Memories of a multicultural life in Nicosia…
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Renovating and opening the Ermou Street – currently on the Green Line in Nicosia – could vitalize a dead part of our capital, bringing visitors, both local and tourists to this part of the town. Ermou Street had been very colourful once, shop owners being Turkish Cypriots, Greek Cypriots, Armenian Cypriots and they worked together in harmony, serving the customers coming from a multicultural society called Cypriots. Long before I had been born, my mother had two houses very close to Ermou Street but I never had the chance to see how life was there since by the time I was born in October 1958, our family had moved to Chaghlayan area in Nicosia, close to Famagusta Gate having bought land and built a house in 1956 there. I would grow up in Chaghlayan, never having a chance to mix with Greek Cypriots since our neighbourhood was a Turkish Cypriot one. On the other hand both my sister and my brother knew that multicultural, bi-communal life having grown up in Ermou and spending their holidays in the Greek Cypriot village Alona, learning to speak Greek, playing with Greek Cypriot children and even in later years, my sister was working with Greek Cypriots in the Republic of Cyprus government offices.
My sister Ilkay was born on 14 January 1944 in Famagusta, she moved to Nicosia with her family. She met Greek Cypriot kids at the beginning of 1950s when she went with her family for holidays to the Alona village.
She remembers playing with Greek Cypriot kids, going to the fountain to have breakfast every morning with them and in the afternoons to the coffee shops where they ate walnut preserve at Alona. She learnt to speak Greek by playing with the kids and later developed it. In 1960-63 she worked at the Treasury Department of the Republic of Cyprus as a civil servant, together with Greek Cypriots – Lena, Hristalla, Androulla – they were very good friends and visited each other's homes. She talks of Leondios Markides who was their boss… She also used to go to the Nicosia Municipality to wait for our father who worked there as town clerk. After work they would go to the cinemas – one of the owners of a cinema was Mr. Loukoudis whom they knew and they spent good times at the cinema. They also used to visit the Poor People's Home of the municipality and play there as a kid. When she entered the exams for the Ministry of Treasury, there were 7 Greek Cypriots and 3 Turkish Cypriots. They asked her questions in English and she answered in Greek, the board was surprised because she was only 17. They asked her where she learnt her Greek and she told them how she learnt the language by playing with Greek Cypriot kids in Alona. They liked her a lot and she got the job as a civil servant. The Greek Cypriots used to call her `Turkish Aliki Vuyuklaki`!... The Cyprus Government had lottery and she would be pulling the numbers – they would call her each time there was lottery to make the draw… These were the things my sister Ilkay would tell me when I had interviewed her for the Cyprus Bi-communal History Project of IKME and BILBAN Research Institutes more than 10 years ago… (*)
Another woman who remembers Nicosia before 1958 is Shefika Durduran. I had interviewed her as well, trying to record the memories of this very remarkable woman who has always had Turkish Cypriot, Greek Cypriot, Armenian Cypriot, Maronite Cypriot, Latin Cypriot friends throughout her life… She had seen the first division of the island when she had to leave her house in Nicosia… I came across a photograph recently of those days when the British put up barbed wire, probably around Ermou Street – this was the first division and it would continue in 1963, the street where I live in would be divided and the whole area of Chaghlayan and in 1974 the whole island would be partitioned, continuing the wound that was bleeding from 1958 and making the wound more deep and more bloody… Because in order to create a `border` like that, many people had to be killed, population pushed away or population encouraged to move, population frightened for their lives who moved on their own or were forced to move… This way, the separation would be `complete` but the seeds of separation had long been planted back in the mid-50s, the implementation took some years, becoming complete in 1974.
Sefika Durduran talked of her memories of Nicosia where she was the first woman lawyer of the Turkish Cypriot community to me – she spoke of memories of working together with Greek Cypriot colleagues, how Nicosia was divided first in 1958 – the way she had to leave her house and could not return again till now…
She was born in 1943 in Nicosia, in Dr. Papapetrou's clinic who was the only gynaecologist at the time in Cyprus. Dr. Papapetrou was my mother's gynaecologist as well, my brother was born in his clinic in those times…Imagine how the communities trusted each other in those times – nowadays if there was a Turkish Cypriot gynaecologist working at the Nicosia General Hospital, would the Greek Cypriots trust him or her to go and give birth under his or her supervision? And vice versa: If a Greek Cypriot doctor worked in the northern part of the island, how many Turkish Cypriots would trust to go to him or her? The separation has been complete in the mentality of Cypriots and we need to rebuild trust, dismantling the horrible pictures of each other that they helped us to paint on each other's faces…
When Shefika Durduran attended the elementary and secondary schools, they were all mixed at the time – Greek Cypriots, Turkish Cypriots, Armenian Cypriots… How many schools can we find like that now? The English School has some Turkish Cypriot students but there is always some sort of `discussion` about them – always those `suspicions` whose seeds have been planted starting from 1950s… How shall we deal with that?
