The Bloodthirsty and the Barbarous

Sep 4, 2005 by

July 20 is an anniversary day in Cyprus. South of the Green Line, it is a day of sirens, memorials, cemetery services and hunger strikes; north of the Green Line, one of parades, rolling tanks, fanfare, and waving beauty queens. On both sides you will hear orations and see flags—Greek ones in the south, Turkish ones in the north. The anniversary is of the first wave of the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus, which led to the island’s partition, now in its 31st year.

The southern two-thirds of the island make up the Republic of Cyprus—the only internationally recognized state on the island—and the northern third makes up the breakaway state called the ‘TRNC’ or ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ (for some background to the Cyprus conflict see the Aug 4 essay Soccer and Politics in Cyprus). If you are in any of the cities in the Greek Cypriot south on July 20 and you like to wake up early, you need not set an alarm. The violent wail of sirens will have you out of bed and staring out your window at 5:30, a solemn government reminder of where your bleary thoughts should be on that fine July daybreak.

If you are a churchgoer, you can spend the rest of your morning in ecclesiastical memorials; if you prefer the other sort of men in uniform, you can attend military commemorations; if you want something more intimate, you can walk to the Green Line where hunger-striking women in black stand holding framed photos of their sons, who have been M.I.A. since 1974. And even if you do not leave the house, the media documentaries and punditry will ensure that your mind does not stray from a grim focus on the Turks. The message, once you pare it down to its essentials, is this: Turkey invaded us, drove us from our homes, and stole our land, the dog-bastards.

That is true enough, expletives aside, but as is to be expected from any official perspective, it is not the whole truth. The rest of the truth, but again only a partial truth in itself, can be found if you cross the Green Line into the north. The change of atmosphere, at least on the surface, is the political equivalent of Alice falling into Wonderland through the rabbit hole. From the official land of the sorrowful you are now in the official land of the merry. Taped on windows and plastered on building walls are posters proclaiming the July 20 Peace and Freedom Anniversary and listing the avenues where the parades and festivities will take place.

I have twice crossed over on July 20 in an effort to see what these parades are like. The Green Line has been open for over two years now, but there are still Greek Cypriots—and I assume some Turkish Cypriots too—who refuse to cross and who accuse those who do cross of forgetting their history, selling out, turning from refugees into tourists, etc. Visiting ‘over there’ is especially frowned upon on the anniversary of the invasion and it is true that few Greek Cypriots cross on that day. The newspapers on the following day always print the low figure alongside rousing assertions about how the Greek Cypriot people do not forget the crimes of Attila. But the newspapers never note that there are some other crimes that they do not remember, maybe because those same papers never write about them.

Mention these pre-1974 Greek Cypriot crimes and some Greek Cypriots will charge you of ‘excusing the invasion.’ It is an accusation that can only come from having overdosed on the sort of propaganda that 1+1=3. Of course, some would deny the Greek Cypriot atrocities altogether (or Turkish atrocities), or suggest they were random acts, mishaps, etc., and whether they believe that or not, they belong to the same camp as those who say that the Armenian genocide or a cop unloading dozens of rounds into a black kid’s chest is also an accident.

A more plausible accusation would go as follows: by stating our crimes you give ammunition to Turkish propaganda. This may be true, but it not should not hold weight against the desire for an open society, assuming one cares about such things. The impulse towards self-censorship belies a hankering for a touch of totalitarianism. The totalitarian, after all, would say the same thing: “by stating X we will harm our noble cause Y so let’s best shut up now, at least until the threat is over.” The threat, of course, never ends.

The temptation to suppress unsavory facts is especially strong if a powerful state is doing its best to destroy you or to have you ‘open up your markets’ enough so it might gobble up your resources (change ‘markets’ to ‘legs’ and you get an idea of what comes after dinner) but censorship, like rabbits in spring, leads to more censorship; once you get used to not saying things, it gets harder to talk. After a while, you begin to think those things no longer exist. As the next generation comes, there is no longer even any forgetting, because there was nothing there to remember in the first place. Criticism becomes an archaism, like walking up stairs or writing by hand, while languid acceptance of official doctrine settles like a sleeping spell upon the population.

