Love conquers ethnic divide

NICOSIA – From opposite sides of their divided island, Georgia Chappa and Murat Kanatli made it their mission to break down the ethnic hatreds by bringing rivals together. Their biggest success so far is themselves. They got married last Friday. It wasn’t easy. The parents objected at first and there were menacing responses from nationalists on both sides – against Kanatli in the Turkish Cypriot north, and Chappa in the Greek Cypriot south. Mixed marriages are extremely rare in Cyprus, but «we are both people who dare to do things,» says Chappa. The Mediterranean island, which considers itself the birthplace of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, has known little peace in modern times. Like the other 800,000 Greek Cypriots and 200,000 Turkish Cypriots living on the divided island, Chappa and Kanatli grew up in total isolation from each other. Change came in 2003, when Turkish Cypriot authorities opened four checkpoints to allow movement between the two sides. One of those who came across was Kanatli. He met Chappa at an inter-communal gathering in Nicosia the following year. They quickly discovered they had a common interest – breaking down barriers. Chappa, 38, a clinical dietitian, is involved with a women’s group, Hands Across the Divide. Kanatli, 36, leads the New Cyprus Party, a small leftist group that preaches rapprochement. Romance followed, and so did trouble. At first they kept their families in the dark and when they finally let out the secret, there were misgivings. «Both sets of parents I guess, they tried not to meet, or to get to know, find out about the person their child was going out with because it was easier to keep to. .. the stereotype,» said Chappa, a lively and cheerful woman who did most of the talking during an interview with the couple. But things gradually eased up. «The last family meetings for both parents, it’s more relaxed,» says Kanatli. «They get it as a relationship between one girl and one boy… we’ve come to that stage.» Public targets A couple of years ago, Chappa said, she had eggs thrown at her car as she and Kanatli were driving in Nicosia. Kanatli says his outspoken peace advocacy draws taunts from extremists in his community. They call him a «Turkish-speaking Greek Cypriot.» About a year before he met Chappa, he was beaten up while filming an extremist rally. Chappa said a typical reaction from Greek Cypriots who heard about their engagement was: «Have we run out of men?» Meanwhile, talks between the two sides about reunification have achieved little but Chappa and Kanatli haven’t given up. They spend most of their time quietly working for peace and reconciliation. Neutral ground comes naturally to them. Neither speaks the other’s language but both are taking lessons and meanwhile they communicate in English – a legacy of British rule. Kanatli was born Muslim but calls himself an atheist. Chappa is Greek Orthodox Christian. They plan to live on the southern side, because of Chappa’s job but also spend time in the north. They were married last Friday but not in Cyprus. «We chose not to get married on a divided island,» Chappa says. Instead, they tied the knot on the island of Samos, just off the Turkish coast. It was easier for their families to get there than to travel to a Cyprus venue. They were married in a civil ceremony in the Greek island’s town hall by Mayor Philippos Petrouskos, watched by relatives from both families, some in tears. The mayor had to start earlier than planned because he was busy organizing a festival of Greek-Turkish friendship. He said he was «very moved» that Chappa and Kanatli had chosen his island for their marriage, and hoped they would «go on in life in unity.» Then everyone headed to the tavern to celebrate to bouzouki music. Before heading to Samos, Chappa said she knew of two mixed couples who broke up under family pressure but believed such unions will become commonplace. She remembers when the barrier opened in 2003 and Greek Cypriots watched the northerners pour in. «Everybody was pointing and saying, ‘Look! Turkish Cypriots shopping in the supermarket!’ «Now it’s normal. .. At some point, it will become normal with relationships as well.»