Violence as education in Cyprus

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Background

During my recent trip to Cyprus it occurred to me that recent generations, including mine, were brought up with the ever-present backdrop of violence. My generation, born during the 1974 conflict, had as its soundtrack the sirens and the sound of tanks in the background. I seem to remember child art from my time in nursery and early primary school depicting bombers, bombs, tanks, soldiers and death. We were, as children, fascinated by (our) soldiers, their helmets, weapons, bayonets and anything associated with them (and we were terrified by the ‘other’ soldiers). We played ‘war’ in the back yard and empty building plots in my neighbourhood. We made rifles out of bits of wood, helmets out of chicken wire, re-enacting conflict as leisure. We grew up with the ubiquitous military parades, hollow displays of power and bravado against the enemy. These still take place today, as a promise that ‘next time we’ll be better prepared’.

I’d always known of this of course: Cyprus had experienced conflict and violence, political, ethnic and (let’s not forget) that caused by organised crime during most of the twentieth century. These different kinds of violence were of course not mutually exclusive, and recent research suggests an overlap between them at times. Violence was experienced in terms of the nationalist movements of EOKA and TMT from the 1950s onwards; during the labour movement in the 1940s, where unionists and strike-breakers (and their families) were the victims of violence; during the periods of ethnic tensions and conflict, from the 1950s until the forced partition and population exchange in 1974; during the violent suppression of a communist movement by the British, EOKA and TMT, and the state and its affiliated paramilitary groups; during the period of ethnic conflict between the Greek Cypriot National Guard and other paramilitary groups against Turkish Cypriot enclaves; finally, the violence experienced during the 1974 Greek/Cypriot coup d’etat against President Makarios and the subsequent Turkish invasion, which affected most of the population of Cyprus.

This violence, experienced first hand by children and adults, has since been propagated and re-experienced in a number of ways. Here I will touch upon two: the education system and mass media. In terms of the education system, I can speak mostly for the Greek Cypriot case. The education system had until recently as its core mission to indoctrinate children with a nationalist-driven truth. The dominant narrative exposed children regularly to instances and examples of violence, offering vivid and often visual evidence to promote a message of victimhood and injustice against ‘our’ nation, endemic in our relationship with the ‘other’, but most notably the Turks. The need to pitch our ‘nation’ in a timeless struggle against the other has found the imagery of violence extremely useful in causing shock and horror. From the descriptions of Athanasios Diakos‘ impalement, to the executions of Cypriot higher clergy (both in 1821) and a long series of pictorial representations of violence hence, have been utilised in education from early years to drive home the dominant narrative of suffering.

Other notable examples for the Greek Cypriot side include: images from the deaths of EOKA fighters, such as Gregoris Afxentiou, Kyriakos Matsis and others. I remember vividly as a child being exposed to such imagery. Afxentiou’s charred remains, Matsis’ bloody body after the battle in which his hideout was blown up, the bloody remains of the four fighters at a stable in Liopetri. Such images, clearly unsuitable for children, were freely utilised to shock and horrify, and ultimately calcify the dominant narrative. A visit to the Mouseion Agonos (the museum for EOKA’s anti-colonial struggle) was a must, and exposed young children to images and physical remains of violence. These were followed up with visits to the state prison where the bodies of 9 EOKA fighters who were executed by the British were buried. Visits to these graves were part of the primary school curriculum when I was growing up, as was a visit to the room where the gallows stood, accompanied by a description of how a hanging actually worked, levers and trapdoors included.* Needless to say, EOKA’s other violence, against Greek and Turkish Cypriots, had until recently been conveniently neglected. In fact, EOKA murdered more Greek Cypriots (148) than British soldiers (105) during its four-year anti-British struggle. The former were mostly communists.

Such violence came to be complemented with that of the conflict between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, and in particular their respective armed groups. The period between 1967 and 1974 were on the whole downplayed in terms of dominant message, as ‘our’ side had a plethora of imagery from the 1974 Turkish invasion which helped its narrative.** We have imagery from the fighting and bombing, including the photo of a dead man hanging out of a ruined Famagusta building. Such imagery was utilised throughout education as a lesson about ‘barbarism’ (associated with the quality of ‘other’).

Alongside these examples from state education, mass media has also reproduced such images throughout the last half century. The state-owned channels (CyBC and Bayrak), as well as other, privately-owned channels, have produced and broadcast a series of documentaries on the Cyprus conflict, especially the 1974 events. Some of these are broadcast annually in July and August, when the anniversaries of the 1974 war occur.*** More recently we have had the brutal killings of two men (Tasos Isaak and Solomos Solomou) during anti-occupation protests in Dherynia (1996), which produced fresh media depicting violence and death which has since been utilised in a similar manner.

The impact

What impact has this systematic exposure to first- or second-hand violence had on Cypriots? Apart from the generations of people (especially children)**** involved directly in acts of violence or displacement, we also have generations of people for whom the violence is systematically repeated through education or media. This has potentially the ability to cause similar trauma as to those who have experienced violence first-hand. What impact does seeing the gallows and hearing the descriptions of hangings have on an 8-10 year old child? The violence plays out again in front of their eyes, and must have a similar impact to witnessing or being a victim of such violence themselves. The images and videos of Afxentiou’s death (burnt to death in his hideout in 1957), cannot but reproduce the violence once again for the children to witness afresh.

