A Walk Through Ledra
by Kivanc Houssein.
“Nicosia? Why would you want to go to Nicosia? it’s a city, it’s too hot, it’s too dry, why the other side? stay here, eat, go to the beach!” All that rang in my ears, and, as my suitcase dragged over the uneven cobblestones in the early morning heat, I was starting to think they were right. Why? Because I want to see and feel and hear for myself, to put my open-mindedness to the sword.
Who would emerge, the Village Bigot or the Village Idiot? And whilst I don’t mind being called ‘The Village Idiot’, who thinks everyone is created equal and it is incumbent on us all to help those in need, being the Village Bigot full of hate and bile wouldn’t sit right with me. “Parakalo” said the checkpoint guard to me, I thought he meant ” just walk right through”. No. A second, more stern “Parakalo” with a fingerpoint, meaning “I want to look through your case” . Nothing my polite smile and lack of contraband tobacco couldn’t fix. His hand did hover agonisingly over my bottle of absinthe….ignore it re, no please, ‘future me’ sees shooting stars with that, no, noo……YES! His hand moved away!
After a sweaty repacking of my bag I began the walk up Ledras Street and into my first shock. An actual McDonalds and right next to it a Starbucks, not ‘Mickdonots’ or ‘Starbuds’ imititations I had got used to on the North side. Even more surreal, a gaggle of Asian women on their day off from house chores taking selfies amongst the early morning clean-up crews. This and the heat confused me. Is this Cyprus? It could be Costa Del British Highroad .
I didn’t succumb to the franchises and opted for a wholesome Cypriot breakfast at the hotel, much more satisfying and a whole lot less McCholesterol. Refreshed and re-clothed I met my guide who is eloquently knowledgeable and wise. Being thus our first port of call was air-conditioning, cocktails infused with spices and herbs, and a catch up chat. Very modern, very swish, just being there made me feel chic. Next it was back to the now bustling with tourists and tanned locals Ledras Street and it struck me again how modern and up to date this main artery of Nicosia was.
We ended up near the border crossing at a quaint little café just beside it. Homemade fresh lemonade and just out the oven cheese pies. Normality to the right, sandbags to the left. Sandbags and barbed wire denoting the green line and a reminder of the true nature of Nicosia, the only divided capital city in the world.
In the sandbags a peephole has been left, and – should you peep – history is right there in front of your eyes. 1974, disheveled, strewn, abandoned, desolate, alone. Broken down by 42 years of sun, covered in 42 years of hot dust, silent.
Our leaders should negotiate there in the very palpable results of this division, not in chandelier lit, plush committee rooms in suits and ties; they should sit on rickety village chairs with tepid water and hash out a deal or let the dust settle on them too. Pondering over the green line, I wonder if it runs the same course as the nowadays mostly concealed and dry Pedieos River, which, unlike this green FELT-TIP line, used to be life affirming through the city.
It takes a while for the time travel to work its way out of our systems, no easy thing to face the past without it making you both emotional and numb at the same time. Meeting up with friends for my first taste of souvlaki snaps me back to the here and now. The meze of course I know and love, but the souvlaki ohh yum. Chomp, yum lemon, squeeze, squirt in the eye, ahh stings, tears, succulent smell, yum, no talk, eat squeeze consume. Cypriots are not uncomfortable with just eating.
Sated we talk, this mixed table of Greeks and Turks, and our conversation revealed a multitude of shared words- parental attitudes- social attitudes- love of food- love of country. Far more similarities than the very obvious differences. The voices surrounding us are multi-lingual, Greek, Turkish, English, German, more I can’t distinguish, but a true mélange.
With the sun burning red the wise guide slips into the alleyways, the tributaries feeding Ledras Street. Again time and the village juxtaposed flavour the city. It would take decades and a whole monastery of shaven-headed – vowed to silence – monks to catalogue the layer upon layer of history found in – on – underneath these walls , this soil. Little details, silent clues, Lusignan, Roman, British Colonial, Greek, Ottoman, peaking through modern concrete.
A beautiful breeze flows through the buildings making a lie of the inferno I’d been promised. Now with the sun-induced lethargy shaken off, Ledra and it’s alleyways were alive with people, the very lifeblood of any city.
Eons ago, before the Atlantic Ocean flooded the Mediterranean Basin, Cyprus must have been the top of a mountain range with Nicosia base camp to the summit, the wind tunefully swishing to the top.
These man-made peaks and valleys have a different sound now. Ancient historic buildings downstairs open and spilt out onto the pavement, the waft of coffee and alcohol caught tantalisingly on the breeze. The jibber-jabber of imbibing humanity hits the ear, each voice wanting its moment of love-angst-awe-anger-love to ricochet against the tight walls and become a cacophony of noise and emotion, ‘notice me!’ seems the plea.
Up, above the café clientele, are homes , and visible through the pale blue flaming slats of a window are faded family photographs arranged on a bare wall. No black, no white, just sepia. One is askew, almost as if trying to look out of the window to find out what all the fuss is about. The past listening to the song of the future. Do we , the future, look back and yearn for that idyllic past? Our songs have been lost, muted by the sepia.
Having drank our coffee my guide offered contrast. Right next to the café was a wrought iron fence and an entrance to the Church of Faneromeni – She who has shown Herself – the meaning of the name, and as soon as we crossed past the railings , she revealed her magic.
I say magic because upon entering her courtyard all noise disappears and an almost holy, spiritual, essence imbues your senses. You can almost taste the calm silent sanctity in the air, in your soul…….I’m almost tempted to pray…….Then common sense kicks in and I realise it’s the magic of acoustics, visual weight, scale of monumental architecture, the silence of still air, and nothing to do with God. Why if God did exist I’d take him to court and sue him for abandonment of his children and ask compensation for the hell of green lines and man’s inhumanity. I do not deny anyone their belief system, nor do I judge, especially if it soothes and offers hope and peace.
Leaving the sanctified silence and solitude of the court yard, humanities soundtrack switches back on with full force as we slip out of the alleys and back onto Ledras Street. We walk back to the hotel. Thank you and goodnight to my guide, who’s poetic knowledge of Nicosia has opened my eyes to its wonders of taste, sight, and smell of history.
Thank you Nicosia for being my Faneromeni-Alley-Ledras Street magic. You encapsulate the way I’ve felt my whole life, one foot in the village, the other in the city, we are a blend of both.
I’m left with so much more to discover but with the certain knowledge that our differences are all man made and can therefore be man unmade.
Fare thee well and see you somewhere in Cyprus soon,