Finding culture in Turkish occupied northern Cyprus


There is so much diversity in culture on this earth that someone must have wished for a  cooking competition to settle disputes between nations, reports John Sanderson.’

Notice how sport gives disadvantaged countries the chance to unite and feel good about themselves and make up for injustices. Just imagine the Iraqi soccer team practicing their little hearts out, hoping their efforts bring peace. Could it work for those that love fruit, vegetables and cooking.

Visiting northern Cyprus

With this in mind I visited Cyprus, my wife’s country of origin with its rolling mountains of limestone that can make your heart race if you are an expatriate. I was looking forward to seeing vineyards and paddocks of okra. We were staying in the home of my brother in law in a suburb of Limasol (Lemesos), and my brother in law’s brother in law had agreed to accompany us to my father in law’s lost village, one of many taken by a Turkish invasion in 1974.

We drove north to Famagusta and soon had to pay a car insurance tax to Turkish guards at a border crossing. It was hot, balmy summer holiday weather and the Turkish personnel all looked unenthusiastic. They were collecting road tax in their steamy, non airconditioned roadside booths while their friends were frolicking in 35 degree heat on Turkish beaches.

Antonis Zaharia, my wife Desi’s sister in law’s brother in law, took the opportunity to niggle the soldiers. “why can’t you learn to speak Greek?” he offered. I tried to quieten him down so we’d get through in one piece and keep out of the evening news. It was exciting because we were going “home” to Desi’s lost village on the mid northern Cyprus coast.

In the outer suburbs of Famagusta we drove through narrow streets built for a horse and cart, finally emerging into the modern Turkish influenced Cyprus where the invaders have gone overboard with construction, trying  to prove they have bettered the place.

Next we encountered a modern highway that meandered along the northern Cyprus coast beside the sea where hundreds of plush two storey units have been built on land, probably without the permission from the landowners.

(pictured below, our guide Antonis, on the left, catches up with the Turkish army officer who lives in his former house and eats the figs and grapes he planted before 1974.)

Cyprus (1)

Housing boom?

It appears that entrepreneurial English developers and others have been cashing in on the understandable desire to own a holiday house 100 metres from the Mediterranean sea.

Most notable was an English family that built a seaside mansion on the north-eastern panhandle side of Cyprus. The real landowners  took them to court and the British court judged that the land should be restored to its original condition. The couple thought they’d bought the land “fair and square” from someone Turkish and appealed to the British High court, enlisting the help of eminent QC Cherie Blair who had the decision overturned. They reckoned that war is war and a British man’s home is his castle, even if built on stolen land. The Cypriot owners then took it to the European Court of Justice which reinstated the first decision ordering the UK couple to pay a mountain of costs. It decided the 1974 invasion did not remove the land rights of the original owners.

With this fresh in mind we turned off the road to Famagusta and meandered north through small villages with narrow streets as we sought a short cut over the mountain range. Nowadays the bush roads were sealed but they had been a nightmare for both donkeys and bus in the old days, 35 years ago.

The Bentathaktilo Range (five fingered range) seemed less intimidating and the village of Dhavlos seemed much smaller than I’d imagined. It had been renamed Kaplica by the Turkish occupiers and there were copious signs, about 20, in case someone thought they were still in Dhavlos.

The village hugged the  base of the range in the centre of the northern Cyprus coast. On a clear day you can see the Turkish mainland.

(Desi, below, is excited at her first visit to Dhavlos since the early 1970’s)

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Desi began recalling her memories:

“This was my school, and this was our corner store where we played cards and told stories. Bapau had the village blacksmith shop and he loved to grow vegetables and fruit on his plots of land, including some that were half way up the mountain range. He used to take us up on his donkey and tell us stories. After school we’d walk a kilometer to the sea, scoffing figs from trees planted by Bapau along the bush track. After a swim we’d collect mollusks from rocks around the shore, eating some raw and taking others home,” remembered Desi. For economic reasons her Dad had to swap this simple, peaceful village life for noisy smelly London in order to support his wife and seven children.

