An open letter in response to Martina Cole’s recent article in Woman and Home Magazine, where she discusses her home in the north of Cyprus. My quotations are from Martina Cole’s 2012 Daily Mail article and her 2015 feature in Woman and Home magazine, (both concerning Cyprus) and from her Twitter account. I address her portrayal of Occupied Cyprus as a charmed land and a tourist destination.
My grandmother was a North Cyprus girl. Her village was as far north as you can get, in the Pentadaktilon Mountain range, North of Kyrenia. It is called Agios Amvrosios, (Saint Ambrose) and its local fruit is the apricot. She won’t ever see her village or her subsequent homes in Kyrenia and Famagusta again because she passed away in 2003, and although it was in 1974 that Turkish troops advanced into the north of Cyprus, refugee Cypriots are still powerless to reclaim their old territory and live in their own homes, forty-one years later.
Ms Cole, when you write of the north of Cyprus as a haven and a holiday destination, you give the green light to a political mess built on slaughter. You give credibility to a region so morally questionable, it’s still unrecognised as a republic by every country but Turkey itself. You speak of its “raw beauty,” and “think people haven’t really discovered it yet” but you yourself can hardly claim to have discovered the north of Cyprus when you display no awareness of its history. To be frank, nor is the north of Cyprus a place fit for tourist-led “discovery” and relish.
You say you’re a “North Cyprus girl at heart.” You’re not a North Cyprus girl. North Cyprus girls were dragged from their homes, they were separated from all their worldly belongings and banished from their villages. Strangers now live in, and claim to own, their houses. North Cyprus girls lost mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. They were gang-raped by Turkish soldiers. This happened to both Greek and Turkish-Cypriot girls, and they deserve recognition from the rest of the world. I understand that barbarous acts were committed on both sides, by both Turks and Cypriots, with Turkish, Turkish-Cypriots and Greek-Cypriots falling victim. Time has passed and that the current inhabitants of the region are not to blame for this – no good can come of mindlessly begrudging the Turks who live in the north of Cyprus today, and we’d be much better off accepting a way to live on and rebuild this island together. But here I’m discussing the land and its status – and to act as though the Turkish rightfully and completely own the northern part of the island, to ignore and erase history as you have done with your flippant writing, is dangerous and offensive. It devalues the lives of those killed during the invasion, and it invalidates the fears and losses of the survivors (who still live, by the way. Forty-one years is not that long) and their families.
You write as though blood-soaked land is a superior paradise compared to the South of Cyprus because it has retained more of its natural features and original architecture. Do you have any idea why this is the case? Have you not noticed what else has been preserved; the bullet holes in walls of Northern Nicosia, for instance. Very big bullet holes, and not just a smattering, but hundreds. In No-Man’s Land, which you have neglected to mention at all, forty-one-year old washing hangs from the lines because their Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot owners had to get up and run, or get shot in the head. You might enjoy the pretty quirk of a small bouquet or love-note pinned to the fencing on Salamis beach. You might not consider why it’s there. Exiled Cypriots often visit to leave these little tributes in sight of their old family homes and dormant possessions, and this fencing is as close as they can get. (Though the barbed wire might have already enlightened you as to this.) Areas like Varosha could be the quintessence of your holiday dream if Cypriots could return to it, and we might even see some progression with regards to peaceful living among north Cyprus’ current inhabitants – a step forward that would mean infinitely more than filling the site with luxury second homes. With regards to soldier-to-citizen ratio, the north of Cyprus is currently the most militarised area in the world. I suppose no other holiday destination can boast this.
I understand you’re not writing historically, or even biographically – you’re trying to share your experience. Don’t get me wrong, I love it when people investigate and fall in love with new cultures. But I imagine it’s almost impossible for a writer to become so enamoured with a place, to forge a relationship as strong as you claim yours to be, and remain oblivious to its revolting history and unresolved status. As you are a self-proclaimed “history nut” I can only assume that you are fully aware of what happened to create the north of Cyprus forty-one years ago, and have simply chosen to exclude the gory details and dodgy facts from your projections; a selfish act.
