Mirja Simunaniemi & Niek Zeeman
We were barely one month into our internships in Ankara and Istanbul when we were spoiled with our first holiday. Kurban Bayram is a religious holiday in Turkey with Muslims celebrating the sacrifice Abraham (Ibrahim) was willing to make as act of submission to God’s command. About to sacrifice his son, God intervened and offered a lamb to Abraham instead. Muslims around the world celebrate God’s gracefulness every year by offering him an animal, Kurban. For most of the Turks, and for us, it also means a week holiday. we chose sunny Cyprus as a new territory to explore after our intense travels in Iran earlier last year.
Having arrived in early July, Mirja thought her tourist visa would have expired by the time we would fly to Cyprus. When we arrived at the Sabiha Gökcen Airport of Istanbul we got a big shock when we found out we were going to a different country. This dialogue gives an idea of what kind of stupid tourists we were:
Sabiha Gökcen Airport
Mirja: Why do we have to go through the international flights terminal?
Niek: I don’t know, I guess Cyprus is a different country?
Mirja: Oh my god, no! This means that after I go to Cyprus I cannot go back to Turkey. It was a stupid idea.
Niek: I think they will tell us at the customs.
Mirja & Niek (Alarmed): We will find out in one minute…
Customs officer: Iyi yolculuklar! (Good travel)
Mirja & Niek (relieved): Thank you, thank you!
Mirja: So I guess Cyprus really is a different country then.
Niek: But how can you still come back to Turkey if your visa has expired?
Mirja: I think we can add the days we spend in Iran to our visa. It means we still didn’t spend the 90 days.
Niek: But if the Turkish part of Cyprus is still considered to be a part of Turkey we have to go to the Greek side
Mirja: Yes, yes we have to go to the Greek side as soon as possible.
Cyprus airport customs
Customs agent: Welcome to Cyprus
Niek: Hello, yes thank you. Excuse me. This might be a weird question, but is this a different country?
Customs agent: Yes, you are in a different country.
Niek: Thank you very much!
Mirja: Do you know what this means? We are in a different country, which means that I can still go back to Turkey because my tourist visa is still valid and we are not spending these days in Turkey.
Niek: So instead of only going to one side of Cyprus…
Mirja & Niek: We can go to both sides of Cyprus!
A brief historical overview of the situation
Our dialogue actually points out painfully the peculiar political situation Cyprus finds itself in. The islands inhabitants are mostly of Greek and Turkish descendant though the island was for a long time under British occupation. When in the 1950’s the United Kingdom was about to grant the Cypriots more autonomy, the Greek citizens protested and wanted Cyprus to be part of Greece. For the Turkish citizens this was unacceptable since they did not want to live in a Greek state. It was the start of a decade long fight between two sides with two important years to briefly mention.
First of all, after a long period of tension between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots, the situation escalated in 1974 when the former Greek government organised a coupe for Cypriot’ accession to Greece. The violent campaign of the Greek Cypriot nationalist movement against the Turkish-Cypriots was reason for Turkey to send its troops to the island. In July 1974 the troops occupied a part of northern Cyprus. The Turkish invasion meant the end of the coupe and the end of campaigns of mutual violence campaigns and political negotiations. Turkey also began to occupy other parts of northern Cyprus, such as the eastern harbor city Famagusta and violently forced out hundreds of thousands of Greek Cypriots form their homes
“Cyprus is politically, socially and economically divided, in the south…”
So Cyprus is now politically, socially and economically divided, in the south, the unoccupied Republic Cyprus and this was enough to, and here is the second important date, declare the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in 1983. In the same year, 1983 the United Nations declared the exclamation of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus unlawful. This divide between the north and the south of Cyprus as of today is unfortunately still clearly visible.
The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is a country only recognised by one country, namely Turkey. Arriving there from Turkey – all flights arriving to Northern Cyprus must first land in Turkey – one can’t be sure whether this really is a different country. Portraits of Atatürk are decorating walls and mountains just like anywhere in Turkey, and the flag of Northern Cyprus looks pretty similar like the flag of Turkey, just in reverse colours.
Crossing the border is one of the most bewildering experiences in the world, since from the perspective of the South this isn’t even a country border and therefore there is only passport control on the Northern side. In practice the whole island is considered to be a part of the European Union but still one will need a visa to arrive to the northern part. The map we get in the tourist information centre shows that the southern part of the island is totally empty. It is as if there is just a desert on the other side of the island. In the map received from the tourist office of Southern Nicosia the northern part looks interestingly small and on this map it is called “The Part Occupied by Turkey in 1974”.
Gül & Emran have moved from Turkey to Northern Cyprus ten years ago and live in Girne – or Kyrenia in Greek- with their dog called Köpük (Bubble), a name that rhymes with the Turkish word for dog, “köpek”. Gül and Emran work in two of the 25 casinos of the island, to where the local inhabitants are not allowed to enter. “I went to the South illegally once ten years ago”, says Gül. “We had a great party in Aya Napa and came back the next day”. After our visit to the South they are curious about “the other side” of their island: “How was it?”
The city of Nicosia is the only divided capital in the world and you can cross it on foot. Suddenly you notice that people are speaking Greek and you feel like you just walked in to Europe. Only a few meters on the other side the Turkish lira used in the northern part becomes invalid and you need to use euros.
“The division is a sensitive subject…”
The division of the island can still be a sensitive subject. While buying postcards in Nicosia the 50-year old salesman asks where we are coming from. We reveal that we are coming from the Turkish part and the salesman gets angry: “Do not even mention that name to me! They have totally destroyed that part of Cyprus!” When asking if he has visited there the man replies: “I have not been there in 40 years and I will not go there. They expect me to pay 25 euros to go to my own country!”
A 40-years old bar owner in Limassol says he thought the same at the time when he was doing his military service. In 2003 when Cyprus joined the EU it was finally possible for the people living on the island to cross the border for the first time since 1974. “I went to the northern side and spoke with older people who had lived there from before the occupation period. This changed my mind and I started seeing the issue from both sides”, the man explains.
In the meanwhile a dog called Bubble is playing in a garden in the northern part of Cyprus. He doesn’t care if this part is Northern Cyprus or Cyprus, an attitude that the Cypriots can maybe also enjoy some day in the future.
Mirja(left) is from Finland and has studied MA Euroculture in Uppsala and Strasbourg. Before that, she obtained two bachelors in Sweden, one in Gender Studies and another in Oriental Studies. Her obsessions are languages, especially Turkish, theme parties with obscure themes and all kinds of saunas and hammams. Her Master’s thesis is a study about LGBTI refugees situation in Turkey.
On the other hand, Niek is from The Netherlands and studied MA Euroculture in Uppsala and Goettingen. Before that, he obtained his BA in Human Geography. He thinks that he has gone a long way in fulfilling his ambition to become not only a European citizen but a world citizen, having lived in 6 countries and 3 continents. He’s not only keen on traveling but is also actively engaged in his Master’s thesis on geographical perceptions on Tophane, a neighborhood in Istanbul. In his spare time he enjoys observing foreigners and learning their languages.