Friday, 30 November 2007

Apostolos Andreas: the occupied monastery

Apostolos Andreas monastery is located at the northeastern-most tip of the remote Karpas peninsular in Cyprus and is the pre-eminent Christian shrine on the island.

Ever since the Apostle Andrew was said to have visited the spot and performed a miracle by summoning forth a spring of fresh water able to cure the sick and heal the afflicted, Greeks on the island have performed pilgrimages to the site and regarded it as sacred.

A monastery seems to have first been built in the 12th century, but under the Franks and then the Ottomans, Greek Orthodox life was suppressed and the site declined and it was only in 1895 with the miracle granted Maria Georgiou that the monastery’s fortunes revived.

It is said that 17 years after Turkish brigands abducted her son, Maria Georgiou ‘received a dream in answer to her unceasing petitions to St Andrew, which instructed her to go from her native Cilicia [in Anatolia] to the neglected monastery of Apostolos Andreas.

‘On the voyage to Cyprus, she explained her journey to fellow passengers and particularly excited the attention of a young man. He asked Maria how she would identify her lost son, so she told him of the peculiar pair of birthmarks that he bore on his shoulder and chest. The young man then threw off his woolen cloak to expose the same marks and fell on his knees before his mother.

‘Within months of this event, the shrine received a stream of pilgrims which increased into a flood as the saint proved his power over a random tithe of supplicants.’ [1]

The monastery’s fame and prosperity continued to grow and the saint’s feast day on 30 November became one of the liveliest and most popular events in Cyprus with thousands of supplicants trekking from all over the island, often for days, to bring votive offerings to the monastery to induce the saint to bless them or intercede on their behalf.

All this changed after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and the brutal seizure of the northern third of the island. The Turkish army cleared out the clergy from Apostolos Andreas, tore the cross from the belfry, turned the pilgrims’ hostels into army barracks and declared the monastery off limits.

Still, Apostolos Andreas was spared the worst forms of looting and desecration suffered by the majority of churches and monasteries in northern Cyprus, and in the 1980s the Turkish occupation regime came up with the idea of turning the site into a tourist attraction, and ran it, according to Marc Dubin, ‘like a sort of zoo to prove [the Turkish occupation regime’s] religious tolerance’.

But despite the Turkish occupiers wanting to promote Apostolos Andreas as evidence of their civilised credentials, they couldn’t quite bring themselves to forget or overcome the spite they felt for Cyprus’ Greek and Christian heritage and the monastery fell into such a state of disrepair that fears were expressed that it was in imminent danger of collapse.

The outcry at the state of the monastery, a World Heritage Site, encouraged the UN and the USA to propose a twin restoration project to include the pre-eminent Muslim shrine on Cyprus, the mosque of Hala Sultan in Larnaca, in the free part of the island – (Hala Sultan, Mohammed’s wet nurse, was said to have fallen off her donkey and died in Cyprus during the Arab raids in the 7th century) – and Apostolos Andreas monastery in the occupied areas.

The work on the mosque was completed amid much fanfare in 2005, but the occupation regime has never fulfilled its side of the bargain and no restoration work has been done on the monastery. Indeed, last year the occupation regime said it had drawn up plans not to restore Apostolos Andreas but to transform the annexes of the monastery into a 120-room luxury hotel.

Anyway, despite 30 November being a somewhat melancholy day for Cypriots – particularly those from the Karpas villages where the saint, his monastery and feast day are held in highest esteem and where the carnival atmosphere which prevailed on the island around this time was most evident – here’s wishing all Andreas’, Andrianes, Androulles and Andrees chronia polla – there isn’t a Cypriot family that does not have someone named after the saint – I can think, off the top of my head, of five in my family – and here’s hoping that next year we can celebrate the saint’s feast day at his monastery, free from Turkish occupation.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Kyriakos Matsis: the Eagle of Pentadaktylos

President Tassos Papadopoulos is in Greece at the moment, meeting the country’s political leadership to discuss the latest developments in the Cyprus issue and to visit the village of Artemida in the Peloponnese burnt down in the catastrophic summer fires and which the Cypriot government is pledged to rebuild.

