NEWS

Cypriots try bridging gulf

APOSTOLOS ANDREAS MONASTERY, Cyprus – When it comes to communicating, Murat Akin has a head start over most people on the divided island of Cyprus. He can talk to the other side. By a historical quirk of fate he speaks Greek as well as his native Turkish, giving him the edge in selling trinkets to the busloads of Greek Cypriots who visit the Orthodox monastery of Apostolos Andreas in the Turkish-speaking north of the island. «I get a lot of work out of this; I can do business with the Greek Cypriots,» the 21-year-old said. Akin grew up near the monastery on the isolated Karpaz peninsula, where some Greek Cypriots stayed on after the effective partition of Cyprus in 1974. The son of immigrants from Turkey, he learned Greek from his childhood friends. He is a rarity on an island where most people have been sealed for decades in their own monolingual bubble, with little immediate need or inclination to learn each other’s tongue. But despite numerous failed attempts at reunification, the Greek Cypriots’ entry into the European Union and Turkey’s own EU hopes have kept peace moves on the international agenda. And with the opening of the UN-policed ceasefire line two years ago, a growing trickle of people from both sides has started trying to bridge the language gap. Linguistic segregation Historically, Greek and Turkish Cypriots used to live cheek by jowl. Greek speakers have always been far more numerous, but many villages and towns were mixed and members of one community often knew at least a smattering of the other’s language. Over the years the island’s Turkish and Greek dialects developed a substantial shared vocabulary and even a similar accent; to the untutored ear they can sound strangely alike. But intercommunal violence in the 1960s drove a wedge between the two groups and brought physical segregation. «After 1963 Nicosia was completely divided – I never had any chance to meet Greek Cypriots and I can’t speak any Greek at all,» said Bulent Kanol of the Management Center, a Turkish-Cypriot non-profit body that promotes cross-border ties. The de facto partition in 1974, when Turkey invaded in response to a brief Greek-Cypriot coup aimed at union with Greece, sealed the separation. Nearly all Greek Cypriots ended up in the south, and Turkish Cypriots in the north. Nowadays hardly anyone in the north speaks any Greek, nor southerners any Turkish. Those who do are mostly elderly. English, the former colonial tongue, is still technically one of three official languages, but for most Cypriots it is far from being a viable lingua franca. Rising interest Kanol said the scale of the communication gap became clear when the ceasefire line was opened in April 2003, allowing each side to visit the other for the first time in 29 years. «One of the basic difficulties in Cyprus for proper dialogue between the two communities is the language problem,» he said. That’s when demand for language lessons started rising, and several organizations on both sides took up the cue. Kanol said some 150 people had enrolled for his center’s Greek classes, and there were more applicants than places. «Some people want it for day-to-day relations with Greek Cypriots, but it’s mostly for business and job prospects,» he said, noting that many students were hoping for the chance to work in federal institutions in a future united Cyprus. Most people agree more Turkish Cypriots are studying Greek than the other way round, for practical reasons: They are in the minority and at a stark economic disadvantage after years of international sanctions against their breakaway territory. But interest has risen in the south too, although enthusiasm abated slightly after an initial rush. «The way they structure their sentences made it quite hard, but there are a lot of words and expressions that we use,» said 35-year-old office worker Maria Neophytou. Niyazi Kizilyurek, head of Turkish Studies at the University of Cyprus in south Nicosia, said the department had expanded its intake this year by about one quarter. The university will soon offer Turkish as an elective course for those studying other subjects, and lay on extramural classes for non-students. «It’s a mixture of curiosity, interest and job security,« he said. «Cypriots are just starting to get into bilingualism.» Back in the north, students taking beginners’ Greek at the Management Center said they were spurred by intellectual interest and a simple desire to communicate with Greek Cypriots. «My generation thinks about peace more,» said sociologist Ayca Kurnaz, 24. «We want to have friends on the other side.» (Additional reporting by Michele Kambas in Nicosia)