Text of Christopher Hitchens' introduction to his book "Hostage to History: Cyprus from the Ottomans to Kissinger"


The struggle of man against power is the struggle of
memory against forgetting.
Milan Kundera

There is a sense in which all of us are prisoners of knowledge. Most people who think at all about the island of Cyprus will rely on two well-imprinted ideas of it. The first is that of an insular paradise; the birthplace of Aphrodite; the perfect beaches and mountains; the olive groves; the gentle people and the wine-dark sea. The second is that of a ‘problem’ too long on the international agenda; of an issue somehow incorrigible and insoluble but capable of indefinite relegation. In some accounts, the quaintness and the antiquity of the first impression reinforce the intractability of the second. Cyprus becomes a curiosity – melancholy perhaps, but tolerable to outsiders and lacking in urgency. Meanwhile, there is still the vineyard and the siesta; the cool interiors and the village raconteur to delight and distract the visitor. The Victorian Bishop Heber, writing of another island, gave us the fatuous stock phrase, ‘Where every prospect pleases and only man is vile.’ In Cyprus, this duality was expressed most vividly by Lawrence Durrell in his beautiful but patronizing memoir Bitter Lemons.
In a fashion, I envy those who can continue to see Cyprus in this way. But I am the captive of a certain limited knowledge of the place. The eastern Mediterranean affords few better evenings than the one provided by the dusk in Nicosia, the capital. The Pentadactylos mountains, so named for the five-knuckled and fist-like peak which distinguishes the range, turn from a deep purple to a stark black outline against the sun. To the newcomer, the sight is a stirring one. But to many of my friends, the mountains at that hour take on the look of a high and forbidding wall. Beyond the peaks are their old homes and villages, and the charm of the sunset is dissolved into an impression of claustrophobia.
By day, if one takes the promenade down the busiest shopping street in town, there comes a point where the advertisements, the bars and the inducements simply run out. There is no point, for most people, in proceeding further. They retrace their steps, and find another turning with more promise. But if you walk the extra few hundred yards, you find yourself in one of the modern world’s political slums. A tangle of barbed wire, a zariba of cement-filled oil drums, a row of charred and abandoned shops and houses. Only the weeds and nettles justify the designation ‘Green Line’. This line, which in many places follows the old Venetian wall enclosing Nicosia, marks the furthest point of the Turkish advance in 1974. Soldiers in fatigues warn against the taking of photographs. The red crescent flag of Turkey confronts the blue and white of Greece and the green, yellow and white of Cyprus. Late at night, leaving a taverna, you can hear the Turkish soldiers shouting their bravado across the line. It is usually bluff, but nobody who remembers their arrival will ever quite learn to laugh it off. Continue to walk along the line, in daylight, and there are reminders at every turn. Here, almost concealed behind the Archbishopric, is the Museum of National Struggle. Entering, one finds the memorabilia of a five-year guerrilla war against the British crown – symbolized most acutely by the replica gallows and gibbet that made the United Kingdom famous in so many of her former possessions. A few streets away, on the road back to the city centre and so low down on the wall that you miss it if you are not looking, is set the memorial to Doros Loizou, one of the many Greek Cypriots murdered by the Greek junta in its effort to annex the island in 1974. Proceed in the same direction and you come eventually to the Ledra Palace Hotel, once counted among the most spacious and graceful in the Levant. Its battered but still splendid shape now houses the soldiers of the United Nations: Swedes, Quebecois, Finns, Austrians. A parched no man’s land, perhaps half a mile wide at this point, separates the two barricades. No Cypriot, Greek or Iurkish, may cross this line. The Venetian wall bulges outwards near this spot and the Turkish flag, complete with armed Iurkish guard, commands the roundabout where the national telephone exchange sits, and the road where the National Museum and the National Theatre lie. Drivers and pedestrians seem never to look up at the only Turks they are allowed to see. A desolate Armenian cemetery and a burned-out bookshop complete the picture. But all of these details, smudges on the Cypriot panorama, require a slight detour which nobody much cares to make. The roads which lead to them do not lead anywhere else. You do not have to see them, but I always do.
