Dispatches from Nicosia: Birds, Cats, and the Cyprus Talks

October 10, 2017 | 1 12 min read

Running the river path of Nicosia some mornings ago, I stumbled across two kittens. One small, orange, scrawny; the other gray and white. Both had a single weeping eye, yet the gray kitten seemed sadder. I watched long enough, the pair struggling forth on the bare sunbaked road before the path gives way to dry dirt hills covered with cracked irrigation tubing. Long ago I learned there is no way to visit a place or be visited by a person and stay unchanged.

Only two weeks earlier on a boarded-up Sunday street, my children and I similarly came across a barely breathing bird fallen on the ground, veins and legs red, a fledgling baking on a 106-degree afternoon when nothing stirred in Nicosia, one of the world’s last divided capitals. You walk from the end of Europe into a Turkish-controlled zone just by flashing your passport. Nicosia is torn into three as if the children of divorce in which the exes just cannot get along: the southern predominantly Greek Cypriot side; the U.N. buffer zone marking the Green Line between two halves; and then the northern part southerners call the Turkish-occupied zone while Turkish-speaking northerners call it Turkish Cyprus.

I am here to research, among other questions, the poet C.P. Cavafy. The entire enterprise bears an imprint of ridiculousness the poet himself might have appreciated: rumors abound regarding whether Cavafy, that dignified dandy of a poet who wrote such strange confessions about same-sex eros with such a clear eye on posterity, ever visited the island. He had a niece; he came. Others say, strongly, no, he is confused with Giorgos Seferis, who wrote about the nightingales of Platres, but Cavafy in Cyprus? No! And yet he has odd references in his poems which at least show a comfort with the island’s profound geography. A Kyrenian painter, he says in one place, or speaks of sailing seas of Cyprus and Syria. Cavafy writes less of birds and Cyprus, more of desire. While, during our bird debacle, two lines stayed with me: “And if you can’t shape your life the way you want/at least try as much as you can not to degrade it.”

We had been degrading in all sorts of ways, baking in southern heat. As we watched the bird, a passing spry Cypriot, the kind of man who in the States would be a bike messenger, aged into wiry skinniness, took interest in our crouch. Without hesitation, he intervened, lifting the bird to place it back in the nest we had spied in the crook of a nearby tree. And then laughed at our faces. We too had migratory status: unacclimated, we stared.

I leave such things to fate, he explained. The will of the gods! Shrugging: who knows?

Such capricious gods my daughters could not accept. After our messenger passed, we asked suggestions from an ironic restaurant owner who had espied our follies from his own perch: seated before an empty birdcage in an alley with sheets stretched overhead for shade, smoking shisha from an ornate purple pipe. A pale Russian man by him proffered a ramen box, the skeptical owner handed us a slice of American white bread, and the owner’s friendly wife from the Philippines offered a thimble of birdseed. Inside her friends hooted at a karaoke contest playing out over a vast television screen, melodies blaring a stereophonic and unsongbirdlike wail that had its own dirgelike human drama.

Collectively endowed, the three of us, mother and daughters, ended up parading back in heat, carrying the bird in the ramen container all the way home. Yet as we entered the apartment door, someone shoved by one daughter and so the bird fell to the ground, making a double impact.  In our apartment we twittered over it, creating a bed from torn bits of tissue paper. While we looked up how to feed such a defenseless creature, in the relative cool, the passerine started to look calmer, though outside, on the streets, no one moved, even after the muezzin called the faithful in for Ramadan’s afternoon prayers. In the southern part of Nicosia, the muezzin usually summons solo Bangladeshi, Pakistani, or Syrian boy students who aced their TOEFL in the British Councils back home, most of them here on restrictive visas and forced to find community by lingering in parks and take-out places. But on this day, because of the heat, no one walked through the street below our apartment.

Online, in our reading, two lines of thought prevailed: one was that we had kidnapped the bird, the other was that if it was a fledgling, we had done the right thing and there probably no longer existed any mother willing to adjudicate or tend.

This afternoon had started to feel the way many Turkish Cypriot folktales begin, a la: “once there was and once there wasn’t, when the sieve lay in the hay and yesterday was today.” Perhaps we could nurse the bird back to life and then set it free near its tree.

