The Way of the Arpha (Part I)

May 4, 2007 by

(see the April 4 posting Three Months in the Life of the Cypriot National Guard for a preface to this piece)



Cyprus army arphas discipline

arphas (ärf’äs) 1. a Cypriot male who conscripts in the January “alpha” series of National Guard basic training   2. (derogatory) a jackass (pl. arphades)


THE CONSCRIPTION OFFICER did not look up from his desk when I entered his office. Nor did he look up when I handed him the copy of my birth certificate proving I was over the age of twenty-six or the consul’s letter from a Cyprus embassy in the U.S. confirming I had spent most of my life outside of Cyprus.

He glanced at the consul’s document. “Why isn’t this in Greek!” he muttered, his Greek lacking any trace of Cypriot dialect. “They want to make us all Amerikanakia!” He slowly and disgustedly shook his head at this diplomatic betrayal of the ethnic struggle. It was deplorable because the National Guard had been trying for close to a half century to make us Cypriots all Greeks.

He then looked at my birth certificate, frowned, and handed back both documents, telling me to return on Monday after I had them translated at the Press and Information Office. It was clear the conscription officer was a man infused with the spirit of non-discrimination. Why should a Cypriot born in, say, Lithuania have to get his birth certificate translated into Greek just because the relevant officials can’t read Lithuanian while one born in the U.S. does not have to translate it just because the officials are able to read English? It was far more democratic when the bureaucratic proceeding was equally laborious for all barbarians of foreign tongues.

He maintained a severe expression throughout the encounter and did not once look up at me from his papers. But I took no offense: I had observed earlier from the waiting room that he was considerate enough to be equally dismissive and unsmiling towards everyone. He was a tall gangly man with glasses and carefully combed hair parted down the middle of his head, and he carried himself with equal measures of detachment and disdain. His egalitarian indifference to those under him was not only admirable but also forgivable because had he not been a stern army officer he would have risked being a geek.

It was however irritating that no one had told me my documents needed to be in Greek when I had called the office several months ago. But then I tried to put myself in their boots and my resentment subsided as I recognized how challenging it must be to unnecessarily complicate life for others. So with the translated, officially stamped documents in hand I returned on Monday morning to the office and was given my conscription papers; on Tuesday night I buzzed my hair off; and on Wednesday at noon I walked through the main gate of the Paphos KEN, the Recruit Training Camp, for my first day at boot camp.

Any expectations I had of thick-necked red-faced sergeants bellowing at trembling conscripts soon vanished. It was often the reverse. Two teenagers with ponytails halfway down their back were jeering rebelliously at two sergeants, claiming they were going to get deferment. Another group of conscripts jabbered and hooted through a ten-minute National Guard video (“Ah, come on, put a porno on!”) that was meant to inspire recruits for the forthcoming army training by depicting tanks and helicopters firing missiles to a soundtrack of military drumming

Army men and politicians in Cyprus cite lack of manpower as the reason why conscription must be twenty-five months. It is estimated close to a third of the recruits defer their twenty-five-month conscription term by claiming mental instability. Were conscription shortened to twelve or fourteen months, most of the recruits would not likely try to evade it since exemption often carries repercussions (exclusion from government jobs, denial of driver’s license, etc). The army would then have the extra forces that it claims to need.

But reducing the military term would be a seditious betrayal of the high-ranking patriots whose redundant jobs depend on a bloated military budget. It would potentially also lead to a loss of that martial spirit for which Cypriots are so unrenowned. By instead making it easy to allege mental instability, the National Guard remains safely hard-pressed for those essential force numbers that are no longer necessary under present day political conditions.

Some of the more accommodating doctors even oblige the recruit or soldier by asking him to choose his desired mental illness from a list. Nonetheless, deferment is not always granted right away. A conscript who looked like he was fourteen threw a tantrum when he was not given immediate deferment.

“Wait till you see what I’ll do when I’m in tonight!” he yelped at the cadet officers. “No one is going to sleep!” He was a yapping Chihuahua with dangling knobby limbs and seemed to have no concern that everyone there could have smeared his face across the pavement. No one touched him. He stayed a few days and then was released. The idea was to put on a show that you were unhinged and a danger to others. One of the conscripts threw a rock through the window of the psychologist’s office and another pulled a pocketknife on her. They were both awarded deferment for their striving efforts while the others who behaved well were punished with two-year terms.

