I am in Cyprus this month to visit family and conduct research for my Master’s thesis in Architecture. The subject is how architecture and urban design can contribute to peace building and reunification of the island. For those of you who don’t know about this tiny island in the Mediterranean, let me give you a quick explanation.
Cyprus is located just south of Turkey, West of Lebanon, and East of Greece. It’s been inhabited by Phoenicians, Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, French and English crusaders, Arabs, Venetians, Ottoman Turks, Maronites, Armenians, Circassians, and probably many more I can’t name off the top of my head. It’s long been a cross roads for trade and conquest. More recently (as in 1800s) it was under Ottoman rule, and then became a British colony. In 1960, the island declared independence and attempted to create a government. Nationalist crap erupted on both sides and there was a government coup, followed by a purge to rid the island of ethnic Turks. This is the conflict my family fled. In 1974, after a period of peace when another coup threatened the safety of islanders, Turkey sent troops to the island, the UN brokered a division, and the island remains divided today between the Turkish Cypriot Republic of Northern Cyprus (not internationally recognized) and Cyprus (the Greek Cypriot south.) For an American, this division seems even more insane because of the island’s size. It’s stupid small, about 3500 square miles.
The capital city, Nicosia, is divided. The UN buffer zone, or demilitarized zone, is a no-man’s land, abandoned ghost zone. In places it is narrow, in others wide enough to engulf an entire city. In April of this year, the Guardian published an article and photos journalist Neil Hall took of the buffer zone. It’s eerie.
Efforts to reunite the island (google bicommunal, the results are all Cyprus,) resulted in the borders opening in 2004, and people can pass freely. Well, as freely as checkpoints, passport checks, papers, lines, and bored officials can be. There is so much more – but that’s what my thesis is for.
My project will have two parts: the urban design component looks at how Nicosia may be knit back together if the island reunifies. Think Berlin and Beirut. My building design component will probably be a peace center, but that depends on what people here actually need and want. I am interviewing architects, urban planners, and grassroots activists to understand what is needed.
I’ve been to Cyprus many times, as my grandmother still lives here part of the year and we have family remaining on the island. As a child, seeing the heavily militarized island, I grew to be scared of the Greek Cypriots and look upon the Turkish flags flying next to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) flags as signs of a almighty protector, the great state of Turkey. My identity was very much Turkish, as we represented Turkey and TRNC in our elementary school international day. The dad who ran the Greek group wasn’t very nice to me, as he told me baklava was Greek, not Turkish, and sneered at me. Despite my dad’s long career in peace building, I still feared the Greek Cypriots. The last time I traveled to Cyprus was 2004, although before the border opened. It seemed better, as in demilitarized. Turns out they keep the troops in the barracks now instead of having them wander the streets with automatic rifles. But this time I saw my beautiful island for what it was: an unrecognized and therefore incredibly poor state. Historic monuments in ruins, except for the UN and EU funded restoration projects, corruption, trash everywhere, and poor construction. Now as a trained designer and soon to be architect, I see it even more, although there have been more improvements from restoration projects. They cleaned up the trash too.
A couple days ago I crossed the border to the Greek side. The big looming unknown, hidden for years behind towering concrete walls topped with barbed wire and guarded by fierce looking military personnel. Now the borders have border guards, but no visible weapons. Still, the pedestrian passage is narrow, with two checkpoints. It creates a tunnel vision for me as my heart starts to pound as we enter the buffer zone. Signs are all around, “DO NOT LEAVE THIS AREA. YOU ARE ENTERING THE BUFFER ZONE,” and “NO PHOTOGRAPHY ALLOWED IN THE BUFFER ZONE.” It is still intimidating. The architecture of intimidation and division.
We crossed without any fanfare and I stepped foot into The Republic of Cyprus. I felt a heavy weight in my chest and I started to cry. Then my friend Stuart made me laugh with a story of his visiting Berlin when he was a teenager, and at the wall on the East side, his father telling his annoying teenage brother, “Go to that guard and tell him you want to defect.”
I don’t know what I expected. Some shiny new city with American standard fancy buildings, blonder people with blue eyes, giant mean Greek monsters?
It was no different. A little cleaner maybe. Better construction quality. Not as much graffiti. But the people looked the same. I looked around the ice cream parlor at all the family photos. The patriarch looked like my grandfather. The women at the counter like my cousins. And then I heard them speak. I thought at first they were speaking Turkish. The hand gestures, facial expressions, cadence and tone, all the same as ours. Then I realized I didn’t understand a word, so they were speaking Greek. These folks have the same phonemes as Turkish Cypriots.
We are the same.
There is no us or them.
This identity. Turkish. Greek. It’s bullshit. We are Cypriots.
I am stunned.