On Monday night, Papadopoulos, along with Greece’s president, Karolos Papoulias, and other dignitaries attended a concert at the Megaron Musikis in Athens in honour of one of the foremost EOKA heroes, Kyriakos Matsis, known as the Eagle of Pentadaktylos – the mountain range which runs along the north coast of Cyprus. Here is a description of Matsis’ life, mostly taken from the Phantis website:

‘Kyriakos Matsis was a Cypriot fighter during the EOKA struggle of 1955-1959.

‘Matsis was born on January 23,1926, in the village of Palaiochori, Lefkosia province, one of three children of Christofis Matsis. He studied at the University of Thessaloniki, received his degree in 1952 and returned to Cyprus. Matsis was active in labour union matters for both farmers and labourers.

‘When EOKA was formed, he was one of the first to join.

‘On January 9, 1956, Matsis was arrested by the British and tortured during interrogation. As he was an important EOKA member, Matsis was even interrogated by Cyprus Governor Sir John Harding. At one point Harding offered Matsis £500,000, a new identity and relocation if he would reveal the whereabouts of EOKA leader Georgios Grivas-Digenis.

‘Matsis replied: "Ου περί χρημάτων τον αγώνα ποιούμεθα, αλλά περί αρετής." (This struggle is for virtue not for money).

‘While imprisoned, Matsis organised his fellow prisoners and, through his charismatic leadership, kept their morale high. He managed to escape from Kokkinotrimithia Prison, with six fellow inmates, on September 13, 1956 and rejoined the struggle as area-leader of Kyrenia. The British placed a £5,000 price on his head.

‘Finally, on November 19, 1958, Matsis and two companions – Kostaris Christodoulou and Andreas Sofiopoulos – were surrounded at their hideout in Dikomo, Kyrenia province.

‘Matsis ordered his comrades to surrender but refused to do so himself. When the British commanded him to come out, he answered: "No. I won’t surrender. If I come out, I'll come out shooting.” A battle ensued but Matsis still refused to give up, prompting the British to throw hand grenades into the hideaway. After the smoke cleared, they removed the dismembered body of Kyriakos Matsis. He was buried in the Imprisoned Tombs in Nicosia.’

Matsis’ idealism, patriotism and sense of being engaged in a struggle and immersed in a tradition and history in which self had no meaning, were typical and widespread in Cyprus in the 1950s. Cypriots were convinced that they were fighting not just for Cyprus but for Greece too, for the whole of Hellenism, and as such were gripped by a delirious love for Greece and unwavering belief in the validity and value of Greek ideals, the spirit of Sparta, Athens, the Byzantine Empire and the 1821 Greek War of Independence.

Unfortunately, stressing this romantic spirit and the heroism it induced – particularly in light of the 1974 coup and invasion – are no longer fashionable in Cyprus (or Greece) and this has resulted in a campaign to reassess EOKA’s armed struggle (1955-1959), to diminish it, regard it as a mistake and an expression of fanaticism. A more passive struggle, the argument goes, to rid the island of British colonial rule should have been pursued.

But I don’t see it this way, and not because I want to glorify violence, patriotic death and armed struggle. Indeed, if the British could have been persuaded through a non-violent campaign of diplomacy and civil disobedience to leave the island – as they left the Ionian islands in 1864 – then, of course, this would have been preferable.

But once the British declared, in 1954, in relation to Cyprus, that there were certain territories in the Commonwealth ‘which, owing to their particular circumstances, can never expect to be fully independent’ and simultaneously began to conspire with Ankara to arm the Turkish minority on the island and encourage it to violently agitate for partition, then what choice did Cypriots have other than to take up arms?

The hideout where Matsis was killed

Monday, 26 November 2007

Να ζήσης, Στελάρα

I’ve never been able to make up my mind about Stelios ‘Stelaras’ Kazantzidis (1931-2001). He is undoubtedly the most talented and loved singer in Greek popular music – having sung, as well as his own compositions, the songs of Tsitsanis, Papaioannou, Mitsakis, Kaldaras, Theodorakis, Loizos, Pythagoras, Panou and so on – but sometimes I find him lachrymose, morbid, self-pitying, sentimental, humourless and depressing and I wonder what the popularity of all these songs protesting injustice, bitterness, pain, mental torture, suffering, poverty, ruination and death, songs with titles such as Everything is Black; I Wish I Were Dead; If Only I Had My Health; and Catastrophes and Disasters, say about the well-being or otherwise of Greek popular culture and psychology.