Once having acquired these spectacles, enabling (or compelling) one to see both aspects of the island, it is impossible to take them off again. A visit to the marvellous mosaics of Paphos, which offer a pictorial history of the discovery of wine and a skilfully worked rendering of the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe, is full of pitfalls. One has to recall the Turkish shells that fell on the mosaic floor and the heartrending labour involved in remaking the pattern so that newcomers would not see the difference. In the exquisite village of Peristerona, which boasts an ancient painted church and a fine but now locked and deserted mosque, there is an ugly litter of improvised new buildings. This is not a result of the lust for vulgar development that so disfigures the rest of the Mediterranean. It is the hastily erected shelter for refugees from nearby Greek villages. They have been evicted from their homes and orchards, but at midday or evening they can still see the outlines of their old dwellings against the sky, and there is some comfort, as well as some pain, in the proximity. The invisible but still palpable line of division runs here, too. There is no village or town, however far from that line, which does not pay an indemnity to it with improvised refugee housing, and with memories.
It is in conversation with Cypriots themselves, however, that the even more serious wounds inflicted on Cyprus become apparent. The most casual inquiry – such as, ‘Where are you from?’ or ‘Do you have a family?’ – can be enough to induce a torrent of grievance or of grief. Sometimes, depending on the nationality of the listener, the litany may be historic – usually beginning with the many broken promises of the British colonial administration. If, like myself, the listener actually is British, this recitation is accompanied by denials of any but warm feelings towards the other island race, and the denial is made good by the inflexible refusal to allow the foreigner to pay for his own drink. The largest overseas Cypriot community is in London, and most families have a relative there. But the relationship between the two countries, though friendly, has been one of disappointment. ‘Britain promised us. . .’, ‘The British gave their word. . -I can do it from memory now and, worse, I know that the complaint is substantially justified.
At least such discussion is political; and to that extent, detached and objective. The hard listening comes if your companions are from the Karpass peninsula, from Bellapaix, from Famagusta, from Lapithos, from Morphou or from Kyrenia. With eyes half closed they can tell you of their lost homes, their orchards, their farms and their animals. After ten years of expulsion and eviction it is dawning on even the most naive and trusting of them that this separation may be forever. Attachment to land and property, and sense of place, is very deep-rooted in Cyprus. The wrenching out of those roots has been unusually painful. A Cypriot may bid adieu to his old village and set off, as many have done, to seek prosperity in America, in England, in the Gulf or the Levant. But the village or the town remains his or hers, and is often reflected in the patronymic (Zodiates, Paphitis and so on). In the end, this says, there can be a homecoming. But there is a difference between being an exile and being a refugee, and this difference is sinking in. It is the estrangement of one-third of the island, the alienation of it in perpetuity by an invader, that is shocking and unbearable.
Some have even harsher stories to relate. I have heard women describe the rape inflicted by the Turkish army, and describe it as if it were yesterday. Virginity is still highly prized in Cyprus, and the loss of it before marriage, let alone the loss of it to an uncaring invading soldier, is a disaster beyond words or remedy. I have a vivid memory of watching the filmed interviews with rape victims which were accepted as part of the archive of evidence by members of the European Commission for Human Rights during their 1976 investigation. The young women had serious difficulty in looking into the camera, but they told their stories with a certain stoic resignation, as if they had nothing more to lose. The term they employed for the violation itself was the Greek word katéstrepse in its passive verbal form – as in, ‘then he ruined me’ or ‘then they ruined me again’. Ever since, I have avoided that stale journalistic usage, ‘the rape of Cyprus’.
Worse than the nostalgia for home, or the shame of desecration, is the moment when Cypriots say that one of their own is ‘among the missing’. At this, a sort of pool of silence forms around the speaker. Just under two thousand Greek Cypriots are still unaccounted for since the 1974 events, and that is a horrifying number out of a total population of less than 650,000. Many of them, no doubt, perished in battle and were never found. Still others, we must assume, were mutilated beyond recognition or torn apart by scavenging animals. But the fact remains that many were photographed and identified while held prisoner by the Turkish army, and have never been seen again. I have traced one or two of these cases myself, and the trail goes cold some time after the shutter closed on that familiar, modern picture of the young men sitting in the sun, on the bare ground, hands behind their heads, under armed guard. The surviving relatives remain prisoners of that memory, of that photograph, for the rest of their lives. Even in an island less reverent about family ties, the length of the sentence would be unimaginably long.
The injuries done to Cyprus are rendered more poignant (or, according to some Anglo-American sources, less so) by the fact that it is an outwardly modern and European society. Its efficiency, its canny use of tourist resources and its good communications give it a special standing in the Levant. Many battle-weary correspondents and businessmen employ it as a sort of recreational decompression-chamber after the exigencies of the Egyptian telephone system or the carnage of Beirut. It has a free press, a functioning party system, a simple visa requirement and a prosperous fagade. It is not disfigured by any gross extremes of wealth or poverty, though there is a certain ostentation among the new-rich class of hotel owners and tourist operators. English is a lingua franca.
