Nikolas Neophytou, a 23-year-old philosophy student, is at a bustling café flanked on one side by sandbags, rusting oil barrels and barbed wire which mark the edge of what Cypriots call the “dead zone” in the heart of Nicosia, Europe’s last divided capital.
Curious tourists eagerly take photos of these symbols of the island’s frozen conflict. But for Nikolas they are like part of the furniture: he has become oblivious to them.
The most intensive drive to reunite Cyprus after 43 years of division entered the final stretch in January, with the UN confident of a “historic opportunity” to stitch the former British colony back together. But Nikolas is hardly following developments at the negotiating table.
Picturing a reunited island is as difficult for young Cypriots as imagining a world before the internet. Many have become jaded by decades of failed peace initiatives and, fearing disappointment once more, are keeping their hopes for reunification in check.
“Me and my friends have pushed the Cyprus problem to the back of their minds” Nikolas, a Greek Cypriot, says. “We were born into it and rarely discuss it or post about it on Facebook.»
The opening of several checkpoints along the dividing “green line” since 2003 has enabled contact between ordinary people from the two estranged communities, and there have been remarkably few incidents of ill-will. Turkish Cypriots number one in three of the café Nikolas is at and he often crosses the divide in the other direction for nights out in Turkish Cypriot northern Nicosia, where he has made friends.
His favourite haunt there is Hoi Polloi, a café close to the green line which has an alternative vibe and often hosts cultural events that bridge the divide. It has hosted a Greek Cypriot bouzouki band and will open a cinema room to screen films live via the internet from the forthcoming Istanbul film festival.
“Forty to 50 per cent of our clientele are Greek Cypriots,” says Simon Bahceli, Hoi Polloi’s owner.
Both officially and at a grass-roots level, Greek and Turkish Cypriots are using art and culture to foster reconciliation and understanding, preparing the ground for a time when the politicians might finally manage to strike a reunification deal.
A new bi-communal chamber orchestra performed for the first time in Nicosia in December, while productions by the Cyprus Theatre Organisation now carry Turkish subtitles. Another Greek Cypriot theatre, the Satyrikon, has worked with the Turkish Cypriot municipal theatre of Nicosia for three decades.
Even Nicosia’s “dead zone” is home to a bridge-building cultural centre and café – the Home for Cooperation – inspired by teachers where people from one community can learn the language of the other and dream of a shared future. Greek and Turkish Cypriots also come together there for tango, salsa and tai chi lessons. The café hosts debates in the evenings and every Thursday night two bands, one from each community, play sets one after the other.
The island was split along ethnic and religious lines in 1974 when Turkey invaded after an Athens-inspired coup aimed at uniting Cyprus with Greece. More than 160,000 Greek Cypriots were displaced from the north. Some 43,000 Turkish Cypriots left the south and moved north, displaced by the invasion and intercommunal in the 1960s. Cyprus, represented internationally by the Greek Cypriots, joined the EU in 2004, with the north’s membership suspended pending a Cyprus settlement.
While the number of those participating in bi-communal events has steadily risen in recent years, those promoting contact know much remains to be done. Far more people from the smaller Turkish Cypriot community cross south, mainly for shopping, but 48 per cent of Greek Cypriot students have never visited the north. Many do not like showing their identification at checkpoints, and few young Cypriots share the emotional attachment to homes, villages and towns of their wistful parents and grandparents who were displaced by the island’s division.
Perturbed by this lack of curiosity about “the other side”, a 27-year-old Greek Cypriot street artist recently spray-painted a bizarre stencilled mural in the Nicosia’s historic old town. Bizarre because half of the work covers a wall in the Greek Cypriot south of the city while the other half is on a building in the Turkish Cypriot part. To get a complete picture of the mural, you must cross the divide.
“It’s a call to re-think the unknown side of Nicosia,” says the author of the schizophrenic mural, a graphic designer who asks to be identified as “Twenty-Three“, the signature he uses on his works. “I was always wondering about the detachment of young Cypriots regarding the existence of the other side, and the lack of desire to meet the other community.” Even those who don’t want reunification should cross at least once, he says “just to check what is there“.
Twenty-Three, who worked in collaboration with Urban Gorillas, a creative, Nicosia-based NGO, sees his mural as a “visual riddle“. This is because you must explore streets on the two sides to view it as a complete work and because it is made up of some 20 icons, some of them modern and abstract, symbolising the island’s history – and its division.
