Men in coffeeshops, young people nursing frappes the size of milkshakes for hours at a time – talking seems to be our national pastime.
And one topic in particular is at the centre of all our conversations – the Cyprus problem; the division of our island.
How I have wished that something else could occupy my thoughts and conversations. And just when I thought that I couldn’t have one more discussion or even casual conversation about the current status quo in Cyprus, I have one that truly stays with me. So much so that it provides inspiration for a blog post.
I recently met someone who’s writing a book on the social legacy of the Ottoman Empire. Born and brought up in the UK to an English father and Turkish Cypriot mother, this person’s story spoke to me. Most of all, as I found some parallels with my own story, such as the fact that she had also ‘misplaced’ her Turkish at a young age – as had I – and later relearnt it in Istanbul. This reminded me of my own surreal experience (which I outline here and here) of having learnt the dialect as a child, but then on relearning the language as an adult, whereby I had to learn standard Turkish (the dialect is not taught).
Our conversation gained speed, whizzing through the politics of the north, the recent elections of the south and took sharp turns into mixed villages she didn’t know about, such as my own, Potamia, and onto the strange dynamics within these mixed villages (Pyla included). We didn’t stop there, she had been to visit ‘Rum babushkas’* and priests in Dipkarpaz (Karpasia). We spoke about her surprise at the lack of good Turkish of some, and the incredibly well-spoken Turkish of other ‘Rums’ living in the area.
Unsurprisingly, language took centre stage for most of our conversation. For a long time now I’ve found it disappointing that both communities mainly communicate in a language that’s neither Greek nor Turkish, despite it being necessary; she described it as ‘artificial’. Indeed, it certainly feels that way sometimes, it feels as if our Cypriot culture cannot be adequately conveyed in English.
Language plays a big part in my own identity and the way I understand my own Cypriot culture through language. I’ve mentioned many times that one of the issues I faced in coming into contact with Turkish Cypriots from the north, was the realisation that they do not speak Greek, like the Turkish Cypriots from my village. I still slip up; the other day I sent a Turkish Cypriot friend of mine a photo with a very cool piece of graffiti on it. It was a building with the word ‘πελασινιβερσι.’ It is a Turkish phrase – in fact the full phrase is ‘allah belasını versin’ meaning ‘may he be damned.’ And I stupidly forgot that he doesn’t know Greek.
We are a product of division and our need to speak in English is a product of that too. Whether we deem that positive or negative is neither here nor there. If you’re the kind of person that sees the glass half full, which I am, at least we have the ability to communicate with each other.
*reference to British Telecom’s (BT) 1995 commercial
*Rum is the word used in Turkish to refer to Greek Cypriots or more precisely, it was the word used by Turks to refer to Greeks living in within the Ottoman Empire.
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