This emphasis on fatalism, suffering and yearning for death is eastern – Iranian, Turkish and Arabic – and indeed Kazantzidis has refugee roots in Asia Minor and Pontos.

But more important than his Anatolian roots – and the hardships of his working class, war-time Athenian childhood – Kazantzidis’ father was a resistance fighter tortured to death by the Nazis – I believe what explains Kazantzidis’ style and substance is the severe depressive illness he suffered from throughout his life, but which is rarely mentioned in the hagiographies.

Kazantzidis was always an intense, introspective and isolated figure, but in 1965 he had his heart not so much broken as torn to shreds by the singer Marinella, who left him just one year into their marriage, an event that aggravated Kazantzidis’ already-existing persecution complex which fancied that record companies and colleagues were exploiting and cheating him.

Kazantzidis withdrew from a society he believed sick and a world he thought treacherous and when he returned, 12 years later, he seemed distracted, not in touch with reality, paranoid, a haunted man with a hunted look, though his voice was in tact and he seemed to find relief in the act of singing and in the lamentive nature of the songs he sang.

Today is Stelios’ name day, and, in honour of the man and the celebration, above is a clip of Stelara singing (in 1977) I Return from the Night – most poignant.

Another Stelios worth mentioning is Stelios Vamvakaris, son of legendary rembetis Markos Vamvakaris, and a talented musician in his own right.

The second clip is of Stelios playing his father’s Markos the Government Minister, and the contrast between the mournful, suicidal Kazantzidis and the witty, pragmatic, ironical and cynical Markos couldn’t be more pronounced. Two different ways of looking at the world, two different ways of being Greek.

Anyway, chronia polla to all Stelios’, Stélles, Styliànes, Stylianakia and Stelares.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Boiled chicken and macaroni

This is a very important Cypriot dish, which, as far as I’m aware, in this precise form, is not served anywhere else in the world. Too bad for the rest of the world.

It is a dish which, in the old days, in the old country, was my grandmother’s standby to be served to an unexpected guest and would involve my poor mother being sent out to slaughter a family chicken – a task she does not remember executing fondly.

Chicken breast.
Grated halloumi cheese.
Dried mint.
Fresh lemon juice.
Macaroni (or spaghetti or penne).

Slaughter your chicken.
Boil your breast.
In your broth, cook your macaroni.
Grate half a cup of halloumi.
Mix dried mint with your grated halloumi.
Serve macaroni straight out of the saucepan, with a little bit of broth.
Sprinkle your halloumi with mint over macaroni. Be generous with your halloumi – we’re talking half a cup of halloumi per person here.
Rip your cooked chicken breast to pieces.
Add chicken to macaroni.
Saturate your chicken with freshly squeezed lemon juice.
Eat. Enjoy. Have some more. Go on, you're insulting me.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Werner Herzog and Dieter Dengler

Human folly, madness, barbaric dreams, the thin veneer of civilisation, the overwhelming evil of the universe, faith and superstition, human cruelty and violence, the hubristic desire to conquer nature. These are some of the themes present in Greek tragedy, and the films of German filmmaker Werner Herzog.

Currently, Herzog is promoting his feature film Rescue Dawn, a (controversial) version of his earlier documentary film, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, which concerns the life of German-American aviator and Vietnam POW Dieter Dengler.

Dengler emigrated to America from post-war Germany aged 18 to pursue his dream of flying planes – Germany had no airforce or airlines at the time – and ended up becoming a US Navy pilot. Three weeks after gaining his wings, in January 1966, Dengler – whose aim in life was to fly, not go to war – was sent to Vietnam, where he was shot down over Laos forty minutes into his first mission, captured, imprisoned and routinely tortured by the enemy.

Fearing imminent execution, Dengler took part in a daring escape, after which he survived even more ordeals in the jungle, before, finally, emaciated, on the point of starvation, hallucinating, ‘with one day to live’, being rescued – making Dengler the only American POW to have successfully escaped captivity in Laos.

Little Dieter Needs to Fly is a tribute to America – its ‘qualities of self-reliance, courage [and] frontier spirit’, its inclusiveness, its preparedness to judge a person by personal character and not collective background – and an effort to give legitimacy to the stories of post-war Germany and post-war Germans.

