THEO PANAYIDES meets a prominent but still marginalised Turkish Cypriot who has been a fighter all his life, taking both sides to court and struggling against the constant danger of being misunderstood
Three young men gaze out from the cover of Matia sto Paraskinio (roughly translating as ‘A Look Behind the Scenes’), a book published in 2011 and written by Ibrahim Aziz. The three, from left to right, are Ayhan Hikmet, Ahmet Gurkan and Dervis Kavazoglu. One could say they have two things in common: they were all Turkish Cypriots, and they were all – all three of them – murdered in the 1960s by TMT, the deadly paramilitary group co-founded by Rauf Denktash; Hikmet and Gurkan in 1962, Kavazoglu in 1965. Ibrahim, like them, was a Leftist, and knew Kavazoglu well: “He practically raised me”. The shock of their deaths haunts his book, and continues to haunt his own life.
He’s now 82, with a rich mane of white hair and narrow, green-grey eyes that give nothing away. I thought we’d be talking in English, but in fact his Greek is fluent – he’s from Potamia, a village near Nicosia that was bicommunal and bilingual – and I also suspect there’s an instinct at work, a reflexive inclination to use Greek whenever possible. Speaking Greek may have saved his life in 1974, when he was driving to his job at the Agricultural Research Institute and got stopped by a bearded man with a Kalashnikov who demanded to see his ID. “Again? How often do I need to show you guys my ID? I work just over there!” protested Ibrahim, acting indignant – and the man, clearly persuaded by his manner (and his Greek), waved him on. Showing ID, of course, would’ve instantly revealed him as a Turkish Cypriot, hence an automatic object of suspicion.
The prelude to our interview is extraordinary, and deserves to be noted. “This is just an introductory meeting,” he insists, cagily keeping his options open, as we meet in a Nicosia café. As we sip our coffees – Americano for me, Cyprus coffee (formerly known as Turkish) for him – I can sense him becoming more distant. This is not going to work, he says at last. Let’s just finish our coffees and go our separate ways. I start to panic; what’s the problem, exactly? “I don’t want my life presented through somebody else’s eyes,” explains Ibrahim. He adds that I shouldn’t worry about the profile, he’ll find me someone to take his place. He makes a call to a friend, but the line is busy. I protest feebly, horrified by the way things are going. We wait, ostensibly so he can call his friend again – and he casually starts telling stories of his life, as if making conversation. It takes me a while to register that we are, in fact, doing an interview after all.
Did he genuinely change his mind at some point? Or was it all just an elaborate piece of theatre? I have no idea – but the incident may reveal something of the man, the particular timbre of being Ibrahim Aziz. Here, after all, is a person who’s lived his whole life gauging risk, the actual physical danger of being killed (as his mentor was killed) but also the constant danger of being misunderstood in a society that already mistrusts him. Is it any wonder if he hesitates before committing to sharing his thoughts? Here’s a Turkish Cypriot who spent 53 years (from 1958 to 2011) unable even to visit his family in the areas controlled by Turkish Cypriots, living instead in a society that wouldn’t even let him vote till he sued in the European Court of Human Rights. Is it any wonder that he feels so strongly about being master of his own fate? His demurral, I presume, was sincere: “I don’t want my life presented through somebody else’s eyes”. He’s been disappointed by his country; all he has left is himself.
Surely things have improved in the many years since the invasion, though?
“Look, Cypriot society has always rejected us,” he replies quietly. “Even today, we live in the Republic of Cyprus but the majority continue to believe in Greece. And you still get those people who believe in enosis. You still get those people, when you put something on Facebook, who dare to write ‘You crazy Turk [pellotourko]’, or dare to write ‘The only good Turk is a dead Turk’.” Ibrahim sighs: “There’s no education. Our society hasn’t moulded people who believe that Cypriot society is everyone together, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots… We’ve expelled the Turkish Cypriots, we’ve lumped them in with the occupied areas, they’re something separate from us. The Republic of Cyprus, as it’s been constructed, is ‘ours’, and they’re the Turks in the occupied areas who took our homes”. It leaves people like himself in a bit of a quandary – but what can you do, he shrugs, “you just live in this place and try to insist on being Cypriot”.
Insistence – stubbornness, persistence, call it what you will – is something he seems to do well. Simply put, he’s a strong character. Did he go through a period of despair, I ask, at the disenfranchised life he was forced to lead? – but Ibrahim shakes his head: “I never despaired. I have a tendency to try and overcome difficulties”.
His disenfranchisement was literal, as already mentioned: as a Turkish Cypriot – even a Turkish Cypriot who’d lived all his life in the Republic – he wasn’t allowed to vote, the excuse being that the Constitution calls for separate electoral lists for the two communities (the fact that the Constitution basically stopped applying in the early 60s was apparently irrelevant). He sued in 2001, going directly to the European Court of Human Rights which vindicated him after a four-year battle – the first presidential election where he cast a ballot was the one that elected Demetris Christofias, a bittersweet irony for a former Akel member – just as he later sued the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in 2011 for demanding that he cross the checkpoints with a TRNC identity card, another case he ended up winning. Like he said, he tends to overcome difficulties.
