Cyprus

Nicosia
Cyprus
An article by Niki Marangou on life before, during and now after the time of the green line which for decades has kept northern and southern Cypriots apart.

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Nicosia, Christophoros said, is defined by a tension caused by the Green Line. Everyone on this side wants to go over there, and everyone over there wants to come here. This engenders a passion in the town as it pursues relations with Constantinople and Thessaloniki, but not with Athens.

We were sitting on Konstantis' roof terrace, and all around us the town was spread out: the two shopping streets, a few clusters of palm trees, Hagia Sophia - the Holy Wisdom of God - whose two minarets veil a number of new buildings. 'This was such a important church', I threw in the remark, 'that the coronations of the Kings of Jerusalem and Cyprus took place here - Reges Hierusalem Cypri'. The imam's voice was clearly audible. It was Sunday, and the streets were empty. Only a few bakeries were open, and some passers-by were window-shopping in the pedestrian zone. A giant moon rose like a round slice of watermelon.

I arrived in Nicosia at the age of four, when the clinic that my father had built next to the General Hospital and across the street from the court was finished. I raced up and down the endless corridor on my bike. The move from Limassol to Nicosia made even me, a child, uneasy. A closed society of public servants, of colonial powers, completely different from the Limassol of pleasure-lovers and traders. I have few memories of these years, whereas I could describe every corner of Limassol.

In primary school my imagination was fanned by the struggle of the EOKA - a Greek-Cypriot liberation movement - against the English occupation. I suffered greatly from the fact that my parents brought home an English governess, and I considered them traitors.

I got to know Nicosia later, in the 60s, during puberty, when I rode around the town on my bike. We lived next to the river, in an area of large trees, eucalyptus and palm, very close to the Turkish district. Mother and I went into the Turkish district every day as that was where the town's covered market was, and to the main post office where we picked up Father's letters from his box. I really liked the Turkish part of town. From childhood onwards, I had developed a particular fondness for its old buildings, for its history, and so I kept finding reasons for being allowed to go back there.

The streets with their respective guilds started out in a star shape from the circumference of the Hagia Sophia. There was the street of the goldsmiths, the street with the ironsmiths, the street of cloth makers. On both sides of the street of goldsmiths were small shops with impoverished window displays. The goldsmiths' wares were usually kept in English biscuit tins, in which I rummaged for hours. I found a brooch, a hand representing a flower, or an earring made of the gold of the Ottoman days, which was blended with much copper. And all of it was dirt cheap so that I bought something when my weekly pocket money allowed it. I was especially impressed by those little chains from which hung tiny silver boxes and which were meant for the poll tax. This tax was imposed in the old days on the Greeks of the island by the Turks, and whoever had not paid the tax had his head cut off. Scenes of decapitation were depicted on the tiny boxes; I looked at them for a long time, but never bought one.

There were also many silver wedding rings. Many women handed in their gold wedding rings in 1940, during the war, in return for silver ones, on which was engraved 'War of liberation 1940'. Most of the goldsmiths were Greeks, who left this area after 1963 and were dispersed to the four winds.

My father was very strict. I was only allowed out of the house for school lessons. I had to go even to the British Council in secret. But I discovered many different kinds of learning, in order to create opportunities for myself to go out. I found an Armenian woman in the Turkish district who taught me typing and shorthand. Where learning was concerned, my father never said no, because he firmly believed that his daughters must be educated. So under the pretext of some lesson I escaped, and my path often led me to the Turkish quarter. When I first started flirting with boys, the rendezvous took place on the domes of the Hagia Sophia. I would climb the narrow staircase of the minaret, and beneath my feet all Lefkosia would be spread out to the mountain range of the Pentadaktylos. From one minaret galloped Sinbad the Sailor, from the other Jane Austen. I read all the time. I continued to go into the Turkish district, even when watchtowers were being built on both sides. A young girl on a bike: nobody thought of stopping me.

The line of demarcation divided the town exactly down the middle, along Hermes Street. That was the area my mother and I passed every day. There were countless long shops with glass wares, dishes, drinking glasses, toys, a waterfall of colours, the first plastic objects, whose colours delighted me, tin bowls from China with their painted-on fishes. The area became isolated, the shops were moved elsewhere and scattered.

I left Nicosia in 1965. My path led me to university in Berlin, where I experienced another Nicosia: in my longing for it. When I returned in 1970, I found a town quite transformed, but I too was different: I had changed course, could neither write nor paint now. I wrote newspaper articles on 'The New Tendencies of European Socialism' and was infected by North European melancholia. I had lost my pens. Only the muggy middays of Nicosia helped me remember who I was. The inactivity and on the horizon the palm trees. And the sea.