But Dieter Dengler’s story, for Herzog, also possesses ‘the quality and structure of an ancient Greek tragedy, [which] is that of a man and his dreams, his punishment and redemption.’

Now, redemption is a strange word to use in relation to Greek tragedy. Redemption is not only normally associated with Christianity – with its just God, afterlife and soteriology – but is also often regarded, see George Steiner’s The Death of Tragedy, as being the Christian concept most inimical to the Greek tragic worldview and most responsible for its demise in Western culture.

So perhaps Herzog doesn’t mean redemption in Dieter Dengler’s case in a Christian sense, but in a way consistent with Greek tragedy and Greek radical pessimism.

Perhaps he means that Dengler, having endured severe mental and physical suffering, ‘having seen what death looks like and escaped it’, took his dark experience and turned it into an affirmation of life.

Indeed, this is what Little Dieter Needs to Fly – see clip above – and Herzog’s own personal testimony indicate.

‘The man,’ Herzog says of Dengler, ‘had such an intense enjoyment of life… There was a real innocence about [him]. He had such a healthy and impressive and jubilant attitude to life, [and] never made a fuss about his captivity.

‘He never had to struggle for his sanity and certainly was not possessed by those things that you see so often among Vietnam veterans who returned home destroyed inside.’

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Desperate Greek Housewives

Anasia Angeli has a website called Desperate Greek Housewives, on which she says she’s going to demonstrate the art of traditional Cypriot cuisine.

According to Anasia, a fellow London-based Cypriot, DGW is:

‘Dedicated to the traditions, culture and cuisine of Cyprus, not only for Greek Cypriots worldwide but for all lovers of our unique country.

‘Many recipes are still traditional fare in the small villages where they originated. So that we do not forget them I have compiled a collection for the younger generation to help keep the spirit of Cyprus alive.

‘I am letting you into the secrets that have been passed down to me from my mother, so you can learn about our wonderful food.’

Well, these are fine sentiments indeed and the woman deserves our support. Cypriot cuisine is the best in the world and Anasia’s effort to transmit the good news is in the best Hellenic tradition of spreading civilisation to the barbarian.

However, it’s been a while since Anasia announced her admirable enterprise and people are getting hungry.

I’m also concerned that in a newsletter update just sent to subscribers, Anasia says her first lesson is not going to reveal the secrets of koubebia, koftedes or makaronia tou fournou, but will show us how to make soujouko/soushouko/shoushouko (depending on which part of Cyprus you’re from) and palouze.

Now, I must confess I don’t know what palouze is and I’d have thought making soujouko – a dried sweet made from grape juice (ideal with nuts and your favourite alcoholic aperitif, especially with Christmas and New Year approaching) – would be too complicated to make for the average person in their average kitchen.

Nevertheless, I’m still backing Anasia, so please go to her site and register. It’s free and easy.

Meantime, for those of you who can’t wait for Anasia to put on her pothkia (apron) and start cooking, I suggest you look at my posts on louvi and trahana. I also promise that my next post will be on boiled chicken and macaroni – which is possibly the best Cypriot dish going.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Shock Corridor

In Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor, Johnny Barrett is a brilliant journalist who feigns sexual perversion to get committed to a lunatic asylum where a murder has been committed, which he wants to solve and win the Pulitzer Prize.

Once inside the mental home, Barrett ingratiates himself with the three witnesses to the crime – an operatic uxoricide; a black Klansman; and a genius nuclear physicist who has regressed to childhood to escape the guilt over his catastrophic discoveries – and cracks the case but only at the expense of cracking up himself.

The film begins and ends with the famous quote from Euripides – ‘whom God wishes to destroy, He first makes mad’ – and Fuller seems well versed in Greek tragedy.

Johnny Barrett is like Oedipus, a man with a brilliant intellect, supremely confident of himself and his mental powers, trying to track down a murderer, to uncover the truth of a horrible crime, only to succumb to insanity and ruin.

Barrett like Oedipus fails to realise the dangers inherent in the obsessive pursuit and acquisition of knowledge; is oblivious to the limits of self-knowledge (know thyself/gnothi seauton does not mean acquire self-mastery but know the limitations of human nature); and aspires to the truth not for its own sake, or for the love of enquiry, but to subdue the truth and satisfy his ego.