That’s a whole other can of worms, of course – the fact that he only crossed in 2011, and couldn’t before. He’d sometimes make enquiries, he recalls, exploring the possibility of going to see family members in the north, “but lawyer friends of mine – people who had contacts in the occupied areas – always warned me that my name was among the eight [people] who wouldn’t be allowed to cross”. Back in the day he was literally a wanted man, his name on a list – distributed to all military checkpoints – of well-known undesirables “to be brought in, dead or alive”.
He was, after all, a lifelong Leftist, mentored by Kavazoglu himself, singled out as unequivocally as the three young men on the cover of his book. Ibrahim was studying in Bulgaria on an Akel scholarship (sent there to keep him out of harm’s way, as much as anything) when his mentor was murdered, along with Kostas Mishaoulis, in an ambush on the old Nicosia-Larnaca road. He cut short his studies and came back to join the struggle – and he remains a fervent Marxist, he assures me, devoted to a socialist society with Man (not Mammon) at its centre, but a few things have changed in the 55 years since.
Firstly, he believes that Cyprus must be freed (i.e. united) before any ideological struggle can take place. Secondly, his own association with Akel ended around 1979, a result of party politics sparked by “a sense of doubt” more than anything. “Don’t go getting yourself killed like the other guy” was the general sentiment (the other guy, of course, was Kavazoglu, a high-ranking Party member) – and he always felt the same resentful doubt creeping in: “So, did the other guy get killed all by himself? Where were you? Who was looking after him?”. He’s not blaming anyone, of course – but the doubt and insecurity ate away at the relationship; even now, with Akel having just elected the first Turkish Cypriot MEP, Ibrahim can’t get too excited. They should organise “a conference of the Left” instead, he suggests, bringing together the Left on both sides; that’d be a much more useful stance than playing politics and fishing for Turkish Cypriot votes – ironically the same votes he himself secured through that EU ruling.
Ibrahim Aziz can be difficult, he says so himself; he’s a scrapper, always has been. As a boy, he recalls, he was sickly and almost died – but then “I realised that you have to fight in this life” and began to push himself, body and mind. He plunged into physical labour, picking cotton and potatoes in the fields alongside his mother; in his teens, he became an excellent footballer (and actually played for Omonia, before “the threats started”). Even now, in old age, he’s religious about keeping fit (though not at all about actual religion). Does he exercise every morning? “I exercise constantly. Morning, noon and night!” He’s also become a full-time writer, having left it late, he admits – he used to work more as a translator – and making up for lost time. Matia sto Paraskinio, a historical document of the Turkish Cypriot Left, is only one of his books (albeit one that took almost 10 years to write); he’s also written fiction and poetry, and has various other projects in the pipeline. His new one is about the coup and invasion, and he also plans a book on a little-known incident from the early 80s when then-Archbishop Chrysostomos vetoed the presentation of a joint bicommunal award (the Turkish Cypriot recipient to have been Ibrahim himself). The larger aim, as ever, is the process of shedding light on an aspect of Cypriot society that’s more often shrouded in darkness – the unceasing marginalisation of Turkish Cypriots, especially those, like himself, who exist in limbo, alternately snubbed and attacked by both sides.
To be fair, Ibrahim himself hasn’t really been marginalised. Maybe we haven’t made clear just how prominent he was – but he was (and remains) very prominent, a public figure, a friend of Makarios, involved in CyBC for many years (in addition to his job at the Research Institute) as a writer and presenter. He led the Patriotic Union of Turkish Cypriots – a movement founded after the death of Kavazoglu, to continue the struggle – played leading roles in various bicommunal organisations, helped arrange visits by Turkish cultural giants Yilmaz Guney and Aziz Nesin, was active in Adisok and the United Democrats. Just last year he stood as a candidate for the European Parliament, on the party list for his friend Sener Levent’s Jasmine Movement. We support your initiative, Mr. Aziz, sighed the Greek Cypriot voters he canvassed – but how could we explain it to our friends and family if we voted for you? Ibrahim nods grimly: “This is Cypriot society.”
That, it appears, is the bottom line: Turkish Cypriots remain caught in limbo – and even a man as prominent as Ibrahim Aziz remains, in the end, rather marginalised. Time has added its own bitter irony, the life-and-death struggles of his youth being virtually unknown to today’s smartphone-addicted Cypriot youth, who would surely struggle to recognise any of the three young men on that book cover. (They’d search for them on Google instead.) Maybe it’s a good thing, I venture, the fact that technology is now taking over. Maybe it’s the only way we (or our children) will finally transcend these petty discords and divisions – but he’s not so sure. Nothing can be gained, he warns darkly, from an “atomised society”.
His own life was never atomised, always in the service of community and ideology – yet his sense of self (the Greek atomo) was always strong, whether fighting court cases, seeking to promote Cypriot identity in the shadow of competing nationalisms, or indeed resisting interviewers’ attempts to present his story from any perspective but his own. There’s perhaps a touch of sadness to Ibrahim Aziz, insofar as he’s now 82 and no closer to the free, united Cyprus he’s always dreamed of – saddled instead with a now-ingrained habit of being always a bit suspicious, always attuned to danger, from the danger of being hunted down (like Hikmet, Gurkan and Kavazoglu) to the danger of being misinterpreted. Maybe he regrets having sat down at the café after all, and looked back unflinchingly on a lifetime of struggle. I hope not.