So we all know Cyprus intrinsically is a very beautiful place. Golden sanded beaches, stunning mountains. If you’ve ever watched the red hues of a sunset whilst the warm waves lap around your feet, or been high up in the pine forests breathing in the fresh scented air looking at the landscape recede into the distance you’ll know what I mean. The people are beautiful and the best hosts in the world, the food is wholesome, delicious, and healthy. The history sometimes overwhelming in it’s variety and complexity of culture. But conditions and circumstance also mean there is a harsher, harder side of our blessed little Isle.
The most obvious one is the time locked Green Line running across and splitting the island in two. Stuck in 1974, dusty, dry, strewn with implements, cars, buildings, memories, all decaying under the sun. Breaking down into infectious molecules, God forbid you cut yourself and let the infection into your body. It has poisoned the island ever since into a miasma of hatred and bile, a whirlpool of malice and injustice, perpetuated unrelentingly by both sides. The few reasonable and forgiving voices being branded as traitors, fools, and much worse. How can you fight this poison seeping out of this hateful Green Line, infecting everyone with it’s fear of the monsters, nay, the Devils on the other side. It has left no room for tolerance or understanding and those that show such qualities are considered idiots and outcast. Woe is me being one out-casted Village Idiot who wants nothing else than to watch the golden orb of the sun hue crimson and disappear beneath the horizon with his compatriots no matter their caste or religion. So a harsh side of Cyprus does exist and here are a few tales that are severe to the sensibilities of this London born Cypriot. Maybe my Cypriot edge has been blunted by too many years in good old ‘Blighty’ and you might not find them so harsh.
Now many years ago my Aunt, let’s call her Jackie, was displaced from her village and ended up in Pendagoma where she would meet and eventually marry my Uncle. Her parents were typical Cypriot villagers, dad was out in the fields all day and mom would stay at home and with meagre resources would feed and sustain the family. She was a bit of a tyrant, had to be, and ran a strict household. Her son would be out all day, roaming the fields and getting up to no good with my uncle, I used to partake of the no-goodery when I was there in August, they were only a year older than me and we got on very well.
Come suppertime my Aunt’s mom would become frustrated that Sonny Jim wasn’t there to sit down and eat so would give her the task of finding him. She would take a glass of water and spill it onto the kitchen’s stone floor , “If you’re not back before this water dries you know what will happen” she would say to Jackie in a very quiet voice. Eyes fearfully wide, off she ran, it was incredibly hot . Where to look? Where to go?
The terrain was hilly, rock strewn, off she went calling out his name knowing full well that she wouldn’t make it in time and dreading the consequences. Eventually she would find him and have to force him back physically to the house. as soon as she ran into the kitchen she looked at the floor, every last drop had evaporated, bone dry. Their mom stared at them with stony eyes, the food sat on the table, she picked up her rolling pin and gave them some hefty whacks on the butts and legs and then pulled out the rope for part two.
Much later on dad would come home after a hot day of toiling in the fields. on walking into the kitchen he saw his two children hanging in the air, the rope had been threaded under their arms and thrown over the roof rafters and there they swung gently round and round in the heat dripping with sweat. “Oufff, what was it this time?”, he shook his head at the harshness of his wife’s punishment. She in return snapped into an oft repeated tirade of how he had given her two unruly children who didn’t listen and how it was all his fault that she lived in such purgatory. He sat down and silently ate his cold beans and onions, knowing better than to try and argue his case and left his children swinging in the kitchen.
In Tuzla my Mom’s aunt who was a widow and lived with her three sons and sister, had a piece of good fortune. In those days, the mid sixties, it was customary on receiving such luck to sacrifice an animal and distribute the meat to the poor and needy as a thank you to God for bestowing such grace on them. So one night family and friends gathered in her garden, there must have been about thirty people and I remember my mom holding my hand, trying to keep me at the back of the crowd. No such luck, I was a very curious child and wanted to know everything. Maybe if I’d known what was going to happen next I would have stayed there but I managed to slip out of her grasp and worked my way through the people and saw a terrified goat tethered to a tree. He looked apprehensively at the throng of chatting humans and every now and then emitted a nervous bleat.
A swarthy unshaven man with a cigarette dangling from underneath a huge moustache approached the goat. He wore a blood stained apron and carried a bag which he threw down next to Goatie. The poor animal couldn’t take it’s eyes off the man, almost sensing his fate, me in my innocence stood watching, unsuspectingly. The Moustachioed one knelt down and produced a rope from out of the bag, he deftly tied this around the hind legs of Goatie who bleated feebly and tried to run away. The Moustache took hold of it’s head and pulled it towards him and gave it calming strokes and talked to it in gentle tones, I couldn’t hear what he said but Goatie calmed down and was peaceful. In the flash of an eye he reached into the bag, pulled out a very sharp knife and slit it’s throat. Goatie didn’t even have the chance to make a sound as it’s lifeblood poured onto the soil, the rope was tossed over a branch and he was suspended upside down, the blood spattering over the roots of the tree. I watched in fascinated horror as the once bright eyes faded and became glass like and the smell of copper filled the air as the soil beneath him turned red.