Christopher Rocco and Bernard Knox say that, in the figure of Oedipus, Sophocles is satirising Periclean/imperial Athens – Oedipus tyrannos as Athens tyrannos – and warning of the perils for individuals and cities in love with power:

‘Oedipus embodies the splendor and power of Athens: his attempt to assert dominion over nature and his unquenchable drive for human mastery; his forcefulness of purpose, his impatience, decisiveness, and daring, bordering on recklessness; his intoxication with his own accomplishments, his liberation from the constraints of all traditional pieties; his restlessness, innovation, and ingenuity; his designs that are swift alike in conception and execution, all recall the “fierce creative energy, the uncompromising logic, the initiative and daring which brought Athens to the pinnacle of worldly power.”’

Not only do Oedipus’ attributes recall Athens, but they also recall America, and Fuller, too, in Shock Corridor is interested in unveiling America tyrannos and showing us a hubristic society, prone to self-destruction and insanity.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Paradise partitioned

In Cassavetes on Cassavetes, the genius film-maker John Cassavetes describes the confrontations he had with the producer Stanley Kramer while editing A Child is Waiting (1963) and admits becoming so infuriated by the decisions of the man responsible for Inherit the Wind and Judgment at Nuremburg that he wanted to hit him; but could a young, inexperienced director with a flimsy reputation afford to attack an established, big-shot Oscar-winning producer? ‘If I hit him,’ Cassavetes recalls thinking to himself, ‘I’ll never work again. And if I don’t hit him, I’ll never breathe again.’

Cassavetes chose to breathe and didn’t direct a Hollywood film until Gloria in 1980 – though, of course, outside the system he made the best American films of all time.

What Cassavetes describes is revenge as purification or purgation in which violence is deployed to end psychic disturbance and restore mental equilibrium; a form of revenge I neglected to mention in my cursory overview of revenge in politics.

I have had personal experience of this form of cathartic revenge. A few years back, someone insulted me and, for a couple of days after, I was in what I could only describe as a state of Ajaxian turmoil during which I could not get the insult out of my mind – and for the sake of my sanity – to be able to breathe again – I felt I had no choice but to beat up the person who made the insult, which I did – though not badly – he was lucky – others were there to pull me off him, otherwise my rage was such that it could have been much worse.

Anyway, civilised society now dictates that we are supposed to be able to live with insults and that if we seek to preserve our honour or sanity with violence there must be social and legal consequences, which, indeed, in my case there were, but nothing so severe that it made me regret my actions. Revenge was sweet, the mental disturbance I had experienced over and I was able, like Cassavetes, to breathe again or, like Joel McCrea in Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, able ‘to enter my house justified’.

Revenge as purgation or catharsis exists on a political level too. It describes, for example, the violence committed against Muslim colonists in the Balkans by Christians as they liberated themselves from the Ottoman yoke in the 19th and 20th centuries. Indeed, the brutality shown recently by the Serbs to Albanians and Bosnian Muslims – who are all ‘Turks’ to the Serbs – can be understood as a need to purify their country with blood of the Turkish occupation endured for centuries.

In the Greek imagination too, Turks were associated with dirt, filth and pollution. There’s nothing surprising in this phenomenon, which should be regarded as a natural defence mechanism that a subject and vulnerable population develops to establish and delineate boundaries and protect its identity.

Apostasy, under the Ottomans, was a Greek Christian’s greatest fear, the fear of becoming or rather being made to become a Turk or a Muslim – as a result of the devshirme (blood tax) system or the arbitrary excesses of the Ottoman ruling class, in which a pasha, aga, bey or effendi could if he took a shine to your daughter – or son – carry him or her off to his harem.

This identity-defence mechanism had the added bonus of preventing Greeks from developing the self-hate of subject peoples and indeed, throughout the Ottoman period, despite being subjugated at all levels of society, Greeks never ceased to regard the Turks as their inferiors. (This is the reverse of the British empire, where the British managed to inculcate in their subjects a sense of inferiority and self-hate, which in many cases still persists today).

