The Way of the Arpha (Part II)
The first part of this piece is the May 4 entry.
AFTER ROLL CALL at morning lineup, a corporal announced that those who wished to see a doctor should go line up by the wall. Twenty-three of the seventy-three conscripts with apparently obscure ailments that manifested no external symptoms at once buoyantly made their way to the wall where they waited, their grinning faces radiating health and well-being.
An officer from headquarters then took the place of the corporal. He glared down silently upon us through his red-tinted sunglasses.
“Somebody discharged in the showers,” he finally said. “Obviously whoever did it learned it at home. His old man taught him. That’s the only excuse for that.”
The toilets consisted of holes in the porcelain floor over which you squatted and some of the conscripts tried avoiding them entirely. But one could only stave off biology for so long and eventually the deed had to be done, although thankfully it never again occurred in the shower. It was astonishing just how long some of them waited. Occasionally one would find a monstrous blasphemy perched on the edge of the hole of such girth that a human origin seemed impossible. These would become the subject of countless photos and lewd jokes and would remain etched in the collective memory of the conscripts long after it had been hosed down the hole with a high-powered blast of water.
After the officer had finished his scolding and walked off, one of the sergeants began to pace up and down the lineup. “So you shit in the showers?” he jeered, scowling with narrowed eyes at each of us in passing as if we had all offered individual scatological contributions to the mislaid heap that was still curled up in one of the shower stalls. “Aren’t you ashamed?”
But it was not until later that day when we were being congratulated by one of the corporals that we were ashamed. It was the third and final day of conscription and, as we had finished early in the equipment room, we were sent off to a black beret corporal to learn how to stomp to attention and execute a left- and right-turn and an about-turn. The first lesson involved how to react to the command “Men!” We were to inhale deeply and puff out our chests so that we looked proud. He gave the command and our chests at once swelled out and our chins and gazes went up. We were a model group and we looked so proud that we were ashamed.
But it was not so with the thirty or so conscripts from the neighboring company who were approaching our barracks in what was supposed to be a group march. They came huffing and misstepping along in the setting sunlight like a piece of weird performance art, their heads swiveling about in every direction, their boots ringing upon the concrete in a dissonant clatter, their bent arms flailing in perfect untimed disorganization, some of them even simultaneously swinging in zombie-style the same arm and leg instead of the opposing ones. They were an officer’s nightmare, an inerasable military failure, an insult to martial order and discipline, and the pride was visible on their faces as they lurched by.
That evening in the dining hall the training camp commander spoke to all 350 or so of us from the three companies. He had a bushy mustache and glasses with orange-tinted lenses. He was always pacing about with his arms folded behind at his lower back, taking long slow strides as if he were in profound contemplation, although between the tinted lenses and the dark complex growth on his upper lip it looked more as if he were perpetually in the grip of some intricate conspiratorial scheme. When he spoke before groups of soldiers he always accented the last syllable of every sentence to ensure we grasped its triviality. He was a diligent suspicious man who kept his socks and underwear neatly organized in bags and was never relaxed unless he was restlessly prowling the grounds of his training camp, guarding against instances of insubordination and slovenliness. He had a habit of running the edge of his finger up along your cheek to see when you had last shaven and he would change the station on the cafeteria television whenever Euronews came on as he felt conscripts would be better off exposed to mushy Greek soap operas than Anglo-American propaganda. The soldiers all addressed him as Mr. Commander but amongst themselves they called him Grivas because of his striking visual resemblance to the EOKA general, with whom he also shared ideological ground.
“We are all Greeks,” he would later tell all of us three-and six-monthers, most of who had grown up abroad. “Some of us are Greeks of Cyprus. Others are Greeks of Greece. Some are Greeks of England. Or Greeks of America. Or Greeks of Australia. But we are all Greeks.” On the other side of the Green Line, Turkish Cypriot commanders were telling Turkish Cypriot conscripts much of the same, except they pronounced them Turks instead of Greeks. It was unfortunate that Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot officers were doing such a good job at keeping the island divided on ethnic lines because they would have surely enjoyed celebrating together over raki and ouzo their nationalist love of another country and their mutual aversion for Cypriot identity.
