by Kerem Öktem
This blog entry is a brief reflection on a study trip, which I co-organised with Prof. Karl Kaser (Southeast European History and Anthropology, University of Graz) in May 2016. My colleagues Karabekir Akkoyunlu and Nataša Mišković (University of Basel), who graciously supported this blog with her excellent photos, also took part, along twenty students of the history department and the Masters of Southeast European Studies MA.SEES.
My reflections pertain to three domains, which are hard to disentangle: The state of the actual ‘frozen’ conflict between Turkey and the non-recognised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus on the one side and the Republic of Cyprus and pretty much everybody else on the other; the value of study trips with mini instances of ethnographically inspired fieldwork techniques; and finally the challenge to engage with what Constantinos Adamides has called a ‘comfortable conflict’, but what is an omnipresent if internalised state of exception nevertheless.
The State of Conflict
Much has been written on this most protracted conflict in Europe, which is so frozen that it is almost regularly ignored by most people and institutions involved: Whether it is Greek or Turkish Cypriots, the European Union or even Turkey and Greece, with occasional exceptions most have settled to ignore or at least to suppress the fact that the island and its capital continues to be divided since the 1960s. Ever since, hopeful periods of conflict resolution have alternated with moments of disengagement and relapses to the status-quo-ante. Currently, the latest rounds of negotiations between the Presidents of the Republic of Cyprus and the internationally unrecognised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) risk ending in a stalemate yet again.
Meanwhile, the markers of partition and competing claims for statehood are deeply inscribed into the mental maps of Cypriots, as well as into the topography and geography of the island. Our study group was based in a hotel in the northern part of the city. From the upper floors of the building we could see the humungous maps of Turkey and the TRNC, carved deeply into the Pentadactylos mountain range and illuminated at dark.
Criss-crossing between the North and the South, we experienced the border installations, check-points and customs control booths as both routine and absurd. They were routine, because only very few signs suggested that these fences were the material manifestations of conflict and partition. Yet, they were also absurd, as they served as the stage for competition over territory and sovereignty: The Republic of Cyprus emphasises the illegality of the TRNC, trying to avoid even mentioning its presence lest it may feel recognised. In exchange, the TRNC, with all its insignia and symbols insists that it will remain ‘forever’.
Between the mundane and the absurd
Nowhere is this interpenetration of the routine and the absurd, the mundane and the anomalous more visible than in Varosha, the Turkish-occupied ghost town, which was once the tourist sector of Famagusta and one of the fanciest Mediterranean resorts of the 1960s. Inaccessible and slowly crumbling away under the watchful eye of the Turkish army, Varosha’s abandoned hotels are in full view of the sunbathers, who occupy a small stretch called Palm Beach.
One may wonder, and I did, how seemingly normal human beings could possibly enjoy spending their holidays in this most absurd and dystopic of beach settings. Yet, the students’ spontaneous reaction, when they arrived there after hours spent in air-conditioned conference rooms answered this question: They instantly got into their swimming gear and disappeared in the waves. And indeed, Palm Beach is known for its fine sands and shallow waters. The dystopia of a conflict frozen in time is but a mere parenthesis, a few rotting buildings that can be duly ignored.
If Palm Beach is a site of well-orchestrated insanity, the Home for Cooperation is one of well-considered sensibility. It is situated right in the middle of the UN-controlled buffer zone, the island’s no-man’s-land. The Home is the basis for Cypriot NGOs and activists, who work for a resolution of the conflict along the lines of UN Security Council Resolutions and the High Level Agreements and the principles of a bi-zonal, bi-communal federal state based on the political equality of the two main communities. Generously funded by the Norwegian government, the Home also functions as the island’s most important venue, where Greek and Turkish Cypriots and others can meet and attend cultural events together. We visited this party zone in the buffer zone, where the absurdity of the whole situation, exemplified by the bullet-holed facade of the former Ledra Palace Hotel and occasionally passing UN vehicles, was offset by the suave jazz music of a Turkish-Cypriot Band and the custom of good-natured people.
Markers of Territory
The TRNC may be the world’s most unrecognised entity, yet it is also a very tangible reality. A reality, however, whose maintenance is almost completely dependent on the financial, infrastructural and political investment of Turkey. Turkey’s claim to the North used to be marked by secular symbols of Kemalist nationhood, ranging from Atatürk statues to flags and monuments of independence fighters. While the former do still exist, new markers are emerging. In the last couple of years, the Turkish state has been building massive Faux-Ottoman mosques around the island. They tend to be located in the wastelands of the larger cities. They are part of Turkey’s new self-image as a patron to all Muslims, yet they serve the secular national idea of Turkish dominance with at least as much zeal as the TRNC flagpoles.
In less than a week, our group of 24 committed themselves to their mini case studies, ranging from the social dynamics of border crossing to the spatial organisation of partition, and from the state of the island’s minority communities – the Armenians, Maronites and Latins – to encounters with young people and bi-communal activists. The ‘comfortable conflict’ made engagement even with the border guards an overall pleasant affair. Yet, the state of exception in Cyprus remains omnipresent, if largely connived at. I believe it is worth revisiting the Cyprus conflict as it gives deep – often, though not exclusively disheartening – insights into the long-term effects of ethno-national partition and communitarian segregation.
A note of thanks: I would like to thank the team at the Centre of Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz who painstakingly prepared all details. Karl Kaser was an inspiring co-organiser and an astute observer. Our colleagues in Cyprus turned this study trip into a condensed lecture series of highest academic acclaim. I would like to thank Ahmet Sözen (Eastern Mediterranean University), Sertaç Sonan (Cyprus International University) and Olga Demetriou (University of Cyprus) who helped me with the planning and logistics of the trip and gave amazing lectures on the conflict and its people. They were complemented by the anthropological deliberations of Costas Constantinou and Yannis Papadakis in a truly exciting session on the micro-dynamics of ethno-national boundary making. Nataša Mišković was our visual chronicler throughout the trip. Yet, above all it was the students, whose sharp eyes and open minds elicited a myriad of insights into a most complex field.
 Adamides (2015) ‘A comfortable and routine conflict’, in: James Ker-Lindsay, Resolving Cyprus. New approaches to conflict resolution (London: I.B. Tauris), pp. 5-15.
Kerem Öktem is Keyman Visiting Professor for Turkish Studies at Northwestern University (USA). Before that, he was University Professor for Southeast European Studies and Modern Turkey at the Centre for Southeast European Studies in Graz (Austria).
Öktem, Kerem: “A Study Trip to a Comfortable Conflict Zone”; in: Globalising Southeastern Europe (08.06.2016), URL: https://global-sees.org/2016/06/08/a-study-trip-to-a-comfortable-conflict-zone/.