My mom appeared out of nowhere, grabbed my arm and yanked me into the kitchen. “Stay here!” she told me sternly and carried on serving drinks and savouries to the guests, “Don’t move!” Yeah right, like I was going to listen. I waited until she was distracted and dodged out and back to the tree, by the time I got there Goatie’s fur coat had been stripped away and it hung there muscles and sinews exposed to the night air. It rotated almost in slow motion and every now and then it’s glassy dead eyes would lock onto mine almost accusingly. What!! I’m sorry Goatie, I had nothing to do with this, wish I could help but it’s far too late.
Moustache reached into his bag and pulled out a slightly longer knife and deftly slit the goat from it’s neck to it’s nether regions. he placed a bucket underneath it and and the intestines spilt into it. A few more strokes of the flashing knife and the kidneys, lungs, liver were all removed, these he placed onto a tray. What puzzled me was that he cut out the heart but instead of placing it with the other organs he threw it on the soil. It landed, still beating, ba-dom ba-dom ba-dom, squirts of blood flying into the air. I couldn’t take my eyes off it, why was it still beating? It had nothing to beat to, the music of life had been taken away. Moustachio carried on unmercilessly, slicing the carcass until all the useful meat had been placed on the tray. My eyes kept returning to the heart, beating away unaware it no longer had a job to do. The memory is still sharp in my mind, is that the way of all life, does it cling on for as long as it can unaware that it’s dead. Is that Cyprus today, broken in half but still trying to beat as one, still trying to be alive, ba-dom ba-dom ba-dom. Or is it like the ripped out heart, slowing down, erratic beat, silence, death. A traumatic night for Goatie and I, everyone else seemed unaffected, just another normal night.
Now my mom’s aunt had three son’s, all much older than me. The oldest would come to live with us in London for a few years. The second was very effeminate and loved to dance and be the life of the party, I always thought he should have ‘come out’ of the closet but such a thing was unheard of in Cyprus in the sixties and he would have probably been stoned if he had. He got married very late on in life and has ended up a very bitter old man with a sour outlook on life, the ‘downer’ of the party not the life. He no longer dances. Maybe he should have come to London instead, Carnaby Street would have welcomed him.
However my favourite was the youngest, Huseyin, he was doing his national service and had become an ‘Onbasi’, which translated means he was in charge of ten privates. He was on leave and one night he grabbed me and said “We’re going on an adventure.” Off we went through the alleyways of Tuzla, dusty little avenues, narrow little passages, ancient crumbling buildings, weaving this way and that until I had completely lost my bearings. We eventually arrived at barn like building on the outskirts of town and I heard hubbub of noise spilling out into the humid evening air. On entering i saw a throng of men, Greeks and Turks, all surrounding what looked like a pit, shoddy barricades had been put up to create a circle and all attention was focused on this space.
It was fiercely hot and sweaty inside the barn and the smell assaulted my sensibilities. “Where are we? What’s going on?” I asked Onbasi. “Wait, you’ll see in a moment!”. With that two men entered into the circle holding cockerels, one grey and red necked, the other various shades of brown but with vicious eyes. Holding them tightly the two men pushed the cocks at each other so they were beak to beak, eye to eye, slapping them on the backs of their necks to make them angry. I fought through the forest of legs and made my way to the front as the hackles of the cocks raised and they eyeballed each other with murderous intent.
The noise in the barn rose and rose in a crescendo as the men shouted out bets to each other until suddenly the two men threw the cocks up so they collided in mid-air. They jumped out of the pit and a hush fell over the crowd as the two animals engaged in a frenzied battle for life, feathers and ‘buk caws’ flew into the air. The savagery was terrifying to my London upbringing as the two feathered fiends went absolutely crazy and attacked each other with a ferocity fuelled by the adrenaline of the braying men. The cocks clawed and gouged and pecked relentlessly, ripping into each other as the shouting men built up a maelstrom of noise and sweat until the smell of copper once more filled the air as one of the antagonists fell to the floor mortally wounded, twitching and spasming until its soul drifted up into the aether.
Redneck strutted victoriously but I could tell from it’s gait that it wasn’t long for this world. The noise levels had quietened down as some were sullen in defeat and loss of earnings, and others made a bee line to collect their winnings. I searched out Onbasi who was collecting his winnings, “Can we go please?”, I had not enjoyed the savagery of either the cockerels or the men. Onbasi looked at me in disbelief, “NO not yet, there’s more fights to come, aren’t you having fun?”. Fun! Fun!! “No, I’ll wait outside”. With that I left the barn and stood outside but couldn’t shake off what I’d seen or heard, the heat was oppressive and the smell of copper and savagery was still in my nostrils. Next time Onbasi was going to take me on an adventure I would make sure to know exactly what it was that we were doing.