Cavafy can be an ornery muse, self-involved and yet hortatory. At one point he says: “Even this first step/is a long way above the ordinary world./To stand on this step/you must be in your own right/a member of the city of ideas.” He had, in many ways, been cheering me on in Cyprus.

And still, even as the bird calmed away from the heat, how awful to see the thinness of the life impulse, red pulsing the base of the scrawny legs. Ways to mistreat such a vulnerable creature multiplied; we probably already had been guilty of most. Yet we held out some dim hope: in some parallel universe of happy endings, the mother may yet have been hovering near, awaiting the return of her babe, though from the start, even given a hunting interval, we’d seen none, and fledglings ostensibly need to be fed every 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, in another paralleloverse, macho heads of state from both the Greek and Turkish Cypriot sides showed masculine potency by eating, in clandestine hushed settings, this bird’s phylogenetic cousins, black caps and song thrushes called here ambelopoulia: eating these migratory songbirds is a newly illegal act.

Finally, we spoke to wildlife rehabilitation people, doing what we could toward resuscitation. We were to use dog kibble soaked in hot sugar water, mushed, cannibalistically, with baby formula and hard-boiled egg, but ended up only able to make a small ball of chicken yolk from our offering, poked on a toothpick toward the fledgling. At our offerings, it pecked only limply.

That weekend, endangerment was everywhere.

Monday, heads of Turkish and Greek communities were to convene in Geneva with the exhausted United Nations people yet again. Some dreamers still believed shuttle diplomacy might prevail. Even if, already that month, the U.N. itself had given up hope, leading to this occurrence: daily in the buffer zone between the two checkpoints, watched over by becapped Serbian and Bosnian peacekeepers with ironic smiles, a hardy group of Cypriot optimists had been gathering to sing Joan Baez songs, blow whistles and vuvuzelas, reading bicommunal poems with the hope of mobilizing a movement to get not just the U.N. but the whole country back in the Unite Cyprus platform. To participate in that rally, to stand in that raucous buffer zone, was to breathe the air of such beautifully antique idealism, it became harder to cross 20 meters over to the Turkish side (where water comes from a pipeline all the way from Turkey) and note the crumbling infrastructure and unsupported buildings.

Or, as Cavafy would have it:

…the Alexandrians thronged to the festival
full of enthusiasm, and shouted acclamations
in Greek, and Egyptian, and some in Hebrew,
charmed by the lovely spectacle—
though they knew of course what all this was worth,
what empty words they really were, these kingships.

Could there be a reunited Cyprus?

It depends on who has your ear.

The island saw waves of immigration and conquest from the Minoans and Phoenicians, from the Ottoman Empire, from the Assyrians, Greeks, Venetians, French, and British. In 1960, after decades of fostering division and bicommunal identification—even Lawrence Durrell got into the meddling from his lemon house, via his work at an English newspaper—the British had foisted an idea of Cyprus and Cypriots on the people of the island, the concept of an independent country few in the country wanted, according to many, the country just riding the coattails of other independence movements: India and the other colonies. Before independence, in 1960, Greek Cypriots were linked with Greece and Turkish Cypriots with Turkey. By 1963, after a spate of violence that roared out of Greece and took over Cyprus, Turkish Cypriots lost trust in their former neighbors, which they then needed to cover over with some amnesia in order to get along until 1974, ending a period of unparalleled prosperity for the island during its sole 14 years of self-governance.

In 1974, instigated by the junta in Greece, Turkey took over the northern third of the island. To Turkish Cypriots in that moment, many women and children having had to flee north to follow their fathers and husbands who had already been rounded up, Turkey did not occupy the north, it provided a necessary peacekeeping force. So testifies the 50-foot statue of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk atop the mountain range near Kyrenia, or the massive Turkish flag design cut into the hills soon as you drive out past the Greek checkpoint, or the Turkish flags made of metal in order to be always visible over Nicosia.

One of many deleterious legacies of 1974 is that 40 percent of the population will identify as refugees. Turkish Cypriots fled generational homes in the south for protection to the north, paralleling the northern Greek Cypriots who fled south, all of which leaves the north a nation unrecognized by anyone but Saudi Arabia and Turkey, considered illegally occupied territory. And because many in the north are civil servants paid by Turkey, because infrastructure comes from Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan remains the parent in this situation: complained about (Turkey makes unconscionable profit from the water it diverts to Turkish Cypriots), yet also necessary, saber-rattling as it might be: many believe Turkey might yet bomb the oil drilling undertaken by a French company, Total, begun last July in one of the Cypriot “blocks” in the Mediterranean.