But the topic of our Hellenic Spirit was not broached during that first welcome speech. A lower-ranking officer saluted Grivas and then snapped out the force numbers with that cheerless inhuman martial formality that is referred to as a “brisk and lively manner.” One of the conscripts made a farting noise but it was ignored. Grivas then saluted the officer off and turned to us.
“Men!” he called out. But he did not continue with the command for attention. He glared at us. “Haven’t you learned that the head should be thrown back and your cap should fly back fifteen meters?” He paused. “Invalid.”
“Men!” he called again. We puffed out our chests and threw our heads back, although our caps did not go flying into the back wall. “Attention!” We raised our left leg and stomped so that it landed by our right foot while simultaneously extending our arms—which had been folded at our back—to our side. “At ease!” We stomped back to the ‘at ease’ position.
“That was your first attention to me,” he said. “When in a week I give a command I want you to be excellent.” One of the conscripts was murmuring. Grivas looked in his direction. “I ask that you shut your mouth. Your head is swiveling. Look in front of you.” He paused. “Today the 2007 conscription of the January series ended. I welcome you to the KEN Paphos and the ranks of the National Guard. I hope that your service, whether it is twenty-five months or a reduced three months, is pleasant and will be a sweet good memory.” A number of conscripts were whispering and sniggering. “I asked that you do not murmur. And when you are at ease, you do not move.” He paused. “You are far from your family here. Your family will be calmer and more pleasant when you tell them over the phone that you are doing well.”
The National Guard desperately wanted its soldiers’ families to be calm and pleasant, especially the soldiers’ mothers. The National Guard had softened significantly in the last decade, and it was not long after the arrival of cell phones in Cyprus that soldiers were permitted to bring their mobiles into boot camp, which only eroded away the remnants of army discipline. Conscripts in boot camp were no longer isolated from the outside world and so there were far fewer opportunities for officers to break them down and rewire them in their martial image. Anytime a conscript was punished he could immediately place a call and protest about his abused human rights to his mother, who would then call National Guard headquarters or the media and protest that those men who had seized her son from her and declared absolute custody over him for the next two years were violating his human rights because they were not imposing their militaristic existence upon him in a courteous and respectful manner. The conscripts gallantly upheld human rights standards on army camps and outposts and made sure to be as discourteous and disrespectful as possible to the officers, since officers were far less likely to complain to their mothers.
In short, the National Guard had turned into damage control for spoiled delinquent teenagers. “We don’t use our knives to carve our name and series into the dining tables,” Grivas said, in case any conscript had mistaken notions on why the National Guard had issued each of them a pocketknife. “The tables hurt.” He paused, impressed with this poetic turn of phrase that had unexpectedly risen from him. “And we hurt too.”
But despite a decline in disciplinary standards, the National Guard had not relented in its efforts to infuse a patriotic spirit when it came to the issue of the island’s division and occupation. It had been so unrelenting that it had become ineffective. “When I say, where will we light a candle, you will say Apostolos Andreas,” Grivas told us. “When I say where will we go for coffee, you say Kyrenia. And when I say where will we go for a swim, Famagusta.”
“Where are we going to light a candle?” Grivas demanded.
“Apostolos Andreas!” the room boomed.
“Where will we go for coffee?”
“And where will we go for a swim?”
The enthusiastic Q&A may have made sense before the crossings had opened three years ago, but it now either seemed like a blasphemous proposal by a military commander for a daytrip to the north or an anachronism in serious need of updating since it only emphasized with self-defeating irony the reality that that every day Greek Cypriots were making such trips.
It was not so different with the chants, probably written in late 1974, that our corporals and sergeants and cadet officers had us yell out that same night before prayer while marching in place in front of our barracks. Our company hollered into the offended night about how blood had been spilled in villages in the north, about eagles and freedom, about how Cyprus is Greek and so is Macedonia, and then we were told to turn to face the second company and then, as if in competition with them, holler out a final chant with the unforgettable one-liner “unfaithful Turkish dog, you killed a Greek.”
“You should feel this when you say it!” one corporal screamed. “How many of you don’t feel it?” I was neither feeling it nor saying it, and in fact the only thing I felt was an urge to club the silly corporal upside the head. It is one thing to go through the motions of the idiotic things you are ordered to do and another to take them to heart. The younger conscripts in my company, however, did not seem to object, not because they found the lyrics stirring, but because it was an opportunity to taunt and roar at the other conscripts in the second company who may as well have been the unfaithful dogs for all they cared.