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Desecrated cemetery

We noticed the Orthodox church had been stripped and a large Turkish mosque adorned the centre of town. The cemetery had been dug up and turned into a ploughed allotment to try to erase any Cypriot history. The graves of grandparents on both sides of my wife’s family had fallen victim to the excavator and plough.

We inspected the wreckage of their old houses and the former blacksmith shop. Desi’s grandpa had lived in a stone and cement house but Antonis had been a builder, his being the best construction in Dhavlos. It had been given to a chap called Sevim, an officer in the Turkish army. He was representative of many Turks in Dhavlos and the northern occupied sector. Some appeared apologetic and went out of their way to meet us and shake our hands, even introducing some of their small children. The Turks had lived quite happily among the Cypriots for hundreds of years before the invasion of 1974. Up till then they’d appreciated each others’ food, recipes and culture. My wife’s babysitter had been Turkish.

Next we four visitors went to order lunch at the massive but slightly out of place, Kaplica Restaurant which was built on the shoreline below a bank of million dollar units. This is a stones throw from the ancient village however there is a serious lack of town planning and it may have been done for show because there is only ever a handful of people eating there. There are no port facilities so paying tourists can come by boat and there is no airport so these large facilities can be paid for. There is just a winding mountain road built to take donkeys and small cars. Maybe the Turkish Government has bankrolled the huge restaurant that could easily seat 500 guests and the holiday units that could billet those people if they could get there.

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Sevim drove down to the restaurant and implored Antonis to come and eat at “his” home. We had already ordered but we agreed to pop in later for coffee and fruit. Then he offered to pay for our meals but we declined because I’d agreed to pick up the tab.

As expected there was a meagre 10 people seated in the marble floored Kaplica beach restaurant that could comfortably seat the entire cheer squad from England’s cricket team.

Here we enjoyed scrumptuous fish chips and salad. We’d not tasted better on our entire trip. Most of England’s chips appear to be the frozen kind but here they were home made. The fish was sweeter and fresher than anything we’d eaten thus far. Obviously the chef had time on his hands and wasn’t subject to normal commercial constraints. He offered, “hope you like the fish because I caught it yesterday. I am sorry it is a day old but it was a bit windy out in the boat today.”

(The Kaplika restaurant gave a good view of the fog that shrouded the Turkish mainland)

Cyprus visit 5

After lunch we called on the former home of Antonis where Sevim had coffee and fruit ready for us. It was a pleasure to see he and Antonis reminisce over the grape vines and the fig trees that produced the best fruit we’d tasted in ages. The figs had an incomparable sweetness. So back to our original introduction for this story about culture.

Can an obvious love of produce, among mankind, and a sharing of culture, ever bring about unity?

Cyprus (2)

“If you come back to live here, you can live on the bottom and I can build on the roof of your house,” suggested the ex army officer but Antonis didn’t jump at the idea. Most were full of generosity and kindness and almost apologetic about the invasion of northern Cyprus.

We were eating the delicious figs and grapes grown on Antonis’ trees and vines and drinking good Turkish coffee. In the rest of the world, this beverage serves to loosen the strings of people’s hearts as they make business deals and talk and share culture and stories. It was here that I committed my major Aussie mistake of the entire journey. I love the Mediterranean greeting. I had it down to a fine art. In a climate of equal opportunity, men and women kiss on both sides of the cheek. I didn’t study the training module because if I did, I would have learnt that you don’t ever  try to kiss a Moslem chap’s wife farewell. In almost slow motion, my relatives frantically reached out to stop me. I hope Sevim can still laugh about my ignorance because my Cypriot family have been doing that.

Finally in Turkish occupied northern Cyprus, surrounded by a mountain of memories, good food, produce and culture, the ex army gent confided: “We live as Moslems here but in my heart I also feel like a Christian.” It was a comment that bridged a lot of gaps for Antonis.

The chaps hugged and kissed as Mediterranean men do, and then we were gone.

About John
John started out as a cadet in 1970 at Bundaberg News Mail, continuing as a feature writer at Rockhampton Morning Bulletin, then began producing regular freelance articles for the Sunday Mail and New Idea. Later he took up science writing for Qld climate, water and soil scientists. Whimsical stories and humorous bush poetry is his current passion.

1 Comment

  1. Excellent intelligent reading for those who care.

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