“Does anyone know what island this is?” Mrs. Lindgren asked.
Val smiled, and his hand shot up. By now, Mrs. Lindgren was smiling, too. The answer was Cyprus, that small island with the distinctive shape nestled in the Mediterranean, west of Syria. As Val recalled his day in school, I asked him why he smiled when his teacher called on him. “I don’t know. I just did.”
It might take Val years to understand why he wanted to be the student to identify Cyprus, but his reason is clear to me: He is the grandson of Greek-Cypriot immigrants who came to the United States from Cyprus in 1952, leaving behind the agrarian village life for opportunities and experiences in America.
When my parents were growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, there was no electricity, plumbing, phones or washing machines in their Cypriot villages. Women tended to children, made clothes and took care of the house; men looked over the “bervolia,” (fields) where crops were grown and harvested, and spent free time playing “tavli” (backgammon) at the local “kafeneo” (coffee house). Virtually everything they ate was grown or made by them – from the halloumi cheese to the bread, grains, olives, fruits and vegetables. There were no door locks. If anyone needed water, they would go to the “vrisi” in town, collect what they needed and catch up on village news before heading back home. At that time, Cyprus was a nation of Greeks, Turks and some Armenians, a mixed populace that co-existed peacefully.
Although Val’s ties to Cyprus are diluted, he still is half-Cypriot and proud of being able to identify with that deep, rich history. At the same time, Val represents how roots with a country or geographical area are loosened over time. He is aware of the difference in how Greek I am, versus how Greek he is. It’s a running joke in our family that if anyone needs a blood transfusion, they should come to me because I am from “The Source,” a country that dates back 11,000 years, while everyone else in our immediate family - Val, his sisters and especially my husband – a real “American xenos” (outsider) - are watered-down versions of the past.
From me, and as far back as my parents can recall – several generations – the story is this: The blood in our veins is Greek-Cypriot. All of my relatives from my father and mother came from northern Cyprus, an area that today is in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a self-declared state that began with the 1974 invasion of Cyprus. By coming to the United States, my parents began to tug at their family tree and put out distant branches. They had children who were born U.S. citizens, and although I look Greek, speak the language and am familiar with customs and traditions, I am an Americanized version of who I would have been had my parents stayed in Cyprus. I continued to untie, rather than unite my Greek-Cypriot heritage, by marrying outside of my nationality. I drew the line, ending the “all Cypriot” heritage and made myself the last full-blooded Cypriot. No longer is everyone in my family totally Greek.
Still, I do what I can to instill Cypriot pride in our children. All three were baptized in the Greek Orthodox church, and I have learned to cook dishes my mother used to make. I tell them stories about their grandparents and their determination and courage to leave home and rebuild their lives in a new world, something countless nationalities have done.
A couple of years ago, we took our three children to Washington, D.C., to see “Cyprus: Crossroads of Civilizations,” an exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. It was an antiquities collection that showcased Cyprus’ deep, rich history dating to 11,000 years B.C., when the first humans – likely hunters - were known to have been in Cyprus. I knew that I was a descendant of these early people, of any of the settlers who established lives on Cyprus.
Throughout Cyprus’ long history, there have been many cultures attracted to the island for its location near three continents – Europe, Asia and Africa – and its natural beauty and resources. With that attraction comes an inevitable price: Cyprus has always been a land to conquer and possess. Persians, Egyptians, Arabs, the British, Venetians, Romans, and Ottomans have all dominated Cyprus through the centuries. The last battle over Cyprus happened in 1974, when Turkey invaded the island’s northern third after a failed attempt by Greek-Cypriots to unite Cyprus with Greece. The move was catastrophic for both populaces and exhibited the usual atrocities found during wars: rapes, murders, looting of artifacts, displacement, and other excruciating losses. To this day, Greek-Cypriots living in other areas of Cyprus and around the world are unable to freely return to their previous homes and resume their lives. Worse, about 2,000 Greek and Turkish-Cypriots are still missing from that summer, my maternal grandparents among them.
With the 1974 invasion and the natural changes that come with the simple, constant passage of time, Cyprus bears very little resemblance to the island my parents knew. It is deep, permanent change caught up in unstoppable momentum. When my parents talk about the 1974 invasion, and even when they recall their lives on the isle, they don’t have hatred for the Turks. This is because they grew up in Cyprus when the general population of Greeks and Turks were friends. At the time, there were several villages near my parents’ homes that were predominantly occupied by Turkish families. Everyone knew each other, worked side-by-side to harvest crops and relied on each other as good neighbors do.
My parents find more fault with Greek-Cypriots who wanted to end British rule in Cyprus. Under the British crown, Cyprus was protected but those salad days turned sour as some Cypriots fought to end colonial rule on the island. They wanted their independence, a risk for a nation so small and unable to properly defend itself. Ultimately, the people who paid the price for this independence are not the same people who wanted the British gone.
As tensions escalated between Turks and Greeks in the 1960s, Turkey took steps to stop plans to unify the island with Greece. While my parents have criticized Turkey’s violence and belligerence, they are realistic enough to realize it was an inevitable response. Cyprus used to be part of the Ottoman Empire, and Turkish-Cypriots in Cyprus have roots as deep as Greek-Cypriots. A union with Greece with unacceptable.
Whatever has happened in Cyprus since Turkey took the northern third, it does not matter to those with deep ties to the island. Oceans can’t keep the love away. Time can’t kill it. Invasions won’t change their affinity. Cyprus is in their blood. Only death can sever one’s ties to a beloved nation. My father, who is 92, has insisted I take him back to Cyprus for burial, even though he has been in the United States more than 60 years. That is true love of country.
Today, Cyprus is a mixture of lavish tourist bubbles co-existing within the real world of how locals live their lives – working and taking care of their families, coping with economic and financial issues. The recent bailout crisis was just one more chapter in Cyprus’ long, complex history. It was ironic to see demonstrators holding up signs that said “Hands Off Cyprus,” because the island, for most of its history, has been handed from one country to another, either willingly or by force. In the face of this, the people of Cyprus, both Turkish and Greek, have always done one thing. Something they have done well since the land was first settled: They have endured. They survive loss, death, catastrophe and challenges, not only as individuals but also as a nation. There is great pride in the people of Cyprus, something they can use to help each other in the years ahead.
We mustn’t look at Cyprus and its people as victims. Cyprus and Cypriots – both Greek and Turkish – are resilient people. They can never be broken and their nation has survived troubled times and repeatedly risen from the trauma. Cyprus will always be there, but the country’s best chance for moving forward is to end the division – something younger and older generations seem to want – and allow the nation’s mixed populace to blend together in the best interest of Cyprus. Through education and cooperation, there will be a better chance to see an end to hostilities for the benefit of the people.
I recently experienced a small taste – literally - of how things can go between Greeks and Turks. During a recent lunch with a friend, I found myself in a restaurant I had never been to before. The name was Pasha and I immediately liked it. I felt comfortable with the Mediterranean décor and menu items. I ordered a flavorful crab cake sandwich on artisan bread with a smooth, appetizing lentil soup.
As I dug in, I asked my friend a question, “What kind of restaurant is this?”
She looked at me and said, “It’s Turkish. I hope that’s OK with you.”
I smiled. It was.
Loukia Borrell is a native of Toledo, Ohio, and was raised in Virginia Beach. She is a former journalist and the author of “Raping Aphrodite,” a novel set against the 1974 invasion and division of Cyprus. Loukia is married to media analyst Gordon Borrell. They have three children and live in Virginia.