Last summer I experienced Nicosia for the first time. It is the world’s only divided capital, rent in two by a UN ‘Green Line’ enforcing partition of the unrecognised Turkish Cyprus and Greek Cypriot side.
The museum of independence smacked of colonial discomfort. I was skin-crawlingly conscious. My friend Georgia was eager for us to see inside, but the shutters were down and closed. ‘Maybe for lunch, maybe for a week’ Georgia shrugged her shoulders.
Instead Georgia took us back to the academy where she was schooled, music filled the air and everyone knew who she was as we walked in. The building was neo-classical and painted a pastel yellow on the exterior. It was among the happiest schools I have ever visited.
‘It was used as a hideout by revolutionaries’ Georgia said, hushing her voice as though we were still in danger of the colonial police hearing.
Georgia was in her element, giddy at introducing school friends, until we asked that we make sure to leave time to cross the ‘green line’. Her face fell and a frown furrowed her forehead. She had never been across. On approaching the crossing on Ledra street, Georgia’s friend who had come with us from the school made her excuses and patted Georgia sadly on the back before vanishing. Georgia said that her parents would not let her cross.
I leave our crossing here, partly for the sake of Georgia for whom the experience was unexpectedly tense. This was the stolen land of her family.
Ledra Street is central to the story of Nicosia, it was halved by partition and one end is bullet torn and silent. The other is vibrant and bustling with young Greek Cypriots. Georgia became herself as soon as we had returned, a glass of restorative zivania helped put the light back into her eyes.
Over a year later and again over zivania, I was surrounded by Cypriots at dinner, in Edinburgh this time. The zivania was presented by a Turkish dinner guest and offered around before being diluted to its magical cloudiness with iced water. The topic of the partition came up.
‘We are waiting for our parents to die’ Leda (our host) shrugged, before smiling at her Turkish guest. We are a world away from the haunting silence of those 50 metres of abandoned cars, dusty shop-fronts and empty pavements. Everyone was at ease, and left the politics to the ‘parents’.
I realised that this was the ease of sitting at a dinner table. I tentatively asked whether cooking transcended the green-line. I was tutted at, ‘of course, yes! Most obvious is ‘Icli Kofte’’’ to Turkish Cypriots or ‘Koupes’ in Greek. ‘Koupes’ are hollow dumplings, made with Bulgar wheat and stuffed, sometimes with lamb, mushrooms or pork. For me it represents the green line. The basis of it is unity, but there are small differences in ingredients which illustrates a distinction between the two.
I had come across this dish before, coincidentally also in Nicosia at the ‘Syrian-Arab Friendship Club’.They presented the most dazzling array of meze I have ever laid eyes upon. I remember now what appeared on the menu as: Kebbi Maklaya-or ‘Koupes’. The dish was presented as part of a shared culture which transgresses boundaries between the Arab and Syrian world, in the same way which Leda had nominated it to transgress the Cypriot partition. This is no coincidence; the ancient tradition of food is rooted in the landscape and people more strongly than any contemporary politics.
What most of us sit down and do three times a day is what ties us most strongly: our meals. Even subconsciously, food is determined by produce and the seasons, not governments and soldiers. Young people like Georgia and Leda see this commonality rather than the nations dividing them, and their future is so much brighter for it. If it takes ‘waiting for our parents to die’ for the progressive young to take the reins in Cyprus, then let’s sit back and enjoy some ‘Koupes’together whilst we wait… or should that be ‘Icli Kofte’?