So that while the wounds may differ, they hurt equivalently. Turkish Cypriots tend to recall 1963 and its outbreak of bicommunal violence while some Greek Cypriots tend to stoke 1974. A Greek physicist mother will say she doesn’t want Erdogan a presence in her kids’ school in the southern Greek side and a Turkish refugee up north will say she doesn’t want to go south again to Paphos, where she once owned a restaurant, because neither Costas and Andreas remain—those friendly Greek neighbors with whom she once enjoyed her muddy coffee (called Cypriot coffee in the south, Turkish coffee up north).

While most Turkish-side locals say they do not trust Erdoğan, others feel he is a man of courage, worthy of admiration, preventing the rape by other nations, as they will say.  “Look, thousands of Muslims were killed in the very center of Europe, in Yugoslavia, while Europe just stood by,” one temperate Turkish Cypriot woman told me. “We need Turkey.”  Negotiations with the U.N. were meant to contemplate whether 40,000 Turkish soldiers got to remain on the island or whether there might be a third-party guarantor of Turkish Cypriot safety. Would they succeed? Theories abounded. While Greek Cypriots tend to remember their childhood homes in the north, often fetishizing the particular key, the fig tree, a substantial number of Turkish Cypriots now do not wish to unify, as economically fetching as it might be to become members of the European Union.

Ghostlike dates hover over all: 1964, the moment when a British general used a chinagraph pen to mark out the “Green Line” as a ceasefire between the two communities; 1974 when president and former archbishop Makarios was overthrown by a Greek coup, leading Turkey to use the opening for its partitionist plans, according to some; the opening of the checkpoints in 2004; the referenda that have been rejected; Cyprus joining the European Union.

History has a way of striking families obliquely yet creating villages of communal feeling: one moment can torque an entire habitat into being, creating odd bedfellows.

Turkey, for instance, has been shipping in busloads of loyal and religious peasants from Anatolia in order to change the numbers and culture of the north. In the south, one often hears Greek Cypriots state that while they are fine and happy with Turkish Cypriots, these new Turks are unlettered and rude, crass and different, descendents of Mongolian barbarians. And yet how often I heard a genteel Anatolian or westerner speak in glowing terms of Erdogan, who began his connection to Cyprus in a far more liberal and gentlemanly fashion than he now behaves.

And while recent genetic studies prove the deep connection between the Greek Cypriots and Turk Cypriots, ethnonational discourse lives among the most virulent Greek speakers, who revere Hellenism and the cult of Enosis, union with Greece. In their ancient rhetoric, you hear that Istanbul means barbarism and Athens gentility, a story older than Byzantium.

A man born after 1974 told me that he has seen every country in his region become a plaything for superpowers: Cyprus, Libya, and Afghanistan have served as toys for the U.K., Russia, Turkey, and the U.S., with China now determinedly snatching up land. These superpowers sow communal discord, while only the Nicosia sewage system, linking the two halves of the capital, offers an homage to peaceful cooperation, gurgling bicommunally: what gets worked out underground fails to be worked out aboveground.

In “Sailing to Byzantium,” Yeats, mourning the loss of what a younger self knew, says: “That is no country for old men.” Around the same time, Cavafy from his perch in Egypt and Turkey imagined ancient Hellene leaders at the cusp of losing power. In “Ithaka,” read at Jackie Kennedy’s funeral, Cavafy tells his reader, essentially, if you sail to Ithaka and find it lacking, the journey will have mattered: your perception is the only thing that might make it lack.

These many months we have been living in this sundered zone amid the din of trauma, nostalgia, and claims of worth, hearing the simultaneous clamor of muezzin and church bells. Many have given up hope for unification. The youth are a bit tired of all this talk of the katastasis. For our part we have been trying to offer up random spots of good, volunteering in a Turkish orphanage and a southern refugee camp housing Kurds, Syrians, Somalians, Lebanese, built over the site of a massacre in the 1960s. But it feels as if no effort can truly touch the central issue, which is what it has long been: who ever gets the story of identity right? Even a tiny bird fallen near us proved how very good we all are at bungling.

About that bird: finally, in the opposite of a triumphal march, we brought it back, past the restaurant where the owner no longer sat at his purple shisha in the alley but had retired inside to his wife and small boy.