After handing over our conscription forms in a building strung with innumerable small Greek and Cypriot flags, we each had to strip to our underwear and stand before a panel of moribund health professionals with dark sagging pouches under their eyes who rated us on our physical well being. Anything we did involved hours of waiting so it was twilight by the time we finally arrived at the equipment distribution room where we were issued our army gear.

After dropping off our new possessions at the barracks we went straight to the mess hall. We were served trays of fried squid rings, boiled potatoes, and salad, along with baskets of bread, bowls of oranges and bottles of olive oil and vinegar. Due to unfounded rumors, I had prepared myself for meals more along the lines of diced lizard or stewed goat hooves. But in fact, except for breakfast, which was usually just tea and bread, all the meals were consistently very good, and over the following weeks everyone consistently complained about them, many instead smuggling in inferior take-away or curbing their appetite with packaged chocolate-crème-filled pastries from the canteen. It was very considerate of them to be so ungrateful for the quality meals and I nodded in agreement with them that the food was unacceptable as I helped myself to their untouched trays.

I was in the first company barracks, a two-story cream peach building with rooms of ten bunk beds and twenty lockers. On the vast concrete lot there were two other buildings—the second and third companies. All three equidistant barracks were on the same parallel. Hewn into unnatural cliffs, the mountain loomed to our sides and behind us in a semicircle; the entire concrete expanse had been carved out of the mountain slope and then paved over. The three buildings were identical in rectangular shape and differed only in their pastel coloring. Leading up to the main entrance of each building was a series of steps that were perpetually littered with cigarette butts and stained with vending machine hot chocolate despite diligent daily efforts of the assigned soldiers to sweep and mop them as infrequently as possible.

That night we all lined up outside our respective buildings. To my right was the second company barracks and, beyond that, the third. At the top of the steps of each building stood an officer, illuminated in ghastly white fluorescence by a single exterior light over the main entrance. The conscripts were all lined up before him. A row of tall streetlamps flanked the lot and each cast a pale pinkish fluorescent cone-shaped glow upon the concrete. Conscripts would still be arriving for two more days but to even just look through one’s billowing plumes of breath at the 200 or so recruits who were already there, lined up in three clusters, each cluster made up of eight ordered rows of conscripts standing in front of a giant oppressive edifice where a single illuminated officer addressed them from his perch, all this taking place in a vast concrete lot, empty but for some sinister streetlamps, the carved walls of a mountain rising along the perimeter and ringed above by barbed wire… to look through one’s breath at all this one could not help but think of prison or concentration camp. It would prove to have more in common with a nursery school, but it did make a forbidding impression during that first chilly January night.

At one point a vehicle drove up and an officer emerged to inform us that this was a “different environment” and that we best therefore do our utmost to acclimatize to it. “There’s no Filipinos or blacks here so you’ll have to do the cleaning up,” he said and then returned to his vehicle and drove off to his home, which probably could have served for us as an exemplar of spotless sanitation and domestic devotion thanks to the conscientious efforts of his wife or Sri Lankan maid. Moments later we were ordered to turn to the east and remove our caps. The Lord’s Prayer was recited. Then we were ordered to go to bed.


The next morning after a breakfast of frosted flakes, warm milk and group prayer, which came standard with every meal, a corporal pulled aside from our company all the three-monthers and six-monthers, as those of us with reduced conscription terms were referred to, and led us in a line of pairs to the equipment distribution room.

Our job would be to issue the army gear to the arriving conscripts. We were each assigned a position next to an article of clothing. I was on underwear duty and was to deliver to every conscript three olive tank tops and three tighty-greenies. The first group did not show up for several hours so we passed the morning lounging in the sun and playing foosball in the neighboring canteen.

