WORLD CONFERENCE on CULTURE @ STOCKHOLM
31 march - 2 april 1998

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The Choice for Both

Neshe Yashin

Neshe Yashin,

As a Turkish Cypriot writer I have been living in the Greek Cypriot part of the divided Cyprus since one year. Was this a choice and why did I make this choice? The word choice hurts me deeply. In such a small and beautiful island how can you ask people to choose the side they should live and this dilemma means that they will not be able to see the other side any more. If this was a choice as they mean it I chose to live with the "enemy". Actually the problem is that you have no free choice. For them the thing I am doing is named as a "betrayal" rather than "choice". When I returned back to the Turkish Cypriot part of the island for some time for a short visit, some of my friends were talking to me in a whispering voice as if I have committed a great sin. My old aunt in the North thinks that what I have done is the end of the world. I am in a worst situation than a woman who committed adultery in the Middle ages. Why did I do this? This was not a choice because I am against the choice. I think choosing one part of my country and forgetting about seeing the rest can only be something like Sophie’s choice.

All my life, starting from my childhood I have been a disobedient person. I was disobedient against my father because obeying him meant losing my freedom . I didn’t obey to what they thought me in school. I didn’t obey to the male society and the traditional roles given to me as a woman and I didn’t obey to the nationalism they thougt me in the school . When you don’t want to obey your father you can leave the house when you don’t want to obey a husband who is trying to dominate you, you can get divorced but what about a political authority an organisation which calls itself a state and appoints you as its citizen ? I applied to them hundreds of times to give me permissions to cross over to the other side of my country and they refused it. I can remember myself many times sitting at a bench at Ledra Palace check point and crying silently without knowing what to do about this opression that I was facing. One day I was so angry that I walked over with a friend, hoping that the other people who were not given permissions follow us but they didn’t and this is understandable. When we walked over the policeman yelled us that he has the order to shoot anybody who tends to do this and he was begging us to return back because he didn’t want to become a killer or lose his job .

To make a confession here, actually I crossed the Green line once secretly with the help of a smuggler. What I remember from this experience is a feeling of freedom, a feeling of empowerment as if I have cheated and defeated the whole army responsible for this kind of disobedient acts of citizens.

Then I found a more safe way to do it. I flew from the city I live to the city I live by changing three planes. My journey was from Nicosia to Ercan Airport to Istanbul Airport then to Athens and Larnaca Airport and then back to Nicosia. What I am describing now is the crossing of a distance of 50 meters. The longest 50 meters of the world!

Having this big experience of living with the so called enemy gave me a wider insight about the conflict and a deeper understanding about the realities of the other side. After three visits of one month each, I decided to stay longer because I realised that I was giving some help for the reconciliation in Cyprus by my presence in the southern part of the island through the speeches I was delivering in schools, villages and cultural centres What really helped me in this adventure was my identity as a poet and the way I avoided the political discourse currently used and dealt with the language as a person of literature.

Living in a country of ethnic conflict means that you have to obey certain rules characterised with the side taking aspect of the conflict. Conflict dictates you to think in terms of categories. You, yourself are in a certain category and what is expected from you is to act within the limits of this certain category. The conflict culture operates with dualistic thinking. This is the either/or approach where you are forced to make the choice. Actually as I told above, you don’t even have a choice. Your category is determined from your birth and you have to act and take side with this relevant category that you were put in. When you were socialised to your national identity you were thought to be proud of the aspects of your national identity and you also learned about the other which is less valued and which is the historical enemy. What if you approach the enemy and try to understand the reality through their terms? Some writers and poets in Cyprus have talked about the choice of "both" instead of an either/or approach. But since "both" includes also the enemy, they were named as the agents of the enemy by the supporters of the status quo.