Considering the dozens of thousands of children who underwent this systematic exposure to violence, how can we analyse and interpret Cypriot society today, when those generations have reached maturity? One gets the sense that in Cyprus we live as if suspended in a relative period of calm likely to be disrupted by outbreaks of violence. The combined effect of the violent trauma in all of us and the continuing political limbo of the Cyprus Problem render our present situation, no matter how peaceful, temporary. It is as if we are not allowed to relax and take peace for granted. Outbreaks of violence are always likely, and we may (or not) be prepared for such eventuality.

How does our society, ‘westernised’ and ‘civilised’ today, enhanced by modern technological advances, exist with the underlying truth of violence? Is our modernity but a veneer over a dark, violent past and present? Is there always some violence threatening to surface, be it at a football match, night club or-in fact-a queue at Lidl on a Thursday morning? Is violence a shared skeleton in our closet, a common relation nobody wants to acknowledge?

It would make for a fascinating research project for someone, to carry out psychological and anthropological research among the Cypriot population to help define our attitudes to a wide range of ‘everyday’ topics, and our propensity to see violence as a potential solution. I wonder how we compare versus, say, the Maltese? Although scholars such as Papadakis and Bryant have explored the anthropological aspects of the Cyprus problem, it would be interesting to see the psychological impact of the conflict and the re-play of violence in the lives of the children of Cyprus.

The challenge for the teacher of today

The challenge for the teacher today is multiple. Firstly, to resist the exposure of children to such imagery and narratives of violence and hatred. Perhaps to a degree this is happening, but I am not convinced that we have denounced the reproduction of violence to those too young not to be traumatised by it. Secondly, teachers, and society more widely, must resist the utilisation of education-as-nationalist-narrative (or any dominant narrative in fact) in favour of a more relevant, pupil-centred approach which allows children to explore and shape their own truths based on their own social, economic and ethnic backgrounds. This is not far from a Freirean educational ideal, but let’s face it, it’s not happening any time soon. Such a shift would most likely be the result of the activity of individual teachers rather than an organised, top-down initiative. States are not likely to encourage a pedagogy which in turn encourages critical thinking and emancipation from sociopolitical and religious shackles.

It is possible to teach history not as a politically-driven dominant narrative, but as a shared endeavour to better understand the past based on evidence. Emotive (and traumatic) imagery and discourse only serves to distort such truths in the service of the elites. And it has so far succeeded.

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* I have deliberately chosen not to include such imagery here. If you really want to find it, Google is your friend.

** However, for the Turkish Cypriots who were often on the receiving end of Greek-Cypriot state-sponsored violence against their enclaves and communities, there are other horrifying images which served their purpose. One such example is that of a mother and her three children, murdered in the bathtub in their house in 1963, and used as an example of Greek Cypriot barbarism, which formed the basis for the Museum of Barbarism.

*** Such broadcasts have also been used for education purposes.

**** See Rosenblatt’s Children of War 

Ownership of histories and national narratives: a TV documentary sheds light on perceptions in Cyprus

The past week or so has seen a huge debate emerge from the broadcasting on (Greek) Cypriot  state TV (CyBC-ΡΙΚ) of a documentary dealing with the 1963-64 clashes between the Turkish and Greek Cypriots of Paphos (primarily). The documentary, prepared by CyBC journalist Soulla Hadjikyriacou and titled Εν ονόματι της πατρίδος (in the name of the homeland), offered a loose narrative framework of the 1963-64 events, and was based on eyewitness and participant accounts of the clashes.

Since the broadcast on March the 3rd, there has been a wide range of reactions, mainly approving or dismissing its core content and message. I will attempt to summarise here the main trends, although I must also warn against over-simplification and reductionism to dual/polar models. The documentary was met with disapproval from a wide range of right-wing politics. The main arguments were that Ms Hadjikyriacou was biased, led on her interviewees with loaded questions and practised Turkish propaganda. The hysteria was expressed on many different levels, with some commenters (especially on CyBC’s page using the Facebook comments tool) even asking for a parliamentary enquiry into the waste of taxpayers’ money on something which was akin to propaganda, misinformation and so on.

On the other hand, viewers and commenters who were more approving of the documentary and its subject, took the view that the truth has to come out, that responsibility for conflict on the island belongs to all of us, and that it was good that these views, “expressing the truth” were finally heard. You can see the comments on the CyBC page here, but those with a weak constitution please beware of the bile and venom poured electronically there.

The reactions are a very useful and illuminating demonstration of how history is perceived in a space which is contested. History is viewed as something which belongs to nation(s), and especially something which is already known, settled. The perception that history is already known and ossified is something which is further demonstrated each time the question of a national curriculum is brought up. The deviation from a national narrative is a dangerous activity (often physically so). This understanding of history as a (material) possession sees reinterpretations and revisionism, and the search for new evidence (core to the historian’s craft) as a direct challenge. National narratives, identities and rhetoric do not facilitate research, especially on topics which are sensitive, contested, ideologically and politically employed to further the narrative. The national narrative cannot be wrong and cannot be challenged.