Yet the geography of the island has ensured that it cannot become a mere tourist and ‘offshore’ haven. If you take your skis up to the mountain resort of Troodos, you will not be able to avoid seeing the golf-ball-shaped monitoring station which sits on the top of Mount Olympus and sucks at the airwaves of the Middle East. If you drive from Nicosia to Paphos, or take the other direction and head for Ayia Napa or the Paralimni coast (just south of that strangest of sights, the deserted modern city of Famagusta guarded by Turkish troops), you will have to pass through the British base areas. They cover a total of ninety-nine square miles, under a remarkable treaty which the Cyprus government does not have the right to alter or terminate. From these bases, spy planes with British and American markings overfly the neighbouring countries. Within the purlieus of these ‘Sovereign Base Areas’, a mock-heroic attempt has been made to re-create the deadly atmosphere of Aldershot or Camberley. Rows of suburban married quarters are in evidence, ranged along streets named after Nelson and Drake and Montgomery. Sprinklers play on trimmed lawns. Polo and cricket and the Church of England are available. And a radio station brings the atmosphere of the English Sunday morning to Cyprus, with record requests, quiz shows and news of engagements and weddings. These chintzy reminders of the former colonial mastery are not much resented in themselves. Perhaps paradoxically, the Cypriots most resent the failure of Britain to assert itself in 1974. But that is for a later chapter.
Conversation with Greek Cypriots, any one in three of whom may turn out to be a refugee in his own country, takes on an even more sombre note when they ask, ‘And have you visited the other side?’ Everywhere can be seen restaurants, bars, hotels and taxi firms which are named after old businesses in the north. The ‘Tree of Idleness’ cafe, beloved of Lawrence Durrell in Bellapaix, is now re-established by its old owner on a hill overlooking Nicosia. Then there is everything from Famagusta Apartments to Kyrenia Car Flire. Official road signs still give the direction and mileage of these lost locations. As I said, those roads do not lead anywhere. But for the foreign journalist or diplomat they do converge on the checkpoint at the old Ledra Palace Hotel. Here, after an encounter with an Ottoman-type officialdom, it is possible to negotiate permission to visit the Turkish-held sector, known since November 1983 as the Turkish State of North Kibris.
In a decade or so, if things go on as they are, it may well be possible for a visitor ignorant of history to arrive and to imagine that there have always been two states on the island. So thorough has been the eradication of Greekness in the north that, if one were not the prisoner of one’s knowledge, one could relax very agreeably. This is the most beautiful part of Cyprus and the Turkish Cypriots are every bit as courteous and hospitable as their Greek fellows. But their ’state’ is built upon an awful negation. Every now and then, usually in the old quarter of Turkish Nicosia, one can see the outline of a Greek sign, imperfectly painted over. Otherwise, every street and place name has been changed and, unlike the situation in the Republic, there are no bilingual signs. Kyrenia has become Girne. Famagusta is Gazi Magusa. Lapithos is Lapta. The currency has been changed to permit only Turkish mainland money to circulate. Even the clocks have been put back one hour, so that the north of Cyprus beats time, literally as well as metaphorically, with Anatolia.
To cross the line is to enter a looking-glass world. The 1974 invasion is known as the ‘peace operation’. Cyprus is called, even in English-language official documents, ‘Kibris’. Busts of Kemal Ataturk adorn every village square. Monuments to the valour of the Turkish army are everywhere, as are more palpable reminders in the shape of thousands of Turkish soldiers. They are marked off from the indigenous population not only by their uniforms and their fatigues, but by the cast of their features, which is unmistakably Anatolian.
In the whole atmosphere of the place there is something of protesting too much. The square-jawed Ataturk busts are, perhaps, a little too numerous and obtrusive to be a sign of real confidence. The clumsy denials of the Hellenic heritage of the island – symbolized by the conversion of churches into mosques and the neglect and pillage of antiquities – shows the same mixture of the superiority and the inferiority complex which is characteristic of Turkish and Turkish Cypriot claims.
