`Cyprus is a broken mirror…`
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Cyprus lost Vartan Malian, an Armenian Cypriot, an activist, a researcher, a humanist, someone who worked throughout his life for human rights… He had been in many continents and spoke many languages. Born in the Kokkinia refugee camp in Greece in 1925, he had emigrated to Cyprus with his family in 1931 and they had settled in Nicosia and lived until 1963 in the Victoria Street mixed with Turkish Cypriots. At home, his auntie Mariam only spoke Turkish so at home he learnt to speak Turkish – Vartan Malian was a man of languages – Turkish, Greek, Armenian, Italian but he was much more than that: He used the languages he spoke to solve conflicts, to bring people together and to struggle for human rights throughout his life.
I had known him since 2001 and had interviews with him twice – about Cyprus he had told me that `Cyprus is like a broken mirror, it is difficult to put it together…` He was part of the peace struggle in Cyprus, helping with his multi-lingual knowledge – many times he would try to build bridges among Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots… All of this was voluntary, from the heart, trying to bring together the broken pieces of the mirror called Cyprus.
When I first met him, he had an office behind the Ledra Street, later on he would move somewhere near Regina Street… He would always be there to help anyone who knocked on his door – Turkish Cypriots, asylum seekers, refugees from all over the world…
When Hrant Dink, an Armenian origin journalist from Turkey had been killed, I had asked Vartan Malian to come and make a speech, not only to commemorate Hrant Dink but also to talk about life in Victoria Street when Armenian Cypriots used to live there. We held the activity at the Arabahmet Cultural Centre that was once an Armenian Culture Club. Up on the stage he went to tell us stories of how Armenians lived together with Turkish Cypriots, what sort of theatre plays they put on the stage he was on now, showing photos from another era… Everyone was touched – everyone knew Vartan Malian, everyone was friends with Vartan Malian…
He died on the 16th of October 2013 at the age of 88… He was buried in Larnaka on the 19th of October 2013… Cyprus lost someone precious and the best words to describe him were said at the funeral by his daughter Sarah Malian… Sarah, at her speech in the funeral said:
`When I tried to write these few words about my father, it occurred to me that whatever I could say about him as my own father wasn't appropriate for an occasion such as this. Of course I have my own personal memories of him as do we all, and they are ours to keep. But really, my father, or 'O Malian' as he was affectionately known, seemed to belong to everyone.
On one occasion I came back from London for a visit and went to his office in Nicosia, the Armenian Research Centre, where he introduced me to a Kurdish asylum seeker who was sitting in a chair, using the words he would use whenever I met one of his friends or acquaintances 'Afti einai I kori mou – this is my daughter'. And the young Kurdish man said 'well that's not possible because Mr Malian is like a father to me and I've never seen you before.'
That wasn't uncommon. I would often hear 'Malian is like an uncle to me, Malian is like a father to me, Malian is more than my best friend, he's my koumbaro.'
But he was also our father. He wasn't your typical father, it's true. He didn't teach me to ride a bike or kick a ball or organise birthday parties. But he did teach me many, many other things. Things that I have carried with me into adulthood.
He taught me about history, about photography, about the Middle East, about Cyprus, about understanding there are always different sides to every story. He taught me about the thirst for truth, the respect for human rights, the struggle for recognition of the Armenian Genocide, that justice doesn't come before truth. He taught me about the need for compassion and mutual understanding, about the futility of conflict, the importance of bridging cultures.
My father had an innate ability to be comfortable among all sorts of people from all walks of life. He himself was born in a Red Cross refugee tent, and felt closest to those who had suffered in their lives, who had really lived. He wasn't interested in high society, and accumulating wealth or enjoying his retirement. In fact until just three years ago, he was still running his office in Nicosia, as dynamic, passionate, hardworking and stubbornly interested in making a difference as ever. Helping anyone suffering human rights abuses, without expecting anything in return. Purely because people had rights enshrined in law and those rights should be protected.
Anyone who knows him will know how much he loved writing letters – "bodji botha" he used to call it. If there was anything unjust or unfair he would write a lengthy letter. If authorities were not providing their services, if a woman was being trafficked and she'd come to his office for help, if a domestic worker was being abused or threatened with deportation on unfair grounds, if a refugee was being discriminated against. They all found a natural home at my dad's office. We have folders and folders of his correspondence, tirelessly seeking justice on behalf of others.
My father would often use one word to describe himself. Curious. He once told me the story of how he came to work in the British army. He had started out as a translator when an officer took him aside and said 'A person like you shouldn't just be translating what other people are saying. It's easy to find people who know languages. But it's not easy to find people who know things…'
And he did know things. A great deal of things. He was a great observer, who always tried to understand what was behind people's behaviour. Why they acted the way they did.
Who else do we know who was in Jerusalem when the King David Hotel was bombed in 1946, and in Kenya during its struggle for independence in the 1950s, who spent three years as a welfare officer for Cypriot labourers in the Suez Canal Zone in 1955, who was there for the drawing of the Green Line in Cyprus in 1964, who met Moshe Dayan and ate stuffed tomatoes with him, who helped in the camps in Cyprus for Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. Who met Gaddafi in Bengazi, Libya when Gaddafi was in the British army. Who was in Swaziland in 1964, and in Belize, Gan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bahrain, and his beloved Yemen. He was also one of the first to initiate talks between Greek and Turkish Cypriots in Pyla in the early 1990s.
Having seen and done so much, been to so many parts of the world and at critical historical moments, it's easy to see why people were drawn to him. He was a great storyteller, full of fantastic anecdotes and memories that he shared with us. He wasn't just an Armenian. He was equally comfortable with Turkish-speaking Cypriots, Greek-speaking Cypriots, Kurds, Sri Lankans, Maronites, Palestinians, Jewish people, Europeans, Lebanese, Egyptians.
He was an activist till the very end, an advocate for the oppressed, until the very end. Even in his ill health, his mind was constantly on his work, on the news, on developments in Cyprus, and yes, continuing to write letters, offering his unique perspective based on years of experience. He never gave up. He refused to give up hope that he would get back to work – that he would continue his dream of creating a Memorial Museum for the Armenian Genocide as a lasting legacy of the suffering of 1.5 million people.
It was very difficult for a man such as my father to be struck down by illness. To have to leave his work and his friends and life to spend endless hours, days in hospitals. A challenge he faced with great patience and dignity. And I, along with my brothers Arto and Hugo would like to acknowledge the incredible efforts my mother made to care for him and to ensure he was able to stay at home.
I could go on for hours about my father's life but today is not the right time. Perhaps later down the line with his close friends we can organise a proper memorial for him.
The best way to pay tribute to my father is to try to live our lives to the fullest, to take chances, to take risks, to not be afraid, to be stubborn about what's right. To always remember you can never understand someone until you've walked in their boots. To be tenacious. To have no regrets. And above all, to be free. And if there is any small comfort to be taken from this merciless time, it is that finally, my father, o Malian, is free.
When someone was departing, my father's common expression was 'güle güle', a phrase in Turkish used by the person staying behind, which literally means 'go with a smile, go laughing'. Today we are here, not to say goodbye, but to say 'güle güle' Papa. Go with a smile. Because now, after a long and difficult fight, you are at peace…`
Photo: Vartan Malian
(*) Article published in the POLITIS newspaper on the 10th of November 2013, Sunday.