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How to get away from it - all! The Turkish Republic of North Cyprus.

To readers of newspapers and listeners to TV and radio bulletins, 1991 was hardly a year full of comfort and joy. It occurred to me by the end fo the year that a full dose of Yuleryy foolery and New Year glad memories would be insupportable. My Xmas present to kind friends would be my temporary absense. One needed to forget, not remember; to disburden, not embrace anything new; to substitute for frolicsome celebrations a stern course of self-abatement. Where on earth could one find a place where nothing reminds one of anything? Where instead of gathering new impressions one is free to shed old ones? Where one's mental and emotional burdens could be lightened? Where one could enjoy for a spell the positive aspects of Coleridge's |I see, not feel...'?

Out of the blue, the problem was solved. A travel brochure offered a fortnight swamping Xmas and New Year, in the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus. There, if anwhere, one could even forget oneself. The Turkish language, although written in our own script, is to a Western reader much like picking up a set of unlucky Scrabble-tiles. As for |the world forgetting, by the world forgot,' the world has nothing to forget, since (with the sole exception for Turkey itself) it does not officially recognized the existence of this little republic--which is why all visitors must first fly to mainland Turkey which alone ves clearance for flights to the TRNC airport of Ercan. Even before arrivingn Never-never-land, visitors from the West endure the illogical experience of flying back, so to say, over their own sky-tracks.

In this officially non-existent slice of Turkeyy, al schoolday notions of Ottoman arrogance melt away. Markedl un-terrible teenage Young Turk conscripts are Boy Scouts who wave cheerilly at rare busloads of foreign visitors, their young brows unlined by any trace of consecutive thought. Self-absorbed modesty, honesty, endless patience reign hand in hand here, with an elaborate inefficiency which is itself disarmingg. All these splendid anomalies we could discover within minutes after being bumpily but skilfully driven to our package-deal hotel.

The pre-1974 pre-TRNC Deniz Kizi Hotel is perched over the roadside hamlet of Alsancak, a few miles west of Kyrenia--itself re-named Girne by the Turks. Nature--plus, presumably, the original Greek Cypriot proprietors--had done it proud. It commands superb views over one of the most sensational coastlines of Europe, with its own private beach hidden under stupendous mountains to which cling such ageless adherences and indentations as Saint Hilarion's Castle, the Tombb of Saint Barnabas, Othello's Tower, and tiny villages dotted among the crags and pine forests of the Five Fingers range, from which one can catch glimpses of the south-coast sea across the whole eastern tip of the island.

But if the hotel itself suggested an earlier Greek effort of Swissification, its present staff whether male or female, young or old, would glide noiselessly and quite slowly to and fro, quietly replacing with a gleaming new ashtray one which had held two matchsticks, or emerging from a distant kitchen first with a cup and saucer, then a pot of hot coffee, and after a third glide into a back again from the far-off invisiblle source, a small jug of cream to finish the rite. This was the kind of |elaborate inefficiency' whch during two weeks in Never-never-land replaced all one's usual expectations of the ostentatiously professional (and repeatedlyy tippable) business of |lookingg after the tourists'. Looking straight ahead of themselves on these dignified missions, they just happened to be passing the right place at the right time. Carry a tray to cut down by some miles a day those endless one-thing-at-a-time silent journeys? It had never occurred to them. Invisible blinkers guided them on their wholly personal effortless movements. It was not public |politeness'. Not moving their calm handsome heads an inch to right or left, they seemed to be exclusively intent upon their own routine affairs. Without a flicker of animosity, they behaved as if other people simply did not exist.

By the very nature of human personality we are all automatically egocentric. Indeed, not to be so is to become, physically and psychologically, |beside oneself'. But normal egocentricity does not imply egotism, and the self-centredness I was watching was so innocent as to be curiously praiseworthy. It was something positive. Nor was it the result of our lack of knowledge of the Turkish language. Their own knowledge of English could range from fluency among those old enough to remember Cyprus as a British colony to a few hesitant sentences from youngsters most of whom had left school early. It was therefore not suprising that TRNC citizens, whether met in the sizeable towns Kyrenia and Famagusta, or in shops or on local buses, did not seem aware of us. What did surprise me was that because of their quiet patience they seemed equally uninterested in formal contact with their own countrymen.

One cold day I was waiting for a bus alongside three neat youngters, all of whom had indicated that yes, they to were waiting to go to Alsancak by |my' bus. A passing motor-cyclist slowed down: one of the three friends hopped onto the pillion-seat without a word to, or glance at, this companions: nothing to do with them, was it? A moment later the second youth, again without a word or gesture of farewell to his remaining friend, was swept into the back seat of a new companion's car. No word, no wave: the third chap had suddenly ceased to exist, and become as much a non-person as the unknown Englishman. I felt that if E. M. Forster had lived among the Turks of Cyprus, his benediction to the world would have been: |Only disconnect!'.