4. THE ARPHADES
Every year there are two conscription dates for the National Guard: one in January, the other in July. As a rule, those attending college after the army enter in July. The rest go in January and are nicknamed the ‘arphades’ (pronounced ärf’äes) because they are in the ‘A’ or ‘alpha’ series. The arphades are far fewer in number and have over the years acquired a tarnished reputation. Just as the word ‘idiot’ can no longer be used to refer to people with mental impairments without an accompanying insult, so too is it impossible to refer to someone as an ‘arphas’ (the singular of arphades) without slamming his intelligence. Even arphades use the word ‘arphas’ to put down one another (“You’re a total arphas”) and actually pride themselves on the title, which to the July conscripts further demonstrates their collective stupidity. But in fact the only reason arphades are so astoundingly stupid is because they are clever.
Arphades live up to their reputation as jackasses because if they did not they wouldn’t be able to get away with nearly as much as they do. They are in a misfit category that brings with it special treatment and privileges. With more or less impunity they raise hell after lights-out, ignore wakeup calls, evade chores, jabber through roll call and sleep through sentry duty. The officers threaten them incessantly but do nothing, instead writing off their baboon antics as the inevitable result of irreversible malignant genetic and environmental influences.
It was often hard to tell whether they were acting or serious. One of the arphades once saluted a cadet officer with his left hand instead of the right. “No, the other side,” the cadet officer scolded him. Without cracking a grin, the arphas promptly crossed his hand across his face, so that his left hand was aimed at his right temple.
The arphades took pleasure in defying every aspect of the training program. Every night four conscripts from each platoon were assigned to stand as sentries for two-hour shifts on a rotating basis in the hallway outside their barracks rooms to watch over the sleepers and the locked gun rack. An additional four conscripts per night from the entire company were scheduled to stand guard over the toilets and showers (we referred to this position as Shit Guardian since it was the only explanation for standing guard over a bathroom). This pseudo-sentry duty was presumably to acclimatize us to the idea of waking up in the middle of the night for a guard shift. It might have worked had the repercussions for missing one’s shift involved anything more than hot air; on average, between the hours of twelve am and six am, only one in four sentries got out of bed.
The only time arphades excelled at guard duty was whenever they smuggled in kebabs and beer. They then took turns of their own initiative, standing by the barracks room door while the others ate their food in bed. Anytime an officer approached, the Kebab Guardian would warn those who were dining to hide the food under the covers and spray cologne about to mask the smell of charbroiled meat.
Morning exercise never lasted more than a half hour and consisted of light jogging to bawdy chants, stretches, and exercises like crunches, back extensions and pushups; it was undemanding, enjoyable and beneficial and most of the arphades did everything to avoid it. Every morning three in four weaseled their way out of it and of those twenty-five per cent who did participate, about half of them would drop out partway through. The arphades would instead work on depleting their energy reserves during the night by thrashing about and howling for hours until they had exhausted themselves to sleep. A corporal or a sergeant would make a round of the barracks rooms at ten, shutting the lights off with a stern warning that anyone who made a noise would be punished. As soon as he departed, the arphades would switch the lights back on and begin shrieking, opening and slamming locker doors, swinging from the fan, doing pushups with the bunk beds, wrestling, and even dragging bunk beds out into the hallways, with or without sleepers.
My barracks room was an exception because seven out of the twenty of us happened to be older conscripts like myself and we secured a tolerable degree of quiet during the night by putting up a united bristling front against any violations of the peace. But other older conscripts were not so lucky and sometimes there were only one or two of them in a roomful of rioting fiends. “I can’t take it anymore,” said one frazzled 26-year-old from a neighboring room. “I can’t get more than twenty minutes of sleep at a time. I want to kill them.”
There were times I wished he did kill them. Roll call would often take a half hour instead of five minutes because many of the arphades simply could not be bothered to get out of bed. In the mornings, those of us who went out on time would have to wait shivering in the 6:15 am cold for fifteen minutes while the corporal bellowed at the others until they finally emerged, bootlaces untied, unshaven, their mucus-encrusted eyes looking out amusedly at the exasperated hypothermic lot of us. If they were especially long in materializing the conscript officers would make the rest of us do about-turns while shouting “we are waiting for you!” And then when they finally did all line up, they would yap, smoke, and play music or porn videos on their cell phones so that a five-minute roll call instead took another fifteen minutes and like misbehaving nursery children we would again be ordered to do continuous about-turns until it was quiet. The worst of the arphades tossed their cigarette butts and trash on the floor, smeared shit on the walls of the toilet stalls, sprayed shaving cream graffiti all over the bathroom mirror, and expected everyone else to clean up the mess.