Again, the visitor can be spared much of this. A visit to Bellapaix (whose name remains unaltered except by one consonant) is on every traveller’s agenda. The splendid abbey still stands, overlooking the glacis of the Kyrenia range as it descends to the sea. The architectural core of the village thus remains intact, and the little lanes go sloping away from the square as before. In the area just up the hill, mainland Turks and other foreigners compete for newly built villas and a vicarious share in Durrell’s long-dissipated ‘atmosphere’. When I first saw Bellapaix, it was still Greek. The Turkish army held it under occupation and was suggesting to the inhabitants in numerous ways that they might be happier elsewhere. Certainly they were made to feel unhappy where they were. They needed permission to visit the town, to till their fields, to post letters or to receive visitors. It was only with extreme difficulty that I was allowed to talk to them unsupervised. When attrition failed, the stubborn remainder were simply expelled. Now, the inhabitants are Turkish villagers: Cypriots from the south. I paid a call on them some years later, with a colleague who knew them well and who had, since her last visit, made a special trip to their old home. The Bellapaix Turks hail in the main from Mari, a dusty and undistinguished hamlet off the Limassol road. My friend brought them photographs of the village, which they had not seen for several years, since the ‘population exchange’ of 1974-5. The effect when she produced the pictures in the coffee-shop was extraordinary. Men ran to fetch relatives and friends; a circle formed in less time than it takes to set down. The snapshots were passed around endlessly – ‘Look, someone’s put a new window in old Mehmet’s house’ – ‘There’s a lick of paint on the old store.’ The mukhtar of the village treated us to coffee and drinks; our efforts to share the bill were (as always in Cyprus) regarded as just this side of a grave insult. We eventually had to leave, because of the curfew that falls along the border just after dusk. But we were pressed to stay until the very last moment. These people, living in a village which is coveted above all others by tourists and outsiders, were actually nostalgic for the shabby but homely Mari. Yet an effort of the conscious memory is required to remember a time before partition and separation. The children born in Bellapaix will be brought up without knowledge of Greek Cypriots, but will hear endless official propaganda abut their mendacity and cruelty. Only a few miles away, the Greek Cypriot children of the Mari district will hear tales of the Turkish invasion and of the dies irae of 1974. And the talking classes of the advanced countries will assume, as they were intended to, that ‘the Turks and the Greeks can’t get on together’. In order to criticize this trite and cynical view, which is the psychological counterpart of partition, one has to wage a battle against amnesia. This, in turn, means viewing the history of Cyprus not as a random series of local and atavistic disturbances, but as a protracted, uneven and still incomplete movement for self-determination (or, to put it in a more old-fashioned way, for freedom).
At certain times of day, and at particular bends in the road or curves of the shore, Cyprus is still so lovely that it takes you by the throat. But, when I try to explain the disaster of 1974 to some indifferent politician or smug diplomat, I find myself getting obscurely irritated when they say, as if to palliate the situation, that, ‘Of course it’s such a shame – and such a beautiful island too.’ I have stood on Othello’s tower in Famagusta, and climbed to the peak of St Hilarion, and loafed in Kyrenia harbour, and traced the coast of the Karpass peninsula and the hills and coves around Pyrgos. I have drunk the soup after the midnight service of Greek Cypriot Easter, and celebrated Bayram with the Turks. I cut out and kept Sir Harry Luke’s 1908 tribute to the island when I first read it:

The peculiar charm possessed by the remnants of the Latin East, that East which knew the rule of Crusading lords and the magnificence of Frankish merchant princes, is of a rare and subtle kind, the offspring of oriental nature and medieval Western art. It lies, if the attempt to define so elusive a thing may be allowed, in Gothic architecture blending with Saracenic beneath a Mediterranean sky, in the courts of ruined castles overgrown with deep green cypresses, in date palms rearing their stately crowns above some abbey’s traceried cloisters, in emblazoned flamboyant mansions of golden sandstone warmed and illumined, as they could never be in the West, by the glow of an Eastern sun.

Rereading that passage now, I find it overwritten and sentimental. I am condemned to see all those aspects of Cyprus through the prism of their desecration. They have been spoiled for me and – more crucially – ruined for the Cypriots. Othello’s tower is within sight of the empty waste of the city of Varosha. St Hilarion is in a military zone. Pyrgos can be reached only by skirting a fortified enclave and passing through a napalmed village. The Karpass has been subjected to a clearance and repopulated by colonists. And I am also doomed to the knowledge that Sir Harry Luke, like so many colonial chroniclers of his time, loved the country and tolerated the people. To the end of his days, he despised any manifestations of political turbulence among the Cypriots, and regarded the island as a fiefdom of Great Britain. Even from this perspective, I have still had the privilege of coming to know and to love another people. I believe that I can be objective about the politics of Cyprus, but I most certainly cannot be indifferent or dispassionate. I have tried to preserve this distinction in the following pages, where I argue that the Cypriots are not, as many believe, the chief authors of their own misfortunes. I believe that I may tell a truer story if I admit at once to a sense of outrage which Durrell and his emulators have been spared.


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