Across the road from my uncles house in Tuzla was an empty plot, boulders, holes, thorns, the odd sturdy flower, when I was bored it was my exploring space. I would look for lizards, lift up rocks to see insects, step on the odd thorn, look for shade from the sun, ehhh what else was there to do! On one occasion I almost stepped on a snake that was absorbing the heat of the glowering sun, lucky for me I didn’t because it was a Blunt Nosed Viper. It had semi rectangular markings along it’s silvery beige back and black spots on it’s head, the bite can kill, especially in the sixties. Nowadays modern medicine can avert death if treated quickly enough.
I rushed back to the house and told my two uncles who were sitting down having a coffee about my find. They got up immediately and crossed the road to the empty plot. After showing them where the viper was I was told to wait in the road behind them. They stood there for a good ten minutes discussing what to do. It was rare for such a snake to wander into a populated area, they usually stay near water, but the brothers knew it was too dangerous to leave it there. Making their minds up about the safest way to go about this they picked up the largest boulder they could between them. I could see their muscles straining with the effort as they approached the viper then in the blink of an eye they launched the heavy projectile through the air and straight onto the snakes head, crushing it instantly. The body whipped and curled in frenzied indignation until it could no longer deny that it was dead. Once again the smell of copper hit my nostrils. What had been a solitary exploration of a plot of wasteland turned out to be quite an entertaining interlude, I wanted to make a belt, my uncles wouldn’t have it, stupid boy!
Hmmm, I still bear the psychological impact and scars of this next tale. The late sixties was not such a clinical time period and this is when I had my sunnet, or circumcision. At the time children were to be seen and not heard. My three male cousins and I were not too sure what was happening but the Demis Roussos style kaftans we were made to wear were a definite clue. The four of us had been sat in the living room wearing the identical robes, it was morning and a crowd of relatives had gathered eating, drinking and generally being jolly. Why so at this early hour?
Two unrecognised men had gone into one of the bedrooms carrying a small bag and a sheet and we could hear muffled conversations with our fathers behind the closed door. Finally the youngest of us was taken by the shoulders and led into the room, the door shut firmly behind him. Another brief muffled conversation The three of us were left looking at each other with quizzical eyes when the screaming started! We literally pooped our pants as the high pitched wails rose and rose, intensifying in pain and loudness. They suddenly stopped and we looked at each other with that “oh my God our parents are killing us in that room” look.
One of the men came out and got the second youngest by the shoulders and pushed him towards the room , he was met by much resistance and objection but eventually the door was slammed shut. More muffled chatter and the screaming and hollering started anew. Oh dear Lord they really are killing us. Was it the thing we did with the chickens and the fat? I was next! Sweating profusely I put a look of petrified bravado on, determined not to be killed without a fight. The man came out again and held me by the shoulders, I velcroed my feet to the floor and he had to use all his strength to get me into the medieval torture chamber. Inside there was a little stool placed on a blood stained sheet and they sat me down on it. One of the men crouched down in front of me and raised the kaftan above my knees, what sort of child molestation was going on here?
Next they did the flimflam on me. The standing man started talking to me but my attention was fully on the crouching man, all I could hear was gibberish. “Look at me!” said Standing, trying to cut through my flight instinct. Louder, “ Look at me , do you like lokum?”. Turkish Delight. What!!? Why the hell was he asking me that. I looked at him in disbelief, “NO, not really, why are you….” As I was saying that he wedged a great big chunk of lokum in my mouth, so big it was hard to close my mouth. While this was going on Crouching grabbed my delicates and made a quick swiping motion with his other hand. I felt a sharp pain down below, I wanted to scream but all that came out was a garbled “gaahhh’ as the lokum blocked my vocal chords. The saccharine cloying sweetness was in stark contrast to the intensifying pain sweeping up my body and I’d had enough and spat it out, straight into the face of Crouching, serve him right. He continued his work and bandaged me up with the lokum and my spittle sliding down his face. I could tell he didn’t like it, well guess what buddy, I didn’t much appreciate what you just did either.
Finished he stood me up and I was shuffled out to join the other two Walking Dead just as the real pain started to sear through me. To his credit the oldest cousin walked out of that room with a big grin on his face like he’d just gone to the funfair, hands full of the cloying sweet. I walked funny for days after, any contact with the injured party was extremely painful, but I did enjoy wearing the kaftan, Demis had the right idea. So the good old days huh, no pampering, no hygiene, no anaesthetic. to this day I avoid lokum, it always gives me a twinge down below, too much information I know.
The smell of copper had once more assaulted my senses, this time mine. No wonder that over a thousand years ago Cyprus was known as Cuprum, the ancient word for copper. Then as now this little island was pillaged and raped for its natural resources. I wonder if there is any copper left after centuries of mining. The present pillaging will of it’s seas as the precious black gold known as oil has been discovered off it’s shores and the big company sharks are gathering, the smell of money more potent than metal. On this sad note I leave you.
See you somewhere in Cuprum soon.
The Village Idiot.