It was astonishing how much some of them got away with. One of them, when ordered by the company commander to clean the toilets for the day as punishment for a slew of misdeeds, promptly replied, “You clean them.” He never did clean them and he never was punished.
Other arphades found subtler ways of disrespecting the high-ranking officers, like the time when Grivas was reproaching us after the first inspection of the barracks: “The barracks are filthy,” he said. “Non-smokers don’t want to have to pick up the cigarette butts of every asshole smoker.” A murmur went up through the company. “I have to speak openly to you because you don’t understan— Who farted?” Grivas paused. “Who farted?” he demanded.
“I did. It slipped out.”
“It slipped out? What’s your name?”
“Who?” he demanded.
“Aren’t you a soldier?”
“Then say it.”
“Soldier Syradiotis, Kostas.”
Grivas paused. “Say ‘I’m sorry’.”
Unlike Grivas, our company commander was a coolheaded capable orator in his early thirties who would lecture us in an authoritative tone about team spirit and group unity, about respecting and depending upon the soldier at your side. “Adjust your course,” he would tell us. “You came to the KEN and you think you’re on vacation. Forget it. I repeat, recruits, adjust your course.” He was one of those rare officers who had managed to climb the military hierarchy without the usual corrosion of character that comes with authority. Everyone liked him and no one ever adjusted his course.
He was the kind of decent reasonable army man that any recruit would be lucky to have as his commanding officer and I desperately wanted him to hulk out into the kind of unreasonable blockheaded brute that I would despise. I yearned for a bully of violent unreasoning action to crush some spirits and bones. A few arphades in particular would send my nerves squirming and my teeth into a clench-up, and graphic visions would possess me of a fist going through their heads, splintering out the backside in a blissful eruption of skull and brain. I prayed with an inward feverishness for the officers to drop the paternal talk and threats and instead take up the bludgeon, to flog them with rusty chain, pull out toenails, electrocute testicles, shatter kneecaps, or just execute them against a wall, why not, the world will go on spinning, where are the fascists when you need them?
The arphades were so maddeningly aggravating that I soon grew incredibly fond of them. You could not help but respect their boundless disrespect and lawlessness. They had managed to turn boot camp into a bizarre state-funded kinderarmy for the delinquent. But that said, the bulk of the finest and most generous Cypriots also come from their ranks. In these so-called uneducated peasants one can still find that mellow earthy warmth and fierce devotion that are becoming endangered traits due to the materialist rave that over the last two decades has been sweeping the island with the frenzy and destructive power of a locust plague.
As I too was an arphas, I soon learned to adapt myself to the arpha way. In the afternoons, when ‘free time’ ended, I would remain in bed when the first call for lineup was bellowed out. On the twelfth or thirteenth call I might consider putting my boots on. I once counted them yell “Lineup!” thirty-five times. But I was never quite able to cultivate their knack for insubordination and disregard of duties, which was their way of rebelling against the conscription system. The arphades understood perfectly well the magnitude of the gulf dividing conscript officers, who were merely completing their two-year service (in increasing order of rank: corporal, sergeant, and cadet officer) and ‘permanents,’ who were career army men (warrant officer, company commander, camp commander, colonel, brigadier, etc). It was not until I left the KEN and was sent for sentry duty on the Green Line that I came to fully recognize this distinction (one of ‘us’ versus ‘them’). That is why they paid little to no attention to the 19- and 20-year-old corporals, sergeants, and cadet officers, who had absolutely no power to do anything to them but refer them to the commanding officer, who for all practical purposes had been stripped of disciplinary power thanks to the advent of mobile phones, human rights rhetoric, and pro-active mothers.
There was only one conscript officer who commanded their respect and could silence and still an entire lineup of rioting arphades with a few deep barks. And he happened to be my platoon leader.