It’s also worth noting that this sense of Greek exclusivity and superiority is part and parcel of Orthodoxy, an aristocratic form of Christianity, which regards all those not fortunate enough to enjoy its sacraments as suspect at best and trash at worst – the Jews and goyim is a reasonable analogy. Indeed, the Byzantine Empire regarded itself as God’s Kingdom on Earth and the Orthodox faithful as the Chosen People, the subjects of a Holy Nation. As Hans-George Beck puts it:

‘Just as everything in the Byzantine space was right, so everything outside that area was, if not wrong, at least slightly suspect. The people who inhabit this space can only be a Chosen People. But only one people can be chosen. The Byzantines claim a monopoly, in which people and Orthodoxy are co-terminous, a monopoly of spiritual culture and thinking, of superior knowledge and savoir vivre which raises them above the outside world.’

In Cyprus, however, this sense of belonging to a superior world and being immersed in a rhythm of life revolving around diachronic Christian rituals and observance which suggested being part of an everlasting and inviolable natural order, and fear of being overwhelmed or annihilated by the inferior other, did not necessarily exclude Turkish Cypriots or translate into a belief that Turkish Cypriots were an alien or miasmic presence in this earthly paradise.

Marriage in Cyprus between Christian and Turk may have been forbidden, but all other social and economic relations were permissible and entirely natural. This only broke down when Turkish nationalist extremists, with the collusion of the British colonial authorities, began to penetrate and take over Turkish Cypriot communities and demand that paradise be partitioned.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Britain’s revenge against Cyprus

Speaking last weekend at the unveiling of a monument to the Cypriot uprising against British colonial rule in October 1931 – in which the Governor’s residence in Nicosia was burned down, Greek flags were raised across the island and 17 demonstrators killed – President Tassos Papadopoulos suggested that Britain’s recent Strategic Partnership Agreement with Turkey was an act of ‘revenge’ against Greek Cypriots; revenge for the 1931 uprising and the EOKA struggle for union with Greece, 1955-1959.

Papadopoulos’ observation is interesting, though on reflection probably not correct. Revenge rarely plays a role in diplomacy, international relations or the initiation of wars. Not that base motives aren’t involved; avarice – the guiding principle of British imperialism – the brazen addiction to and extension of power, the natural instinct of the strong to exploit and lord it over the weak, fear, paranoia, stupidity, the ambitions of madmen and charlatans – must always prevail in any assessment of what shapes relations and determines conflicts between states.

If international relations, diplomacy and the pursuit of war nearly always concern self-aggrandisement, self-interest and the will to power with revenge rarely a factor – Alexander the Great made a big deal of saying he was attacking the Persian empire to avenge the Persian invasions of Greece 150 years earlier, but in reality avenging Hellas was the last thing on Alexander’s mind – then this is because the thirst for revenge is a form of psychosis in which, as Thucydides says, ‘self-preservation is of no account’ and, normally, states do not go mad and engage in actions likely to endanger their existence.

Revenge, however, can be a factor in non-state social, political and ethnic conflicts; and terrorist/guerrilla campaigns nearly always contain an internal logic that justifies retribution and disregard for self-preservation – dressed up as self-sacrifice.

Thus the IRA often legitimised its campaign of bombings and shootings by referring to 800 years of English/British oppression in Ireland; ASALA killed Turkish diplomats in Europe and the Middle East to avenge the victims of the Armenian holocaust; and, of course, revenge is the raison d’etre of Al-Qaeda – revenge against the West for simply being the West.

Revenge can also take place in periods of stasis – a Thucydidean concept, indicating civil strife, internal disorder or collapse, the worst possible affliction for a state, even worse than war – during which everything becomes possible and all the primitive, irrational and grotesque desires which constitute the dark underbelly of human behaviour are unleashed.

In such circumstances, where resentment and jealousy may have festered for years, decades, even centuries, revenge reveals itself with ferocity and we have the Hutus slaughtering the Tutsis, the Germans annihilating the Jews, the Turks massacring the Armenians and, on a different scale, the Turkish Cypriots turning on the Greek Cypriots in 1974.

Anyway, here’s an article regarding the details of the Octovriana – the 1931 anti-colonial uprising in Cyprus – a rather forgotten episode in British colonial and Greek history.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Cyprus, Rimbaud and the British empire

Long ago, if my memory serves me, my life was a banquet where everyone’s heart was generous, and where all wines flowed.
One evening I pulled Beauty down on my knees. I found her embittered and I cursed her.
(Rimbaud: A Season in Hell).