I was delighted to discover, form Vivien Noakes' biograph, that Edward Lear reported during his travels among Turks in 1848: |...they never stare or wonder at anything; you are not bored by any question, and I am satisfied that if you chose to take your tea while suspended by your feet from the ceiling, not a word would be said, or a sign of amazement betrayed.'

It was not my business to enquire too closely into the strictly political basis for some of these observations. Povert and unemployment may well have contributed to the strange fatalism. The local barren soil and a usually blistering climate may have preserved the scenic beaut from the effects of a flourishin agriculture. Did a hih proportion of the present population come from mainland Turkey after the 1974 invasion and resettlement? If so, the apparently placid indifference of the strolling young Turkish conscripts might have been little different from that of non-Cypriot settlers. Whatever the cause, this mood suited perfectly my brief spel of non-festive unsociability.

One over-riding |political' benefit was obvious to all of us Western visitors: by day or night, on country roads or in towns, we all felt

abso absolutely safe. There seemed to be nothing whatever for the UN blue-capped |peace-keepers' to do, as they wandered forlornly in twos and threes, their own native languages adding a touch of university to the prevailing atmosphere of inactivity and incomprehension. No prison problems--because no crime! NO knifing, no mugging! Nowhere in England, in recent years, have I felt so immune from violence as in TRNC. Nor so little suspicious of peculation. We Western visitors quickly learnt that there was never a need to count our change. These Cypriot Turks are far to pround to cheat.

One aspect of this rigorous non-commercial uprightness became positively comic for us visitors: we all found it difficult to buy anything! Remembering my own visit to Kyrenia one week before the 1974 invasion, I sped along its still fine promenade and High Street, looking for what had then been its displays of Greek-operated retail trade. A sort of blight had fallen. Only a few bare necessities rewarded the window-shopper. Congratulating myself at having laboriously tracked down an almost hidden leather-goods shop, I tried against the owner's reluctance to buy a pair of shoes. Two pairs were produced: one was sadly the wrong size, the other fitted but was less attractive. From all the shelves of shoe-boxes surrounding him, could he not find the right style in the right size? His |No' was hardlyy more than a shrug. He beame with real cordiality as I left him without having sullied his hands with the indignity of salesmanship.

It happened that our Xmas/New Year fortnight coincided with an unusual spell of howling wind and driving rain, rain by the bucketful. In Greek Kyrenia no doubt ever available umbrella would have been dangled in the front windows. In Turkish Girne the English visitors (having mostly though that they had left rain behind them at home) went roaming on a hunt-the-brolly game with small hope of winning. I was lucky. I found a folding mini-brolly hiding away in the rearmost regions of a chandler's shop. Price? 4.50 [pounds]. Shaking his head, the owner apologized for not being able to sell me a cheaper model. |This one is fine. Is it made here?' He nodded. Back at the hotel, a ceremonical unfurling of my handsome bargain brolly brought disillusion from one of my package-mates: |It works beautifully; it was imported from Taiwan.' My personal hope, that the non-existent Republic could find its wy in the world, shrank with my re-folded brolly. But for any illuminating disquisition on the topic of intercontinental trade in umbrellas between the TRNC and Taiwan, I fear I must direct the reader to confront his friendly neighbourhood Economist.

The rationale of m two-week experiment in winding down, personall and socially, in a non-stimulating environment was confirmed when the |return to normal' went well. Not one English newspaper had been available; the radio and TV had produced only local news. So on the return coach from Heathrow the newspapers were gulped down with a conscious appetite. Although in public affairs the attempt to decide whether Mr. Major or Mr. Kinnock were the bigger humbug had not changed, the crosswords were crisper, and the sardonic intelligence of one's favourite commentators could still add savour to an otherwise unappetising menu. Return to familiar faces, familiar furniture, familiar buildings, is always reassuring ater a brief absence. Returning to them from almost nowhere and almost nobody has added to that reassurance a sharp extra zest. Best of all, my friends have been re-discovered-- a step up, surely, from being taken for granted?

For this relief, self-absored and dignified TRNC, much thanks!

S. Gorley Putt is a Fellow an former Senior Tutor of Christ's College, Cambridge. His memoir Wings of a Man's Life (Claridge Press) records how from a seafaring ancestry (Men Dressed As Seamen) he became a literary historian, his latest work in this field being A Preface to Henry James (Longman).
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Author:Putt, S. Gorley
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:May 1, 1992
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