Shefika had learnt Greek from a very early age of 5 because her father spoke very fluent Greek and she lived in the Greek Cypriot quarter of Nicosia, as well as going to mixed schools.
In 1958 she went to Istanbul to study and while living there due to monetary problems, she had to stop studying in the university for some time and work. At her workplace there was an Istanbul Greek and where she lived in Istanbul were also Istanbul Greeks, therefore she always had contact with Greeks and Greek Cypriots.
In 1967 she went to London to study and there were Greek Cypriots in her school. She talks of the time of Kofinou events and the rumours in London during that time. Her school was at Fleet Street, centre of media in London. In November 1967 all Cypriots were worried at school – there were rumours that Turkey would intervene with its military force. Their families were in Cyprus, and that's why all of them were worried.
They had good relations at school with Greek Cypriots. She is a refugee of 1958 and she feels the sadness… But in 1974, when Greek Cypriots had to go through the same ordeal, she feels she can understand and share their feelings because she had to leave her house in 1958.
She graduated as a lawyer (the first Turkish Cypriot woman lawyer in practice) and came back to Cyprus at the end of 1970. Because she spoke both English, Turkish and Greek, she could follow cases in Cyprus government courts. Previously, a few Turkish Cypriot woman lawyers who studied in Turkey tried but did not have these advantages. She was very well received in Cyprus courts… She had very good relations in her working life. Six days a week between 1970-74 she was in courts all over the island. She never encountered any discrimination. Later in the interview she talks of her practice in the southern part of the island even after 1974, when she went to defend Turkish Cypriot individuals in courts when her expertise was needed…
I had also interviewed her mother Mujgan, who is no longer alive now…
Mujgan Hasan Hilmi talked of her memories of 1958 to us – how Nicosia was divided, how they lived before and after this… She talked of the difficulties of survival as a woman who lost her property in the conflict and how she survived…
Mujgan Hasan Hilmi was born in Nicosia in 1920. Her husband who had a pharmacy had died in February 1958. The prominent personalities of the Turkish Cypriot community like Dr. Kucuk, did not want her to close the pharmacy of her husband. So she continued the pharmacy. They did not have a pharmacist but her husband's friends sent them a retired Greek Cypriot pharmacist to help, called Apostol. Dr. Kucuk also approved this. So he was employed by them.
In 1958, she had to leave her house in Nicosia – one of her Greek Cypriot neighbours told her that a Turkish Cypriot girl was killed in the Ayluca mahalla – troubles were brewing so she told her to take her daughter from the school and leave immediately because their lives would be in danger. They had to leave their house and become refugees in 1958.
She talked of how she was threatened to dismiss the retired Greek Cypriot pharmacist otherwise she would be killed!
She contacted Dr. Kucuk because she had the permission of the Turkish Cypriot leadership to employ this person.
Dr. Kucuk told her `Things are out of control. It is not within our control…`
She also went to see Rauf Denktash who was a lawyer then. Denktash made her wait for a long time…
She had to close the pharmacy and lose her livelihood due to this threat. She left the country to go to Istanbul for the studies of her daughter and son.
She talked of the hard times she had to go through in order to raise her children…
We need to think what we have lost, really… We have lost a multicultural life with all its richness and all its cooperation… We live separately and even though checkpoints are open to cross, still there is no encouragement from the leadership of the two main communities of the island to really cooperate or to build a culture of peace… We need to think back and also think of the future – what sort of Cyprus have we created for our children? Is this the heritage we will leave for them as we leave this earth? Or shall we try to do something about it?
Photo: The first division of Cyprus, in Nicosia in 1958…
(*) Article published in POLITIS newspaper on the 8th of September 2013 Sunday.