And an authoritarian state is not even necessary. Even in an open society, if the mass news outlets are in few enough hands, then any reportage that offends or threatens those owners—or the big advertisers off whom the owners make their money—will be kept to a minimum or eliminated. Of course, there are plenty of alternative and grassroots media sources that print and broadcast whatever they want without interference or persecution, and that is no small matter, but that media is not what the mass of people access. The propaganda of the open societies is much more effective: in totalitarian states one knows that one is being spoon fed the house dish; in free societies the general feeling is that somewhere on your plate of mainstream news—amidst all the garnishes and under all the heavy sauces—you are getting the meat-and-potatoes truth.

The first time that I crossed the Green Line on July 20—which was two summers ago, shortly after the checkpoints opened—I played the uninformed foreigner who knew nothing about any invasion anniversary; the checkpoint guard only gave me a flat weary stare as he handed me back my American passport and nodded me ahead. But this last time, for whatever reason, I spoke to the guard in Greek, which earned me a scowl that I only managed to ward off by saying I was going as a journalist. I was not a journalist at the time but I thought of myself as a kind of independent [unpaid] one, so it was as semi-truth, just another of the day’s many.

“Well, if you’re a journalist…” he grumbled, handing me back my passport. “Otherwise I’d say its better not to go over there today.” The aura of formality was all it took. Hang official titles off yourself and you can buddy-up to the devil himself in the name of doing business and be applauded for it, but stroll harmlessly through this world on your own terms and at best you are an irresponsible vagrant, at worst a good-for-nothing sewer rat.

I pressed my luck too far, however, when I asked the guard if he knew whether the parade had already taken place. The man, who already had bulldoggish features, broke out into a brief fit of patriotic barking and snapping in which he cursed their mothers [‘their’ presumably referring to the entire Turkish race] and warned me to never again remind him of it. There was little more to say after that, so I set off to the Turkish Cypriot side.

This was my second attempt to see the parade. I missed it two years ago because I had spent most of the morning with my aunt in the Greek Cypriot side at a military memorial. Like most martial events, it was a medley of tanks, flags, wreaths, salutes, and restless children, but it was not entirely typical; towards the end of the ceremony, one of the generals walked an old woman in black to the memorial’s center stage, where he then stood decorously at her side. The hunched old woman, who probably passes most of her days alone and unobserved, began moaning and soon flailing and screaming out the name of her son, whom she had lost in the war. It was an ugly mix of ritual, exploitation, voyeurism, role-playing and genuine sorrow. It was obvious they dragged her out, rather than anyone else, because she put on the biggest show of grief. And the poor woman, who no doubt mourned far more deeply in silent moments of solitude, recognized that all eyes were upon her and gave the unhappy job everything she had.

This is the curious thing about that day. It is all about public displays of grief and celebration. In the south, line after line of Greek and Cypriot flags zigzag over cemeteries, town squares, and parks—like Tibetan prayer flags but without the color or love-thy-fellow-creature message. In the north giant Turkish and ‘TRNC’ flags are hung in Stalinist-style from government buildings, mosques, mountains—anything enormous and visible. There are also two ‘year-round’ flags, each bigger than football stadiums, painted obnoxiously (and noxiously—the grass doesn’t like them either) on the mountainside north of Nicosia. Implicit in these southerly oriented flags—which face over the island’s capital and over the highways that feed into it—is a giant middle finger from Ankara. During the anniversary period, one of the flags is ringed with lights so that the greeting also extends through the night hours.

I failed to make the parade the second time too, in part due to misinformation—or rather, lack of information—about when and where the parade was, but mostly because I had slept through the sirens that morning. I did manage to catch several minutes of Turkish troops goose-stepping by, but only in live broadcast on a fuzzy TV screen in a Turkish Cypriot boutique store—not exactly the live parade experience I was hoping for when I set off that morning.

As I was heading back to cross over to the south, I stopped into an information booth. After pretending to take interest in the usual gaudy raft of tourist magazines and brochures, I asked the young man at the counter if there had been some sort of celebration today.

“Yes, there was parade.”

“A parade? Really? For what?”

The young man paused. “Celebration of peace. Because war is over.”

I thanked him for the brochures and left. “They’re all brainwashed,” I thought, “just like us.” But as I approached the checkpoint, my smugness gave way to regret and shame for not having prodded the young man any further. So I trudged back in the noon heat to the information booth and asked for a cup of water.