The equipment officer was a man of medium height who looked taller because of his long neck, which looked even longer because he buzzed the hair most of the way up the back of his narrow head, which looked even narrower because of the shape and position of the flat-billed army cap that sat high over his prominent forehead, which looked even more prominent when the veins stood out upon it. He ranted, hollered, and cursed at his temporary staff to keep himself in good spirits. The more he shouted, the more his blood-engorged vessels bulged out on his forehead, and the more he was at peace. After an especially cantankerous spew of invective he bore about him an aura of serene equanimity. But it was not solely for calmness of mind that he screamed like a madman. He also saw himself as the most recent manifestation of a long vibrant military tradition of officers berating and hollering at subordinates, a noble line of great screaming men that has throughout history ensured that the vitality of army life remains untainted by the energy-sapping soft-spoken niceties of the civilian world. It was hard work to yell all day long, especially as he was already burdened by the countless headaches of inventory counts, backorders, storage procedures, and requests for exchanges, but he selflessly took it upon himself to bitch at everyone without a murmur of complaint. He shrieked, fulminated and bellowed as if he despised all of us and we all took an instant liking to him.

Before the first group came in, he told us to stay calm and not to lose our tempers. “What the hell are you waiting for, the Holy Spirit?” he later hollered at one of the six-monthers who was lost in a reverie, causing a back-up in the delivery line. Another six-monther was shuffling through a box to find the right jacket size for the conscript. “Hurry up,” the equipment officer yelled at him. “We’re not choosing grooms here!”

“Didn’t I tell you not to smoke in here?” he roared at the far end of the room, chopping his hand in the air. “Hell, what do I have to do in here to keep some order?”

But he kept his fondest cursing for his long-term staff. When he wanted the attention of one of his helpers in the neighboring storage room, he would yell until the escalating decibels penetrated the building walls. “Christo! CHRISTO! CHRISTOOO! Fuck my race! Where in hell is he?”

“The socks!” he ranted when one of his assistants told him one of the boxes was missing. “Can you please tell me where in hell they went? I told you where the socks were and they went to anathema again. I’m gonna tear you apart! What kind of bullshit in this you’re telling me now? We’ll see when the devil comes to take you!” His helpers delighted in his abuse, often mimicking his words and tone to his face, and he would merely glower back at them wordlessly.

Several dozen conscripts returned in mass to the equipment room to exchange some of the gear, which had proven either too large or too small. The equipment officer seemed to relish such group returns because it gave him a chance to tower colossally above them with clipboard in hand and storm at them like a clean-shaven Ahab. He would have them all sit cross legged on the concrete in rows and then would rip through them one by one.

“You, what size? No, not the size you’re holding! Bring it up for the size you want! Over there, you keep quiet! Hurry up! What do you want? Fuck my history!”

There was often a great deal of confusion and the equipment officer would sometimes reassess how he might remedy this lack of communication between himself and the conscript, who was only growing more bewildered with every curse and question. As the equipment officer was an enthusiastic practitioner of the verbal arts, he always found imaginative ways around the problem.

“I have one simple question for you and I want one clear and lucid answer,” he once said in a strong rising voice that yearned to break loose into a passionate harangue. He paused to give the conscript time to prepare himself for the question. “What size are you?”

In between yelling bouts he either languidly chatted with whomever was around, freely dispensing the fruits of his reflection on the subject at hand, or he repeatedly sang the refrain “Se Birovolo” (“I shoot you”) with impassioned musicality.

Like the conscription officer, he too was a democratic man, and he swore with equal non-discriminatory vehemence at everyone of a lower rank than him. But he did not want to give the impression that superiors were untouchables. That’s why he gave us all a brief pep talk before the head of the National Guard visited the equipment room on his tour of the training camp.

“He’s a man, just like us, with feelings,” he noted philosophically. “But he deserves some respect of course.”

The National Guard Chief of Staff came in just long enough to say a few words of encouragement to us in front of the cameraman trailing him. He was in a buoyant mood and stopped to talk with one of the younger conscripts whom he congratulated and then expressed his approval of by delivering to the back of his neck a warm-hearted slap that rang throughout the equipment room.

At the end of the day the equipment officer had us all line up outside. The veins had all settled invisibly back into his forehead and his face, aglow with the warm light of the setting sun, emanated tranquility and self-possession. “Is there anyone who doesn’t want to do this tomorrow?” No one wanted to miss out on another day of rollicking verbal abuse and diatribe. “Okay good, then all of you return at the same time tomorrow. Nice job. The conscription couldn’t have taken place without you.”

He paused and then, as if he felt the compliment needed qualification to be strictly correct, added, “Though they would have found others to do the job, of course.”

*The Way of the Arpha is continued on June 4

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