Using culture to foster peace both on the island and beyond will be showcased on a larger scale throughout 2017 in the south-western coastal town of Pafos, this year’s European Capital of Culture, an honour it shares with the Danish city of Aarhus.
Turkish Cypriot musicians, singers and a school choir crossed the “green line” to perform alongside Greek Cypriots and a jazz orchestra from Aarhus at the opening ceremony on 28 January. The extravaganza of sound and light, held at the spruced-up square in front of the town hall under a starry sky, was inspired by the Greek myths and legends in which Pafos – the birthplace of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty is steeped.
The idea of designating an annual cultural capital dates from 1983 and came from Melina Mercouri, the celebrated former actress, then Greece’s culture minister, and her French counterpart Jack Lang. Concerned that the EU was giving more attention to politics and economics than to culture, they proposed a year-long annual festival that would bring Europeans closer together by highlighting the richness and diversity of European cultures while raising awareness of their common history and values. In 1985, Athens became the first holder of the prestigious title, with the baton since passing to some 50 other European cities, among them Liverpool, Glasgow, Warsaw and San Sebastian.
There are strong socio-economic as well as cultural benefits for cities preparing to assume the mantle because it spurs urban regeneration and raises the holder’s international profile – one reason why lesser-known European cities are often awarded the title.
Pafos is the smallest city to be honoured as a cultural capital, and its budget of just 8 million euros for the project is also the smallest. Pafos played to its strengths and a novel concept helped it win the coveted title: the whole city would be an immense stage – an “open air factory“, as the organisers term it. This would help to re-connect people, spaces and communities, while ordinary folk are being encouraged to join in performances and projects with artists. “By citizens for citizens” is a motto of Paphos2017.
For the biggest events, Pafos already had spectacular and historic outdoor venues, some of which had served the city for nearly two millennia. And the balmy Mediterranean climate means the weather is not a drawback, even in the winter months.
Nor, despite its size, has Pafos ever suffered from status anxiety as a cradle of culture. Its sprawling “archaeological park” near the dazzling harbour area is a Unesco World Heritage site thanks to its fabulous Roman mosaics, ancient tombs and theatres. Another Unesco-listed site lies a few miles away in the village of Kouklia, home to the ruins of the Temple of Aphrodite, a major centre of the goddess’s cult. Pafos is also home to Byzantine, Frankish and Venetian churches, as well as Ottoman-era mosques and hamams – steam bath-houses. Many of these prized religious and secular monuments have been lovingly restored in recent years, but there is a seemingly endless supply to work on. One magnificent outdoor venue is an ancient Roman amphitheatre, another the square in front of the medieval castle near the city’s dazzling harbour where the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra will perform its annual European Concert on 1 May. This will be broadcast live on German television to many European and Asian countries.
Meanwhile, Turkish Cypriots who were displaced from their homes in the Pafos district of Mouttalos 43 years ago, have been invited to share their experiences with Greek Cypriots who settled there after being uprooted by the Turkish invasion. Greek and Turkish Cypriot artists will set up installations in Mouttalos, trying to connect past and present. Trees are being planted along the sides of streets to help revitalise the area. A bi-communal team of educators will present music, songs and poetry in the form of theatre.
Wood collected from buildings abandoned in Mouttalos after the invasion has been crafted into a monumental table – a sculpture designed by two artists from the University of Creative Arts in Canterbury, Anthony Hewyood and German-born Uwe Derkson. The Table of Unification, as it is called, was installed in “Ibrahim’s Khan”, an old Turkish Cypriot inn in the heart of Pafos that is being restored to serve once again as a public meeting place and venue for cultural events well beyond the current year.
As well as promoting reconciliation on the island, Pafos2017 aims to address issues of concern to both Europe and the Middle East, and is well-placed to so given Cyprus’s location as a historic stepping stone between West and East.
One such issue is the plight of refugees, many from war-ravaged Syria, situated just 100 kms east of Cyprus. Artists from past and present war zones in the Middle East, eastern Europe and Cyprus itself, will be invited to Pafos in the summer to interact with audiences and create work including performances and video art.
“Linking continents, bridging cultures” is the motto used by Pafos2017 for theme running through the hundreds of events it has organised.
“Intolerance and discrimination have been on the rise throughout Europe,” testing the “fundamental European values and ideals“, Christos Stylianides, the European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management, told the Pafos2017 opening ceremony. Culture, he said, would promote understanding and tackle mistrust.