In return for the Ottoman empire ceding it Cyprus in 1878 under the provisions of the Treaty of Berlin which ended the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878, Britain agreed to continue its support to preserve Turkey against perceived Russian ambitions in the Balkans and the Caucuses.

Britain’s support for Turkey was hugely controversial domestically. Gladstone was appalled that Britain was backing Turkey in the Balkans, particularly after the atrocities committed by the Turks in suppressing the Bulgarian uprising in 1876.

‘Let the Turks’, Gladstone wrote, in his famous pamphlet The Bulgarian Horrors and the Eastern Question, ‘carry away their abuses, in the only possible manner, namely, by carrying off themselves. Their Zaptiehs and their Mudirs, their Blmhashis and Yuzbashis, their Kaimakams and their Pashas, one and all, bag and baggage, shall, I hope, clear out from the province that they have desolated and profaned.’

The Anglo–Turkish Convention, it seemed to Gladstone, was a tawdry deal – ‘an act of duplicity not surpassed and rarely equalled in the history of nations’ – another demonstration of Disraelian showmanship and vanity in which Britain committed itself to preserving the Ottoman empire, a murderous and base entity for Gladstone, in exchange for Cyprus, a pointless adornment to the British empire, which was accumulating colonies like a thief accumulating swag.

But Disraeli was convinced that Cyprus would be a vital asset for the British empire – an Eastern Mediterranean Malta or Gibraltar – a military and naval bastion to protect Turkey in Asia Minor and British imperial interests in the Suez Canal and the Middle East.

During the 300 years of Ottoman rule, Cyprus had lost its reputation for prosperity acquired under the Lusignans and Venetians and suffered neglect, depopulation and the arbitrary oppression associated with the worst excesses of the Ottoman empire.

Indeed, the British appear to have been taken by surprise by the extent of the destitution the Turks left behind on Cyprus and soon realised that if the island were to serve the interests of the British empire its infrastructure and sanitary conditions would have to be dramatically improved.

Thus the British occupation of Cyprus began with grand plans for roads, railroads, harbours, forts, hospitals and canals – hardly any of which materialised, but did initially encourage an influx of Europeans and European capital looking for employment and profit.

One of those to arrive on the island in 1878 was Arthur Rimbaud, the brilliant French poet/ex-poet/anti-poet, aged 24, who, helped by his knowledge of Greek, found work at a quarry in Larnaca and then – after catching typhoid and returning to France to recuperate – as a foreman on the project to build the new British governor’s summer residence in the Troodos mountains.

(Sir Garnet Wolseley, the first British governor of Cyprus, was so appalled at the state of Ottoman Nicosia – and was ‘very anxious to get out of [it]… it is one great cesspit into which the filth of centuries has been poured’ – that one of his first acts was to order the construction of a villa in the more salubrious surroundings of Troodos from which to rule the island).

Regarding Rimbaud’s Cypriot sojourn, we know through letters he wrote to his family in France of the arduous conditions of his work, that he complained about the heat of the plains and the cold of the mountains, that he requested arms to protect himself from the workers under his authority dissatisfied with irregular pay, and that he left the island suddenly – either because of illness, an argument with his employers or, according to Ottorino Rosa, who knew Rimbaud a few years later in Ethiopia – where Rimbaud was a merchant, gunrunner and, possibly, a slave trader – because Rimbaud had killed a subordinate in a fight.

But the details concerning Rimbaud’s year in Cyprus remain sketchy – Christopher Hitchens mischievously speculates that Rimbaud may have had a homosexual relationship with Captain Herbert – later Lord – Kitchener, who was on the island at the same time as Rimbaud, conducting the British Survey of Cyprus – and all that’s left of Rimbaud’s presence on the island is a plaque in the governor’s – now president’s – summer residence, which reads: ‘The French poet and genius Arthur Rimbaud, heedless of his renown, was not above helping to build this house with his own hands.’

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Turkey, the EU and America

‘Recent polls,’ Victor Davis Hanson, the renowned American classicist and political commentator, writes, ‘reveal that Turks are among the most anti-American and anti-Christian peoples in the world, the latter fact not surprising to anyone who reads deeply of the 500-year history of Hellenic-Ottoman relations.’

