çay on the house

Views during the orchid walk around Hisarköy, Northern Cyprus.

Views during the orchid walk around Hisarköy, Northern Cyprus.

Just a few days ago, I told a friend how I missed reading, how I used to be an avid reader, devouring books by Steinbeck, Hemingway, Hesse and Gordimer and many others from the age of 14 and that especially since university, I’d lost that ability to sink into a story. I’ve been conditioned to gist read, so I fly through words, paragraphs and pages in search of the relevant sections and don’t pause to appreciate the style or the plot much…
A book I ‘imposed’ myself to read, as I gathered it would go well with an article I have to write on Lebanese director and producer Philippe Aractingi’s new feature film “Héritages” (“Mirath” in Arabic), has been with me from the moment I bought it. “Héritages” is a moving and important film that looks at the “Anatomy of Restlessness” that prevails in Lebanon and translates into virtually every family having some more or less close relative/s in (an)other country/countries. Aractingi and his family unpack questions of belonging, and identity, touch on allegiances and fears, address silences and hopes, discuss the future and the past, and in the process, shed a lot of baggage..

So buying “Origines” by Aractingi’s compatriot, Amin Maalouf, the first Lebanese to be admitted to the Académie Française, seemed obvious. And, Maalouf’s worked  his magic on me, again! This is the third of his books I read and he proves to be one of the writers who can draw me in with ease, barely 3 pages into an oeuvre.

Aractingi’s film and what it lays bare, challenges and the mirror it holds up in front of each one of us, the “genetic memory” he suggests we all are subjected to and Maalouf’s book have made me think also about my own family.

Looking around me, I couldn’t help but being surprised how many non-locals there were, in this lost quarter of the Mediterranean, on Cyprus. I crossed over to the Northern part, which is Turkish since 1974. At the first hotel I sought out in Girne/Kyrenia and where I’d hoped to be staying, for the name, really, the Nostalgia Hotel, I was greeted by a man who sounded very Bollywood. He gave me all the information I needed and then I went on to take a look at a possible alternative option nearby, shown around by a young Nigerian. Given that this one proved a non-option, I went back to Bollywood (and Hussein, it turned out), booked in and got a breakfast discount.

Tonight, upon coming back from my orchid hike, I saw a little boy – I guessed he must be between 2 and 3 – in the corridor. I tried to give him high fives but he didn’t seem to know that game yet. His mom looked on and smiled, gently. I took my key, waved goodbye and went to my room. Then, remembered I should tell Hussein that I had decided to stay an extra night. As I got to the dining room, he was clearing up. We got to chat, he made me a green tea. “Can I ask you a question but please don’t get upset”, I opened. “Are you Turkish or are you from India?” He looks and me and smiles a tiny smile: “I’m from Pakistan.” If he was upset about my misplacing him with an enemy country, he didn’t show it and we spoke about how difficult and dangerous life was there, how he’d been in Cyprus for 3 years, studying, and now raising a family. (Turned out Wardan, his cute son, was 14 months old)

At the orchid festival in Hisarköy, about 30km inlands from Girne, I met an Iraqi student (“I’m from Erbil, I’m Kurdish”) who was on a full scholarship at the Girne American University. There are also many Syrians who currently receive such scholarships.

third type of orchid

One of the orchids we saw outside Hisarköy.

At the table next to mine, at some small kebab place in Girne tonight, I overheard two male voices nearby speaking in English. From the accent, I figured they’d be West African. Shamelessly, I eaves-dropped on their conversation. The one was telling the other about a woman back home – Nigeria, it turns out – who had sent him something. Whatever it was, it must have been steamy, because he didn’t read it out, he handed his friend the phone. I had thus far not lifted my head once from the book I was presently staring at…

As I asked for the bill, I was told “çay on the house”. I’d had two of them.

Pakistan, Syria, Nigeria, and Lebanon (Fifi, the woman who booked me out at the Delphi Hotel in Nicosia yesterday, excitedly told me she was from Jounieh, 20min from Beirut but everybody had left, she had family in all sorts of places but no longer in Lebanon…)

We’re all somewhat hybrids, these days. Like Hussein managing a Northern Cypriot hotel, while studying…. and me being half French, half German, residing in Beirut, talking English with a South African accent.

Traditional Cypriot dance troupe getting ready

Young girls getting ready before performing a traditional Cypriot dance on Hisarköy’s village square.

As Hussein told me of his fears of the drones and other dangers in his home country, I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that right now, for most Europeans, there is no sense of insecurity that they need to have, or would have or would know of, really. For over 50 years, Europe – with some horrific exceptions – has known peace. And prosperity, to a large extent. But for the rest of the world, this security and prosperity remains elusive. I was heartened when reading about a march in Hamburg this weekend, where 4000 people expressed their solidarity with the “Lampedusa refugees” and demanded they stay. The tighter Europe will close itself off, the more desperate the attempts to penetrate fortress Europe will be… Lebanon, with it’s 4 odd million, currently hosts (some would put it “hosts”) over 1 million Syrians. Germany with it’s over 80 million and it’s strong economy, has allowed some 7000 Syrians in. Enough said.


About Tales from a Small Country

I'm a project coordinator and features writer with a passion for the seventh art, a keen interest in culture and mobility, as well as social and environmental subjects. Half French, half German by origin possibly explains why I am drawn to divided countries and diverse societies: I called Cape Town in South Africa home for over a decade before coming to Beirut in early 2012. Besides people watching and cats, I also love Tripoli, Lebanon's second city.
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