice.

Gülten grew up speaking both Turkish and Greek and told me stories of her years spent in my yiayia’s village of Polis Chrysochous. She spoke of the good days, before EOKA (a right-wing Greek Cypriot nationalist organisation who fought for enosis – union with Greece – and independence from Britain).

She remembers the days when Turkish and Greek Cypriots used to be koumbaroi (groomsmen/bridesmaids) at each other’s weddings and when she would share bread with her Greek Cypriot friends at church events. However, her life changed dramatically in 1963, when she, along with the majority of the Turkish Cypriots from Polis Chrysochous, was forced to live in a school for 11 years (from 1963-1974).

This was a very difficult period for many Turkish Cypriots from all over the island, as they were forced from their homes and villages into enclaves – due to the intercommunal violence which was spreading across the country during this time.

She has not visited Polis Chrysochous since the border opened in 2003, however her son has. She hopes for Cyprus to be reunified so that “our children and grandchildren can live together in a peaceful Cyprus”.

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Alex eating some homemade special sweets

After visiting Gülten, a lovely man named Öncel met us in Morphou and drove us to visit his grandmother in the village of Lefka (Lefke).

Lefka is an interesting village, famous for its copper mines. It was dominated by Italian Catholics during the Venetian period in Cyprus (1489 – 1571) and then by Turkish Cypriots during the Ottoman period (1571-1878). Although it was once a mixed village, with a Greek Cypriot minority, due to intercommunal violence in the late 1950s/early 1960s, most of the Greek Cypriot population fled the village, which later became a Turkish Cypriot enclave following the Bloody Christmas of 1963.

Lefke was very different to other villages I had visited in Cyprus; it was quite multicultural, with many of its residents and visitors followers of the Haqqani branch of the Naqshbandi Sufi Islam order. It is a very beautiful and spiritual village, despite its bloody past.

When we arrived at Nevsal’s house, she showed us around the beautiful gardens of the building which was once the police headquarters of the village. There were still bullet holes visible in the walls of her home from the war years.

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Bullet holes left from the 1960s intercommunal violence

Once we commenced the interview, Nevsal asked Öncel to bring out “the special sweets for guests”. While Öncel was preparing them for us; Alex offered to interpret for me, as Nevsal still spoke a bit of Greek. Alex had become increasingly interested in the interviews – a day which had started out as a bit of a chore, following me around as I did my last few interviews in Cyprus, had become increasingly interesting and enjoyable for him.

Nevsal, however, spoke half in Greek, half in Turkish which was quite challenging for poor Alex; however he persevered! Öncel brought out some delicious homemade traditional sweets and between him and Alex, they helped me learn of Nevsal’s life.

Nevsal was born in 1927 in Chrysochous and moved to Lefka in 1949 when she married. She spoke Turkish as a child; however her relatives from the town of Kritou Terra spoke Greek so well that they taught it to her!

Nevsal’s father was the Hoca (Muslim schoolmaster) of Chrysochous and would attend all of the weddings from the area, including Turkish, Greek and interfaith weddings. Nevsal recalls intermarriages occurring approximately every five years, before the period of conflict in Cyprus.

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A photo of Nevsal’s husband

Nevsal’s husband, father-in-law and brother-in-law all fought in the Cyprus Regiment of the British Army during World War Two, and coincidentally met in Egypt towards the end of the war. They all returned home together, along with their Greek Cypriot friends.

She had six years of schooling and worked in her family’s bakery and on a chiflik (a system of Ottoman Empire land management). At 88 years of age, she has no expectations for Cyprus to be reunified; she has been disappointed too many times before.

Once we returned to Australia, Alex told me that his visit to Cyprus was one of the highlights of his Europe trip. He was deeply touched by the warmth and hospitality he was shown, as an Aussie of Greek heritage, by so many Turkish Cypriots. He was amazed by how well they still spoke Greek, 41 years after the division of the island, and how culturally similar they are to him. I was hoping to have had all of my interviews done by the time Alex visited Cyprus but, in hindsight, I am so glad that he was able to have such a rich and eye-opening day!

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