“So when you said the war is over, what kind of war was it?” I said.

“The Greek Cypriots were killing Turkish Cypriots and not giving them rights—” This was the piece of history that never finds its way into the ‘I don’t forget’ Greek Cypriot memories. “—And so then Turkey came.”

“But there were Greek Cypriots in the north, right?” I said. “And they lost their homes when Turkey invaded?”

The fellow nodded. “If I were Greek-Cypriot, I wouldn’t be happy.” He paused. “It’s difficult, the situation.”

It was obvious I knew more than I had first put on, and it was not long before I had stopped feigning total ignorance about the political situation and even told him that my mother’s side of the family had lost their homes in the Turkish invasion. And by the end, this fellow, whom I had originally dismissed as a butt boy of Turkish propaganda, was telling me that the parade was no more than state-sponsored cheerleading and chest pounding and that the leaders on both sides of the Green Line had done a good job botching things up for the two communities.

It reminded me of something I had heard two years ago from a Turkish Cypriot museum worker. I was on a strange sort of museum kick in Cyprus at the time. Just as in Amsterdam you can visit the “Sex Museum” and the “Hash Marihuana and Hemp Museum,” in Cyprus you can visit “The Museum of Barbarism” and two “National Struggle” museums, one on each side of the Green Line. The Turkish army had erected the National Struggle Museum in response to the Greek Cypriot one and so I went to see how it compared. After three hours I’d had enough and was on my way out when the deskman asked me if I was Greek Cypriot.

Now I had just spent half the morning looking at photos of wrecked Turkish Cypriot villages and reading about how “the bloodthirsty Greeks” had been busy over the last century killing off and trying to exterminate the Turkish Cypriots, and I still had to pass through a Turkish army checkpoint just to get out of the museum grounds, so I was not keen on giving an honest answer. But I found myself nodding my head anyway.

The man did not seem in the least bothered or surprised by it. In fact, I was the one who was surprised. He told me that this was a government propaganda museum and that “the troubles have come from above,” which was in essence the same thing that the fellow in the information center would tell me two years later. And it was not a reference to the gods.

I have repeatedly heard such sentiments from both Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots. And the fact that July 20 is such a schizophrenic day in Cyprus only supports the claim that “the troubles have come from above.” The invasion anniversary is, after all, a day of government activities. And what do the leaders do? On one side they organize garish celebrations of a military invasion that displaced about 200,000 people, and on the other they put on memorials that are as much about not remembering as about remembering.

I remember once flipping through the history textbook of my 11-year-old cousin and coming across the phrase “the barbarous Turks.” It is a phrase that crops up so often in official literature in Cyprus that it has become as worn out as “greedy capitalist” or “fascist pig.” No distinctions are made between the army, the government, and that vague entity called ‘the people.’ The real estate tycoon, the general, and the watermelon peddler are all barbarous because they fall under the cloak term ‘Turk.’ And of course, cross the Green Line and the same holds for those bloodthirsty Greeks.

If one ever wants to seriously talk about “solving the Cyprus problem,” then a good start would be to hire some new anniversary event planners and to dispense with totalitarian terms like barbarous Turks and bloodthirsty Greeks. So long as such phrases remain in the textbooks and museums, one may as well admit that there will never be such a solution unless it is fashioned after Hitler’s methods. And no one, I think, would even contemplate that except for a few bloodthirsty barbarians on each side who, like chronic migraines or toenail fungus, will simply not go away.

Looking back on what I have written I can see I have presented a rather severe picture of Cyprus.  But it is a deceptive picture, because for every loaded gun there is a loaded kebab skewer turning over the coals and for every foot of barbed wire is a yard of sand and salty sea.  At this moment, not even 500 yards from where I am sitting, the yearly wine festival is underway: cheap free headache wine is gushing out of barrel taps, gyros are turning, Cypriot wolves are prowling for stumbling Brits, and middle-aged tourists are taking their seventieth digital photo of the night.  And thank god for it.  In a country where the politics are so pervasive that there are right-wing trade unions and left-wing sports teams, it is worth celebrating that you can still knock back a jug of wine without having to endure an oration or wave a flag.

Constantine Markides

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