Before the 1974 invasion Nicosia was almost a seaside town. In twenty minutes you could be on the coast, the car climbing up the hill and then dropping down vertically to Kerynia, to the sea, the magic sea. Often I close my eyes and make this trip to the sea in my dreams. That was twenty six years ago. These days you need two-and-a-half hours to reach a stretch of sea equally worth your while. The sea has disappeared from the everyday life of the town. When I look north towards the Pentadaktylos, which hides the sea, I see the gigantic Turkish flag drawn onto the hillside. I avoid looking that way.

I often go to the old town, the remaining half of it. I walk down Ledra Street, the former central shopping street, which has been pedestrianised. The minarets of Hagia Sophia, which are linked with lines of colourful lanterns during Ramadan, gleam in the background. The Phaneromeni Church; the Emerike Hamam, the baths in the brothel district. The Emerike got its name from the neighbouring Ömeriye Camii mosque, which means shrine of the Ömer Halife. The former monastery of St Augustin was a holy place too. Chroniclers of old report that the everlasting body of John de Montoliv is buried there. It is even told that a German woman traveller on her way back from the Holy Land, who had spent a night praying by the side of the holy man, bit off a piece of his shoulder as a relic to take home with her. But her ship was unable to lift anchor until she confessed her deed and returned the piece of flesh, which immediately grew back onto the corpse.

Nicosia is rich in such stories, like all old towns are which keep their memories in chronological layers. A bit further down are manor house of the dragoman Chatzigeorgakis Kornesios and the old churches. The old town possesses a number of pretty old churches with icons of particular beauty. A characteristic of Cypriot icons is that the donor who paid for the painting of the icons is frequently portrayed near the bottom edge. These portraits are witnesses of the times in which the icons were made: thus we see on the icons Dutch traders, women with lace, magnificent dead girls with their hands crossed on their chests, children with curious hats. In Holy Week, moving services take place in these churches, with epitaphs decorated by girls from the neighbourhood, which recall ancient customs of Adonis worship. I like attending the Easter service in the old town. Everyone gets together. The man with the ancient-Greek profile looking at the six-winged cherubs, the Romans, the Frankish women with their hairnets, the Saracens, Markos the Diakon, the young girl in black, the theologian in his old-fashioned suit: all transfixed amidst gold and velvet 'out of fear of the Agarenes'.

The inhabitants of the houses adjacent to the Green Line, the Line that cuts the town in half, have moved away. Now these houses have become workshops, as for Gabriel the tinsmith, or storage rooms, as for Petros the street trader, who keeps his carts there in order to load them every morning with lemons, melons, Easter candles, depending on the season. Next doors are the one-armed Pavlos chopping wood, Stephanos the lifeguard and Mister Spyros, the cobbler. On the outer wall the word 'Sevasmos', 'respect'. In the evening the streets empty, and anyone lingering on the palm-fringed walls can imagine the sea or at least a river in the trench. But Nicosia has no oases that could ease the summer's heat coming off the Messaoria, the plain that surrounds the town, yellow most of the year. It is in the embers of this summer heat that I like Nicosia best, when a breeze comes out of the West in the evenings, and the scorched town breathes again: everyone goes out into their gardens and onto their balconies.

When at the beginning of the century Nicosia expanded so much that it burst its seams within the town walls, the first districts were built outside the walls. Beautiful classical or colonial-style houses with beautiful gardens. These are the prettiest parts of the town, which have fortunately survived. Because even the new districts that have been built these past few years, have not managed to become homely. A lot of money has recently flowed into Nicosia. Many Cypriots, having lost their houses and jobs after the invasion, moved to Arabic countries and worked there. They have now come back and have rebuilt the place. The wealth is clearly visible in these newly expanded areas: there are houses whose owners first imagined them via tv shows and who may feel uncomfortable actually living in them. These areas have no colour, their new buildings with their columns and swimming pools could be anywhere.

It is the old town that defines me, and the presence of history in every grass-covered wall. That is where I sense, too, the geographical closeness of Nicosia to the East. And the more years pass, the less I feel the need to depart from here, me, who used to be such a passionate traveller. There are hours when I believe that the whole world has gathered in my garden:

In the company of the caterpillar and the pine spider I planted roses today instead of writing poems. The hundred-leaved rose from the house of mourning of St Thomas,
the sixty-leaved rose that Medias brought from Frygia, the Banksian rose, come from China, shoots of the only surviving mouchette in the Old Town, but above all rosa gallica,brought here by the crusaders, also called Damascus rose,with its marvellous scent. With the green caterpillar and the pine spider, the field cricket, bee wolf and spotted dragonfly,the ground beetle, the rose chafer and the praying mantis that devours everything, we share grasses, leaves and sky in this unimaginable garden where everyone, they and I, is passing through.









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