Having been away from home for a couple of weeks I find myself at a familiar stage in the cycle of wandering: feeling homesick for some of the routines and background noises of life back there. Routines can be replicated, albeit with a few compromises – such as going for a walk instead of cross-training at the expensive gym – but there is no Radio 4 to enlighten my mornings and no Channel 4 News to lend structure to my evenings. Hence, sitting yesterday in warm winter sunshine on the terrace of a simple beach-side cafe with the Mediterranean sea lapping gently three feet below my feet I found it easy to forget, for a while, that there’s a whole world of nasty, tangled politics out there. I also found it easy to order another (quite unnecessary) glass of red, encouraged, perhaps, by the lady at the next table who looked to be about my age and was working her way, with stylish nonchalance, through a whole carafe of white, while reading a novel.
But sooner or later something happens to awaken you from the reverie of la dolce vita. In this instance it was a visit to Nicosia (or Lefkosa, depending on your cultural heritage) where I could not resist the intrigue of crossing the border into the Turkish-occupied northern half of the city although, in the end, the experience turned out to be both dismal and laughable. Imagine showing your passport twice, on the same street, to first the Cypriot Cypriot then the Turkish Cypriot authorities (all of them bored) then, after an hour or so of innocent sightseeing, repeating the performance in reverse. Nicosia is the world’s only divided capital city and one has to ask what the point of it is. Talks are under way to expedite the reunion of the island but, with the latest news from Turkey that the despotic Erdogan has arrested yet another of his hapless citizens for the “crime” of insulting him, I have limited expectations as to the outcome.
In 1974, just 14 years after the British ceded governance of Cyprus back to its inhabitants, Turkish troops invaded the island. I don’t know exactly why, but Cyprus does have a history of being coveted by regional powers – Greeks, Persians, Ptolemies, Romans, Byzantines, Franks, Venetians, Ottomans and British. It seems it’s the price you pay for having valuable natural resources, a strategic geographical location and a small, defenceless population. Still, you might think that after such a long history of cultural inter-mingling present-day Cypriots would be quite comfortable with the concept: but, despite the strong, positive faction that is working for reunion as a federal republic, there is much evidence on the ground that the indigenous Greeks and Turks prefer to retain the identities of their respective mainland forebears. Even the death this week of George Michael, born and bred in north London, had Greek Cypriots claiming him as one of their own. I’m not sure the Turks are much concerned.
Religious ardour must surely take a good deal of the blame for the inclination of both sides to insist upon their separate identities: the influence is everywhere to be seen in the scale, prominence and proliferation of places of worship. Even the smallest chapels I have been into are richly decorated with what appears to be gold. And in Nicosia, in the grounds of the Archbishopric, stands a big glass-sided ‘garage’ inside which are displayed two extravagant, stretched limousines – one Mercedes, the other Cadillac – which were the chariots of the revered Archbishop Makarios, the first President of the Republic. I detect clear signs here of a universal phenomenon: the systematic appropriation of wealth and power by a religious organisation, and agree with Woody Allen who quipped If God exists, I hope he has a good excuse. It all seems a world away from the beach-bar bubble.