Nicosia – The Berlin of the South

City Column

The Berlin of the South

She looks at her computer screen, checking to see if I have a criminal record, gazes up at me again and orders me to remove my sunglasses. Flipping through the pages of my passport she reluctantly stamps one before waving me on and glaring at me with the kind of peevish expression that seems to come with the job.

Just imagine for a minute that somewhere in your city’s main shopping street there is a border control point, and that the area between there and the H&M store eighty metres away is a desolate no-man’s land controlled by the UN. And that once you have reached the H&M, and passed through another border control, you find yourself in another country, one that is to all intents and purposes an occupied province of your neighbouring country.

That is how things stand in Nicosia. Ledra Street is a busy shopping area, and one of the few crossings into Northern Cyprus, a country that is recognised only by Turkey, which has occupied one third of the island since 1974. However, the border is less impenetrable than it was in the past: Turkish Cypriots now cross over to shop in the more affluent Greek-Cypriot areas or to make use of the education and healthcare facilities offered to them free of charge.

But not all Greek Cypriots have taken advantage of the opportunity to visit the other side since it became possible. ‘I refuse to have to show my passport to travel in my own country,’ some of them say. Others are reluctant to see how the family homes they were forced to abandon overnight have been confiscated by Turkish Cypriots or by some of the 200,000 mainland Turks who have moved here in recent decades. They are eating at their tables, sometimes still surrounded by photographs of Greek Cypriot families.
The most bizarre sight of all is Famagusta, once a mondaine beach resort where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton spent their holidays. When the Turks took over the city they put a fence around it and declared it off limits to everyone except the UN soldiers who have kept the peace here for decades; they patrol the streets of the ghost town.

This is the version I heard from my Greek Cypriot hosts in Nicosia, the Berlin of the Mediterranean. But I cannot say with any certainty that the Turkish version is the same.