Writers have a responsibility. Durrell was there before the invasion; you are there after it. To many people outside the island, views like yours are the first or only impressions of Cyprus they receive, and this way its defining backstory is overwritten. A politically unsettled, stolen land thirsty for redemption and care becomes, to the rest of the world, a haven ripe for their pick-and-choose harvest. Yes, the north of Cyprus has a deep beauty. I love the ochre-on-cerulean of the stonework against the sky, the markets and the pink bougainvillea frothing down the front of buildings. I love the shape of the mosques, but when I see them I am reminded of what was demolished to make way for them, and when I visit my grandparents’ house – preserved in its state of 50% rubble and splinters – I see remnants of horror, and a wound that, forty-one years later, still has not closed up. I want to look at mosques without the constant reminder of a unsolved problem. If anything, by now they should symbolise an accepted merging of cultures – the problem is that in many communities the resentment between Turks and Cypriots is kept alive, and this is fuelled by the implication by outsiders that there is nothing wrong with the island’s current situation, because that attitude implies nothing will ever change. You love and recommend watching gigs at the Salamis ruins, which, I cannot deny, sounds amazing. But what you might not know is that the Turkish government does not put regulations in place to protect these Cypriot ruins – ancient relics disregarded by them because the land they are built on is snatched land, undervalued land, unmonitored land. For days after gigs at Salamis, plastic debris rattles around the ancient stone, bending and bleaching under the sun. Oh, the raw beauty of the north of Cyprus.
You write with unbridled relish of your Cypriot house, but have you ever considered what kind of brutality occurred in your house forty-one years ago, causing it to be wrenched from its rightful owner and to transition towards its eventual sale to yourself? Did you buy the house from a Greek or Turkish Cypriot who was able to give you the original deeds? Or are your deeds duplicates, and therefore worthless? Did you buy it from somebody who gained it post-invasion, profiting from the eviction and execution of thousands? Did you buy a house built after the invasion? Did you ever consider who the land was taken from during the invasion? How would you feel if someone turned up at your house and forced you out and said you could never go back to your beloved north Cyprus ever again? Because that’s what happened to those less fortunate than you forty-one years ago. Someone lived in and owned your house, and was forcibly, brutally evicted. If they weren’t killed, they are most likely having to rent elsewhere, wondering if they’ll ever be able to go back to their home. Listen when I tell you that whoever sold you that house did not own it. Forgive me for becoming impassioned. You are not a North Cyprus girl.
The north of Cyprus is unrecognised as an independent country or republic by any country other than Turkey. You might be aware that it harbours criminals, because there, they are beyond the law. It is painful reading your worship of marble and chandeliers, casinos and Turkish delicacies, your pimping of “old-world charm,” beside absolutely no recognition of the bodies this north Cyprus is built on. You may flit from the north to Ledra street and back again for your weekly shop – bypassing as you do ghost-ridden No-man’s land and its myriad of broken, abandoned homes – while the people who rightfully own your house cannot. You talk about “[your] mountain.” I am sorry, I don’t know how much you’ve paid for what you consider yourself to own, but none of this land is yours, and it never truly can be until it’s sold to you by its original owners. Your words salt forty-one-year-old wounds.
I don’t write this to be pointlessly malicious, but to express the painful Cypriot reception to your writing concerning Cyprus; a reaction that hasn’t been addressed by you yet. Ms Cole, you’re talented and privileged. People respect you and will listen to you. Please use the strength of your voice to spread wisdom, not misinformation. The north of Cyprus is beautiful. But it is unsolved, and it is radioactive with injustice. When you peddle it as your discovery, your secret haven, a holiday destination, you write it to be a utopia, when it is actually the polar opposite. You invalidate the suffering and deaths of thousands forty-one years ago, and you invalidate the pain of thousands today. We (and if you do indeed love Cyprus, then this includes you) should work to solve the dispute you have glossed over and nurture the place, not pretend everything is okay and tell half the UK to book their next Summer holiday there.
You end your 2012 article for the Daily Mail praising the north in a way that I found particularly ironic:
“Although it is a world away from the settings in my novels, I like to write there. That includes The Life, about two brothers rising up in the criminal underworld, a family torn apart by violence and betrayal, with a burning desire for revenge…”
Know and acknowledge that families being torn apart by violence and betrayal are the very things the site of your Cypriot home is built on. Know that the North’s “unique, unspoilt charm” is not a selling point, it is fallout. There is no “Turkish Cyprus,” Northern Cyprus is Occupied Cyprus. And you are not a North Cyprus girl.