Of course literature has a strong power to deal with these type of problems. If you are a person of literature in a country of conflict the first thing you have to deal with is the language itself. When I say language I don’t mean the different languages spoken and the problem of translation etc. but what I mean is the language of your own society where most of the beautiful words are borrowed by the conflict. Where peace becomes the name of war, where victory means the denial of the other’s rights and where many innocent words become associated with some categories of thought and where the words staying at the tip of the iceberg are actually associated with some feelings, interests, values and a certain history underneath. Words lose their original meanings and become identified with some divisions in life. Many words become associated with certain group thinking.

A country of conflict is also a country of different symbols fighting against each other. On the Green line of Cyprus you can see five different flags. Even colours get associated with sides and colours trigger feelings.

The power of poetry and its peaceful function comes from the way it deals with the language. Poetry exceeds the borders of the language and because it deals with the words in a special manner and organises them in a different way than the daily language, it overcomes the tyranny of language which reproduces everyday the system of conflict.

In a country of conflict it is very difficult to experience democracy. The limits of freedom of expression is the "national cause and interest" which is mainly formulated and dictated by the ones in power. In a country of conflict, you can not have normality. For example in Cyprus we are still in a cease fire situation. This is an excuse for the administrators of both sides to take measures which couldn’t be taken in a country which is not experiencing a regular threat of war. There is a call for national unity which actually means going along with the national cause formulated by the decision makers in power. Fighting for a national cause usually means fighting for your own group interest against the other. The concerns and the needs of the other is not included in this formula. It is a situation where one party will win and the other will lose. Here the writer’s place may be the place of the third party where concerns of both parties could be taken into consideration.

Politicians analyse the events and fix positions which fits the needs of their own side. The position of the other side is fixed with the same way. But literature does not work with positions and it rather deals with the human needs and experiences underneath these positions. This is the place where you can reach unity. I think many writers of countries of conflict are already playing this role by disconnecting themselves from the side taking and self- centred aspect of the conflict. Somebody may say what if there is a clear victim and this is your own side. I think there is never a definite victim in a situation of conflict. The interaction of victim and the persecutor is a rather complicated issue. It may be very clear in a case that one side is victimised very harshly but even in such a situation persecutor may be also victimised with the act of persecution and the victim may start breeding in itself a potential future persecutor. Usually the persecutor is also acting with the pain of a past victimisation. Understanding the reasons of persecution and psychology of the persecutor is as important as pitying and taking side with the victim. I think a writer is somebody who can successfully put himself or herself in the place of the other and I think when she or he does this it will be very clearly seen that pain is present in many ways.

I think the other important thing in a country of conflict is the connections between artists and people of literature of both sides. In our country the problem is not with psychological borders but with rather a physical border. The physical division of the island prevents people from every kind of contact. Apart from the rarely allowed face to face meetings even telephone and postal contact is not available. Citizens of Cyprus have worked hard against this embargo and last year with the help of foreign diplomats was a golden year for bi-communal meetings. Towards the end of the year when the political atmosphere got tense all the permissions for these contacts got lifted by the Turkish Cypriot authorities controlled by the Turkish authorities

Before finishing my speech, I want to talk about how a group of Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot intellectuals that I am included in have overcome this obstacle through the use of Internet. A magazine called HADE which means lets go in the language of both Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots is published with a common effort with the help of Internet. When the magazine committee had a problem of making meetings the communication continued through e-mails and the articles and translations were also sent through e-mails. The magazine is in circulation now in both sides of the country. There are also many chat and discussion groups of Cypriots on the Internet and a lot of contact is going on between the citizens of the island living in both sides.

As a poet I have always found technology cold and as a woman I usually found it very male. I think this is a prejudice shared by many. Now I am looking at the freedom aspect of the technology. Of course passing a border secretly is more exciting than sending a message through Internet! Anyway, the day I took the magazine Hade in my hands I felt the joy of an achievement in spite of all obstacles and I realised how technology helped us to get united. I felt the enormous changes taking place in the world and I developed the faith that all the artificial divisions created by nationalism could be overcome.

Neshe Yashin


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