Chewbacca was a muscular, fit, disciplined, capable, and dutiful young man despite having spent almost two years in the army. He was a 19-year-old green beret and a cadet officer but appeared a decade older due to his commanding presence and the deep booming timbre of his voice, which seemed to emerge from the primordial bowels of the earth. One could not ignore a Chewbaccan bellow any more than trespassers could ignore the bark of Cerberus or philistines the apocalyptic denunciations of an Old Testament prophet.
The arphades had so much fearful respect of Chewbacca that they would ambush him at any opportunity. He formed an insurmountable physical challenge and brawny arphades tested their manhood by pouncing upon him in gangs of three or four at a time. I remember watching during one of my two am sentry shifts as four conscripts tackled Chewbacca in the main hall of the barracks and tried unsuccessfully to wrestle him to the ground. Chewbacca never objected to such attacks and instead humored them by putting them in headlocks and squashing their faces against the floor.
There were however two scraggly arphades in my platoon—Satan and Wig—that knew how to get a rise out of Chewbacca. Satan was a ruffian with enthusiastic acne and eyes that for no apparent reason would often goggle from his sockets as if he had just experienced a flashback of some infernal past torment. Satan was always finding new and creative ways of irritating cadet officers. When his phone would ring in the middle of lineup and the cadet officer would sternly warn him to shut it off, he would promptly reply that he didn’t know how.
Satan’s partner-in-delinquency, Wig, was a restless windbag who slouched about like a slinking alley cat with skinny arms that hung limp at his sides and a head that was always craning forward and to the side like a turtle taking stock of its surroundings after a long hibernation inside its shell. Wig was always raising his arm during training seminars with the word “Permission?” Dozens of times a day he would ask for permission to ask a question. His questions were consistently ridiculous and four out of five times the answer was no. He would then merely lower his hand and raise it again a few moments later, requesting permission to ask a question. None of us knew who had first called him Wig or why, but the name had stuck.
Both Satan and Wig took boundless pleasure in repeating the same jokes, or what they saw as jokes, countless times per day. Wig would often count “one, two, three” and then he, Satan, and some of their groupies would yell out “Patrida! [Country]” at the top of their lungs. No one knew why Wig and Satan yelled this and they probably didn’t either.
In lineup they would do anything to disrupt roll call and make a scene. “Permission?” Wig once said, raising his arm. “I’ve gotta piss. Can I go? No? Then I’m gonna pull it out right here.” He started to unbutton himself, which sparked yelling from the conscript officers. “Well what do you want me to do? Piss all over myself? I can’t hold it.” They let him go and he slunk indoors, grinning back at the rest of us.
During one of the training seminars that were held in the hills on the army camp’s perimeter, Chewbacca was explaining to us how to orient oneself without a compass. “If it’s a cloudy day, you can look for physical landmarks. In Cyprus trees usually bend towards the south because the winds generally blow—”
“Permission?” Wig asked, thrusting up his hand.
“No,” Chewbacca said. “Because the winds generally blow from the north. You can also look for anthills. Ants build the north side of their anthills slightly higher to block—“
“Permission?” Wig asked, again raising his hand.
“Don’t interrupt! Ants build the northern side higher to block the wind. You can also orient yourself if a graveyard is nearby. Tombstones all look to the east so that when the dead rise they face east.”
After a moment of silence, Wig raised his hand. “Permission?”
“How can they rise if they’re dead?”
6. THE BRIGADIER
The highest-ranking officer who came to the army camp on a regular basis was the brigadier. He was a towering man with a great curling mustache that was all the rage in the 1950s. He was often in buoyant spirits but could storm over as instantly and ferociously as a Greco-Turkish dogfight over the Aegean. The army camp was a fine place for him to indulge his mood swings, which in any other work environment would have been compassionately treated with pills. When he yelled at someone he would thrust his open paw out in front of him as if demanding alms for the disgraceful state of the camp. Without retracting his extended arm and before an answer was given, he would launch into another question with an emphatic twirl of his hand that would have also been effective for spinning basketballs.
But it was not the recruits whom he yelled at. In fact he was full of advice for them. “When you walk, you keep your head tall. You are slaves of no one,” he told us one afternoon after a corporal had bossed us out of out of our barrack rooms during rest period and ordered us to hastily line up outside.
