Here in the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC) there is a mosque in every hamlet and every suburb of every town yet, after two weeks, I am still not sure when to expect the five-a-day Call to Prayer. This can be inconvenient, as when I chose to have lunch in a quiet, leafy courtyard next to a mosque and the loudspeakers burst into action as I was about to place my order, drowning me out and reducing me to pointing at the menu. The waiter was unfazed.
The Call itself, when executed by an accomplished singer, is exquisitely musical, although it represents a dogma with which I have no sympathy and is, in that sense, unwelcome. It is a reminder of deeply-rooted cultural differences. After last week’s ramble around the archaeological ruins I was inclined to the view that history is all explained by geography but, apropos cultural differences, I now appreciate the point made by the writer Robert Lynd, that history may be read as the magnificent rearguard action fought during several thousand years by dogma against curiosity. I look everywhere for proof of his hypothesis and here, in the TRNC, I am somewhat encouraged: I have yet to see anyone flock to a mosque.
In Cyprus, where East has mingled with West for centuries, some dilution of traditions, even some cross-fertilisation is to be expected. Colonisation started the process and tourism continues to push it, albeit informally. But the process is haphazard. This region, despite its dependence on tourism, does not appear to have grasped how the industry has segmented and become more sophisticated. The coastline is littered with unfinished ‘developments’ – holiday villages, villas and huge hotels – which sit between a host of established facilities already catering to that market. Meanwhile the many sites of cultural and historic interest are neglected by the authorities and treated as if they are of no consequence. Evidently, they have failed to count the coach-loads of older, cultural tourists to be seen on the car parks of Salamis and the other accessible antiquities. This is a growing market and, if they need help, the National Trust could teach them valuable lessons in how to monetise it.
The same can be said of the many restaurants where the only offering is kebab, salad and chips. After a couple of meals one pines for home cooking. One restaurant I went to offered a partial remedy for this with a menu comprising a mash-up of British and Turkish staples. I was attracted by the possibilities – and its perfect sea-front location – but I had reason later to regret my choice. The interior was decked out cheaply, like a French-style Soho joint circa 1975, and I ordered kleftiko which came not in a pot, but dried up on a plate and with a dish of buttered vegetables – back again to Britain in the ‘70s. The clientele comprised ex-pats – apart from a party of Cypriots for whom this was an exotic location for a birthday celebration. The experience was cross-cultural, but at a low level of accomplishment.
There is, however, an emerging awareness of the value of eco-tourism, not only in terms of revenue but also of preserving the environment. Its development is confined – inevitably – to the remote eastern peninsula where the roads are basic. I stayed for a couple of nights there in a small eco-hotel owned and run by an earnest husband and wife team. She cooked kleftiko for dinner and it was the real thing – Turkish to the marrow. It was so delicious I forgave our hosts the background music – a slow passage of Vivaldi – certain they were only trying to please their European guests. Then, after a few mouthfuls, the Call to Prayer wafted across the veranda and the two soundtracks met, the Arab singing intertwining perfectly with the European violins. East and West in harmony, sort of, for a few moments at least.