At the tree near where the fledgling had fallen, we placed it back in the nest. Birds have little sense of smell; perhaps the mother had only gone out for a bit; perhaps nature or fate would reassert itself. The older daughter kindly consoled the younger: now the bird gets to rest.

Fortunately or not, a week ago showed the bird had gone to a happier perch somewhere: the nest was either empty by the bird’s choice or had been emptied by a greater power, a predator or disconsolate mother.

Which is why I hesitated today with the kittens.

I had dropped the kids off for their second day at a happily unheeding Cypriot summer camp lacking all American liability papers and went for a run through the municipal park where Sundays Filipina and Sri Lankan domestic workers gather for a day of picnicking and community on their single day off from government-mandated schedules as six-day maids, the state’s form of modern slavery. I ran through that park, once a cruising nighttime area for clandestine men, and into another where I practically stumbled over the kittens.

The pair seemed pathetically starved and ill-treated: perhaps someone had abandoned them. I waited long enough to be sure no mother lived in the picture, hunting or not. The orange one had some gregariousness, rubbing up against my leg. At first I wanted to bring them home so at least one kid would delight when coming home from camp, but then knew another in our family, allergic, would protest. Instead I picked them up in my shirt and carried them to a place along the river path which grew especially wild, where houses met a pedestrian ramp.

There I’d often seen a young woman in black flowing clothes tending to stray cats, putting out food and dishes of water and milk in late afternoon when the sun bent over the ravine toward the cracked walls of her house. A few centuries ago, the Venetians had brought cats to Cyprus as rat-killers, according to some, while others claimed the French were the first. Soon as we had landed, multiple cat eyes were staring at the new arrivals, peeking out from under corrugated tin, from the branches, from under cars. Only a grown black minx, self-assured with a small black cat, came toward me, the sleekest best-looking member of the pack. Was this a friendly confederacy or an autocracy? I brought the kittens to a bowl of water and the orange showed acumen, sipping with great thirst, while the small gray one practically fell in. I left not knowing whether I had done the right thing, only that I had done something.

At night my children and I passed through a square where reggae blasted, Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” set to techno, courtesy of the amazing Home for Cooperation here, a place stationed in the U.N. Buffer Zone which tries to create free events that will bring Turkish and Greek Cypriots together in an easy appreciation of culture and the environ. Other non-governmental organizations dedicated to refugee rights sold small plastic-wrapped plates of tabouli. A young Somali teen in red hijab danced ecstatically with a group of small children. The NGO administrators kept hissing at the gathered cats to leave, but drawn by the music, the cats stayed lit by the floodlights in the square beneath the church, hopeful that some scrap of understanding might be shown them.

And then this morning again came the news. Negotiations had failed this time, perhaps for good. The Greek president, Nicos Anastasiades, had bewilderingly said no to the military presence of 750 Turkish soldiers, instead choosing to keep the status quo of 40,000. The United Nations decided to leave the two Cypriot parties, Greek and Turkish—groups different only by religion and language—to duke it out themselves. An exhausted António Guterres, the lead U.N. negotiator, wished Cyprus well. Everyone would be left with what the colonizers had torn asunder. “Before 1974, we used to live like brothers, sisters, cousins,” Turkish and Greek Cypriots often tell me.

And today when I ran the path again, to my horror, the mother cat—I am almost sure she is the mother—turned up in the spot from which I hoisted the kittens. Orange and black, stilled after she licked her paw, she sat patient as a cenotaph and is still there waiting on the path for her kittens to come home. “Wise as you will have become,” says Cavafy, “so full of experience/you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.” I am still waiting.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

is the author of three novels, most recently Crawl Space and Lola, California, and Kingdom of the Young, a collection of short fiction with a nonfiction coda. She teaches in the UMass Amherst MFA. Instagram. Twitter. More at: ediemeidav.com.

One comment:

  1. Quite a lovely essay. May I recommend Canadian writer Steven Heighton’s “The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep” about a soldier suffering from PTSD who lands in this no man’s zone between Turkey and Greece. I wish to thank you for intoducing me to the the poem by Cavafy “And if you can’t”. What a poem! There are so many translations, I have been reading all of them, and trying to understand the essential meaning. Oh if only I were capable with languages to understand the original. Thank you again for this lovely essay.

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