While attributing the latest outburst of Turkish anti-Americanism to the US Congress’ Armenian holocaust resolution and US resistance to Turkish plans to invade northern Iraq in pursuit of Kurdish rebels, Hanson feels that the emergence of these issues insufficiently explains the depth of Turkish hostility to America since, over time, Turkey has benefited considerably from its US alliance.

America, Hanson says, has treated Turkey well: ‘We support its entry into the EU; we tried to be fair in the Cyprus dispute (despite the Turkish brutal invasion in 1974); we offered a lot of money to use bases to supply the invasion of Iraq; we advise the Greeks patience in the face of constant Turkish overflights in the Aegean. We were a good ally in the Cold War and kept the Soviets doing to Turkey what it did to Eastern Europe.’

How then does Hanson account for the surge in anti-American hysteria in Turkey – which, he says, is tied to ‘perverted manifestations of anti-Semitism’ and revealed by the ‘mega-hit, anti-American film and subsequent TV series Valley of the Wolves (replete with murderous American soldiers and an organ-harvesting Jewish doctor)’?

Hanson believes Turkish anti-Americanism is deep-rooted and reflects a general hostility to the West in Turkey, now able to find expression as ‘the historical aberration of Ataturk's secularism’ is exposed and Islamic ideology and perceptions of the global order increasingly permeate Turkish society.

‘European Turkey’, Hanson argues, ‘is being overwhelmed, demographically and culturally, by anti-Western, anti-globalization Anatolian Islamism, and thus begins to replay the historical role of the Ottomans — whom, contrary to current orthodoxy, I don't find to have ever been positive for civilization as a whole.’

The rise of Anatolian Islamism in Turkey will put such strains on Turkey’s partnership with America, Hanson suggests, that US foreign policy makers should now be planning for irretrievable breakdown and the formation of ‘closer relations with Armenia, Kurdistan, Greece, Cyprus, and other regional neighbors’.

Developments in Turkey are so serious, Hanson concludes, that America ‘should quit denying the danger, or despair that without the old Turkey we are adrift in the Eastern Mediterranean. We are not.’

In my fantasy US cabinet VDH would be the next secretary of state; but unfortunately, in reality, this privilege, assuming Hillary Clinton becomes president in 2008, is likely to go to Richard Holbrooke.

Dick Holbrooke – fomer assistant secretary of state, former US ambassador to Germany, former US ambassador to the UN, architect of the Dayton Peace Accords and President Bill Clinton’s former special envoy to Kosovo and to Cyprus – is an ardent proponent of the US-Turkey alliance.

Turkey is, according to Holbrooke, ‘a frontline state that stands at the crossroads of almost every issue of importance to the United States on the Eurasian Continent’.

At a Brookings Institute lecture earlier this year, Holbrooke reiterated his view that Turkey and the US are ‘indispensable allies’, accused the Bush administration of mishandling relations with Turkey to a dangerous degree and berated Europe for not seeing ‘the strategic and historic necessity for negotiating Turkey's accession into the European Union’.

The root of the EU’s skeptical approach to Turkey – its failure to see that ‘Europe and Turkey need each other’ – according to Holbrooke, is Islamophobia and racism, a failure of European nation-states to adjust to the realities of globalisation and mass immigration – particularly Muslim immigration – which reactionary Europeans are frightened will dilute ethnic and cultural homogeneity, to which they are unreasonably attached.

Of course, for Americans like Holbrooke the nation-state and ethnic and cultural homogeneity are anathema, antiquated concepts, dirty words. Their vision of Europe is that it should come increasingly to resemble America – glorifying the individual and individual ‘rights’, skeptical of history and tradition, revelling in multiculturalism and the demise of ethnicity.

Now, leaving aside that what Americans like Holbrooke advocate is in fact the death of Europe and European culture; it is also deeply ironic that while Holbrooke castigates Europeans for wanting to preserve the nation-state and ethnic and cultural homogeneity, he cannot praise Ataturk – ‘a brilliant visionary’ – and Turkey highly enough; Ataturk, who was guided by the ruthless pursuit of Turkish ethnic homogeneity – a policy prosecuted by his successors with the same violence, fear and institutional discrimination; and Turkey, where devotion to the nation and the state borders on the psychotic and fascistic.