One of ancient plays with current relevance that will be staged at an amphitheatre in the “archaeological park” is Lysistrata, a bawdy anti-war comedy by Aristophanes first performed in 411 BC. It recounts the eponymous heroine’s mission to end the long Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta by convincing the women of Greece to withhold sexual privileges from their husbands until they negotiate a peace treaty.
Well before Pafos2017, an ambitious and far-reaching initiative was launched to build confidence and cooperation between Greek and Turkish Cypriots by conserving the island’s numerous archaeological and architectural heritage sites that were being endangered by the division. Launched in 2008 with the approval of their respective political leaderships, it has brought together Greek and Turkish Cypriot archaeologists, architects, engineers and workmen who have developed enduring friendships.
“This co-operation and goodwill through culture is the foundation for a solution [of the Cyprus problem]“, says Takis Hadjidemetriou, the committee’s Greek Cypriot representative the Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage in Cyprus. “We are not only working with stones but with people.”
Its work, supervised by the UN Development Programme with European Commission funds, prioritised sites in need of emergency conservation, along with those of great historical or importance or which played a significant role in their societies.
In one key project, the renovation of the church at Apostolos Andreas monastery at the island’s northern-most tip was completed in November, with other parts of the complex to be restored over the next two years. The ancient monastery was built on the spot where the Andrew the Apostle, one of Jesus‘ first disciples and the patron saint of sailors, reputedly come ashore when his ship ran out of drinking water. When he tapped some rocks, a spring is said to have gushed out, its waters bearing miraculous healing powers.
The monastery attracts thousands of Greek Cypriot pilgrims every year, but is also revered by many Turkish Cypriots. Its restoration is being funded by the Church of Cyprus and the Turkish Cypriot Muslim Evkaf administration, each of which contributed 2.5 million euros to the project.
Meanwhile, a 14th century tower that is the fictional setting of Shakespeare‘s Othello, re-opened in 2015 after undergoing emergency stabilisation work and renovation. Part of a fortress in the medieval port city of Famagusta, Othello‘s Tower lies on the Turkish Cypriot side of the green line. Fittingly, it reopened with a performance of the Shakespearean tragedy by Greek and Turkish Cypriot actors. But the bicommunal committee has also worked on many smaller projects which, says Hadjidemetriou, “touch the hearts of ordinary people“. This has mostly involved the restoration of village mosques and churches that were crumbling after conflict put them beyond the reach of the worshippers for whom they were built. Religious ceremonies are held on completion of the work, with worshippers crossing the divide where they are warmly greeted by the other community.
“People say it’s the happiest day of their lives when they enter a restored church where they last stood as children,” says Hadjidemetriou.
Now Cypriots are waiting to see whether politicians can deliver a lasting peace settlement. Never have the two communities concurrently been represented by leaders so firmly committed to a solution. President Nicos Anastasiades, the Greek Cypriot leader, and Mustafa Akinci, who represents the Turkish Cypriots, have made significant progress during 22 months of negotiations aimed at reunited Cyprus as a two-zone federation.
But they cannot by themselves resolve the most vexed issue of all – security – which requires heavy lifting by Britain, Turkey and Greece, the island’s guarantor powers dating from Cyprus’s independence in 1960. All five parties attended a landmark conference in Geneva last month [January 2017] to discuss a new security framework for Cyprus.
The Greek Cypriots, backed by Greece, want the abolition of the “anachronistic” guarantor system which Turkey invoked to invade in 1974. Anastasiades insists the island’s membership of EU is the best assurance of security for both communities and needs no third country guarantees. Turkey, which still has 30,000 troops in northern Cyprus, insists on retaining its guarantor role to protect the smaller Turkish Cypriot community, which wants a Turkish security blanket, at least until a settlement is proven to work.
All parties know there will be no deal without a compromise that enables all Cypriots to feel secure, which makes compromise likely.
The gathering in Geneva ended inconclusively and tensions have since flared between Nato allies Greece and Turkey over disputes unrelated to Cyprus. Analysts, however, say that neither country has an interest in further escalation and, with the Geneva conference due to resume early next month, diplomats remain optimistic that a Cyprus settlement is still within reach.
“I do think that if we all play our cards well we might actually see Cyprus as an arena for cooperation – not only between Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots but also between Greece, Turkey and the other interested parties,” the UN’s Cyprus envoy, Espen Barth Eide, said. “So, rather than letting the talks be negatively affected by other surrounding issues we might actually see that it is a positive in broader regional developments. This is, at least, my ambition.”
Back at the café Nikolas, the philosophy student, shares that ambition. “Me and my friends on both sides would love to live in a reunited Cyprus.“