Rather it was the conscript officers who suffered his foul moods. The brigadier would come stomping through the camp bellowing out questions and twirling his interrogative hand at every corporal, sergeant and cadet officer he encountered. Grivas would always be at his side, docile as a lamb, relinquishing all authority in his superior’s presence. The army hierarchy and the dictatorial privileges conferred upon every officer in relation to those under him ensured that ever officer, although a slave driver to many, was also a slave to some. It was like a family tree of abuse—the father mistreating his sons who in turn mistreated their sons, on down through the generations—although unlike the family tree, the relatives never died. It was a very democratic totalitarian structure and an educational one, as it cultivated an existential awareness of the variable and absurd nature of the human condition.
News of the brigadier’s approach would always send the officers into a state of panic, like on the first Saturday afternoon when a corporal came rushing into our barracks room.
“The brigadier is coming for an inspection!” he hissed. “Stand by your beds!” We all hastily took our positions. “If he looks at you directly, say your name!” The corporal rushed out of the room.
Moments later a sergeant rushed in. “Why are you all standing by your beds? You’re not supposed to know the brigadier is coming. Look like you’re talking!” We all fell back onto our beds and started pretending to talk.
The brigadier soon walked in and we all stood up. “What are you all doing here?” he demanded. “Why are you inside? Well? It’s not prohibited to be outside, you know. Do you know that?”
“We know,” a three-monther replied. “We’re relaxing. Discussing.”
“Discussing what? How to solve the Cyprus problem?” The brigadier grinned, evidently pleased with his joke, and walked out into the other barracks room across the hall.
A sergeant came into our room moments after the brigadier had left the company barracks. “Go outside,” he urged. “It’s still free time. The brigadier should see you relaxing out there.” We went outside. The brigadier’s car was gone. “Oh, I guess he’s gone,” the sergeant said. “You can go back inside if you want.”
7. THE CAFETERIA PRAYER
The next day during dinner Grivas lectured us on how we must respond to his call for attention when sitting at the cafeteria tables:
“When I say ‘Camp’ you stomp your fists once upon the table at shoulder width distance apart and leave them there.” Grivas paused. “CAMP!”
We slammed our fists down onto the table, knocking the cups over. “You stay in this position with your heads straight forward and without moving until I tell you otherwise,” he said while pacing across the cafeteria floor. “I said don’t move!” he snapped.
After a pause, he resumed in a slow, measured tone. “I hear some of you have complained about the food. I eat the same food as you. If you spit in it, then I will eat it.”
“That’s how much of a shithead you are,” a conscript at my table murmured.
“Keep quiet! Don’t murmur!” Grivas barked. “It’s easy to be a critic, but it’s not easy to dance to the orchestra in front of everyone.” He paused so that the incomprehensible force of his metaphor could sink in. Someone raised his hand. “Don’t raise your hand!” He continued to rant for some time as we sat there with our fists on the table, as if each of us were clutching the invisible bars of a cage. When he finished, he silently paced about for some time with his hands folded at his back.
“Everyone say the Lord’s Prayer together,” he finally ordered. The air at once filled with the bowed murmurings of the Lord’s Prayer and the synchronized motion of hundreds of right hands with bundled fingertips grazing over the four points on one’s body—forehead, belly, right nipple, left nipple—whose traced weave represents the Orthodox cross. The prayer ended. “You are free,” Grivas said.
There was no pretence in the Cypriot army about separation of church and state. As far as most of the permanent officers were concerned, the Lord’s staff was an assault rifle. The army apparently wanted to ensure that the warrior spirit was built upon the Christian foundations of the love-thy-enemy, turn-thy-other-cheek teachings of Jesus so that, in the case of war, an atmosphere of brotherly love and compassion would prevail after the smoke and screams had subsided and the charred dismembered bodies had been tossed into their unmarked graves.
There was prayer before and after every meal and prayer before bed. But there were also occasions of greater consequence that demanded more than a brief prayer. For such events a blessing was in order.
“You are now going to go to the church for a blessing,” an officer told us during lineup on Monday morning after breakfast. “And then you are going to get your guns.”
The final entry of The Way of the Arpha will be on July 4.
- The Way of the Arpha (Part I)
- The Way of the Arpha (Part III)
- Manning the Dead Zone (Part IV)
- Manning the Dead Zone (Part I)