A second dimension of this is that the debate was exacerbated by the fact that the documentary was broadcast on TV, and state TV at that. If you come from any post-colonial or post-Soviet space (or Turkey)(*) you will know that there is a perception that if something is on TV it must (may) be true. State TV, the only TV which existed in Cyprus until the 1990s, was the propaganda tool for successive governments with varying degrees of authoritarianism. Anyone of the right age will remember that the 6pm/8.30pm news bulletins always started with the words “President (insert name here-Makarios or Kyprianou being the most enduring)”. For Greek Cypriot children this became a bit of a joke, as they were watching the news bulletin in Turkish starting with “cumhurbaşkanı Kyprianou” (president Kyprianou) they translated this to something sounding like “Puku Paska Kyprianou” (πούκου πάσκα is a wild spring flower). Something which was on TV was automatically the approved, past-the-censorship content which was ‘safe’ for the Cypriot viewer.

This age of state-approved TV, and TV as another tool in the implementation of a national narrative and education of the masses has given way to a period of neoliberal control of mass media, and TV has become the means for the implementation and dissemination of that agenda: aggressive advertising, mixed with the political beliefs of the elite where necessary. The paradox here is that now, the state TV has become (almost) a bastion for private interest-free TV, where occasionally documentaries such as the one in question here can be broadcast. State-owned TV now represents a TV which may function for the benefit of citizens, attempting to (and sometimes-if rarely-succeeding in) keep its distance from this neoliberal agenda.

Drawing back from that tangent, it’s important to assess the medium’s role. The fact that TV was seen as a valid (and was an official) source of information has led to the widespread belief that that is -or should be- the case today. If a historical documentary is broadcast on TV, to a lot of people this must mean that it forms part of an officially sanctioned version of history, the truth. The problem is manifold. I will focus on two aspects of it here. Firstly, the purpose of television cannot be the establishment of historical facts. Even when journalists are trained and accomplished historians and anthropologists, the need for an entertaining (and/or informative) TV often skews the outcome. The purpose of TV is to create debate, to entertain, to inform-the latter to a limited extent. In that sense, Ms Hadjikyriacou’s documentary was well made: it informed us of an aspect we may not have had much insight of previously. It highlighted a less known aspect of the Cyprus problem, it offered a hope for reconciliation, it captured some of the views of the participants. It has also generated a much needed debate on an important, yet less prominent aspect of the Cyprus problem. As such, it cannot come under serious scrutiny for its methodology, as it was not historical research. Ms Hadjikyriacou’s well-meaning questioning would not have passed the rigour of a research ethics committee, nor does it have to: it’s a TV documentary which lasts 1 hour.

The second problem is far more serious. The reactions to the documentary show that a large majority of the Greek Cypriots have associated the Cyprus problem with the events of 1974. This is their official story, that the Cyprus problem is a problem of a foreign invasion and occupation. This has been the mantra of the reactionary Greek Cypriot right, a stumbling block in any attempts at reunification and reconciliation. Bringing the inter-communal strife of the 1950s and ’60s into the picture is not part of this narrative-it’s not taught in schools, it’s not part of the problem. Ms Hadjikyriacou’s documentary directly challenges that official narrative.

I don’t remember anybody complaining in the 1990s when Antros Pavlides created a TV series on the history of Cyprus. That’s because his narrative coincided with the national one-he did not challenge anything, and if there were inaccuracies it didn’t matter to anyone. Moreover, Pavlides’ work, and that of many others, always steered well clear from ‘hot’ topics. A risk-free approach was to focus on popular topics which were not the subject of debate-settled, ossified, known. Ms Hadjikyriacou has dared through her work to rock that particular boat, and focused on a topic which is far from risk-free. Such TV must be encouraged, if only for the debate it generates.

The furore has served to draw attention to perceptions which are widespread and shared among not only the Cypriots, but other neighbouring cultures in the region. That history is owned by someone, somewhere and that it must be preserved as it is: that is, the national narrative must be protected from new research, new evidence, challenges. The role of television as the host for the dominant narrative in the twentieth century has remained as a perception. Due to the swing in the state of media ownership, state-owned TV is under threat, as we saw from the Greek example. Which is of course deeply ironic.

I think that it’s time that viewers, learners, citizens can be treated as more than sheep who have to be led to pasture by one side or the other. Can TV do that?

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* The (rather trashy) Turkish TV series Muhteşem Yüzyıl (Magnificent Century), a historical soap opera (very) loosely based on Ottoman sultan Suleyman the Magnificent’s reign in the 16th century, was initially met with huge protests, due to its exaggeration and ‘inaccuracy’. The protests soon died down, but the show has become one of the most successful in the history of Turkish television. This series can be compared to the BBC drama The Tudors. In the UK nobody protested.