Your truth might not be mine but am I entitled to my truth?
“I grew up in a small town in Cyprus, Famagusta, where Shakespeare’s Othello is set; a friendly world dominated by nature and religious values. Fear of the Turks was deeply rooted in our history and this very fear was validated during the events of 1974. I was 15 years old when my protected, idyllic life came to an abrupt end. We fled for our lives. The experience was traumatic and had a tremendous impact on my life. In one fell swoop I was deprived of my youth, our family home, our land, our safety. Suddenly, I was a refugee. My new identity. There’s nobody there to protect you, no God, no government, no international community. I was all alone – at least, that’s how it felt”
Those feelings were so profound that I buried them very deeply and we simply got on with our lives as best we could. Of the event, we spoke little. Once I had arrived in the Netherlands, however, so much of the past rose to the surface. I would hear accounts about Cyprus that jarred with my own sense of reality, and that spurred me on to raise my voice in protest; to tell how it really was. I ended up in an activist circuit, which led to my appointment as honorary consul of Cyprus, and brought me in contact with a dealer who wanted to sell me stolen Cypriot art.
The emotional impact of that incident was profound. Sacred art treasures were intrinsically tied up with our history, and I knew how important they were for my parents and my people. It felt like a clearance sale of my cultural identity. Destruction of cultural heritage is tantamount to abusing the soul of a nation. A passport gives you a nationality, not an identity; that you get from your culture. My culture, my identity was being destroyed for economic gain to the art dealers. Fired by my rage, I set out on a mission to retrieve stolen icons, frescoes and mosaics. That was not easy. International law in this area is extremely complicated and the possessor has more rights than the rightful owner. One day, I received information from one of the art dealers, which led us to track down a large international ring of art traffickers. In collaboration with German and Cypriot police, a raid was organised and 5000 artefacts were found. That was huge. The question now was: how to proceed?
I was entangled in various lawsuits, and the cultural heritage struggle had reached enormous proportions. Was this what I wanted? I also had a family and a business, all needing attention. This led to serious thought, and during this time of reflection, I realised that all that inexhaustible activity was a symptom of something else: I was escaping from myself. Underneath the activist striving for a just cause was the vulnerable child fleeing from the Turks. I did not want to be that anymore. More importantly, I did not wish to pass this bitterness and negativity on to my children. I wanted a constructive way to understand my past in order to be able to shape my future. The solution was: face my fear. I had dedicated my life to studying the international art market, now it was time to focus on something else: study the Turks. I wanted to know who they were and what made them tick. The first step in that direction was to learn their language and study their culture.
So, I was introduced to Erhan Gurer. He came from a strong cultural background and was the perfect introduction . Initially, I saw him as the enemy therefore felt uncomfortable to invite him into our home. Along the way, however, we gradually got to know each other better and better, and so we came to a place of respect and value.
Every Sunday we took a 2-hour walk. It quickly developed into ‘Dialogue with Respect’ and more people joined us. We talked about many things; we discussed history, customs, traditions and rituals. We gained insight into each other’s lives and a bond was forged. We often organised dinners between Greeks, Cypriots and Turks and that, too, had its initial difficulties and provoked comment. ‘How can you sit and eat with a Turk?’ I was asked. ‘If I can, so can you’, I would say. To forgive is not the same as to forget, and we need to move on. Together.
To find out more about the Turkish culture, I travelled with Erhan to Turkey. Once there, I witnessed Istanbul’s melting pot, which had many similarities with Famagusta: The layers of civilisations imprinted on the city. They impressed upon me the notion that history perhaps needed to be examined. We also paid visits to Turkish writers and poets. That proved to be rather laboured, as they were very reserved, until I began to speak the language of culture and we exchanged views on Greek writers and philosophers who had lived in Turkey. A bond developed. We danced to the seductive, uplifting rhythms of Zorba the Greek. It was wonderful. The language of culture created common ground where first there was a gap, and we parted as respectful political opponents but cultural friends.
That experience opened my eyes to the fact that one should never generalise; to always acknowledge people as individuals and that in the whole process of learning to know someone, culture is the link that connects. If this was true for us, could it also be true for others? Apparently, it was possible to create bonds and bring about change by using culture as common language. As the Russian writer, Nicholas Roerich said:
‘Where there is peace, there is culture…. And where there is culture, there is peace…..’
That realisation was a turning point and the idea for Walk of Truth was born: a platform of people who speak the language of culture and groups living in areas of conflict to work together for the preservation of culture in an atmosphere of respect. It would be a meeting that leads to understanding. Understanding is the catalyst for peace: optimism to build a future on. The platform offers hope. Hope for a better world and we ourselves can make a contribution. It addresses the universal desire for empowerment. People want change; they just don’t want it imposed upon them. They want to generate it themselves: bottom up instead of top down. The world of culture can inspire that change within their own societies acting as role models for peace.
During my activist days, I was driven by a strong sense of justice, but the drive was borne of pain. Despite fighting for a righteous cause, I had no inner peace. I do now. The fight for cultural heritage was my personal Walk of Truth. It taught me that criminality knows no boundaries. Dubious characters are to be found in all cultures. But, there are infinitely more people who are genuine, who share universal values, and that ensures recognition at a fundamental level.
In Walk of Truth, like-minded people who share the same values and the same dreams come together. A tremendous amount of energy is released: enough to move mountains. They are willing to indulge in dialogue, to listen to each other’s stories. This is important because there is not just one truth. There are myriad perspectives and we need each other to complete the puzzle. If we understand that and are prepared to view our past through the eyes of the other, a shift in perception is inevitable. We can build bridges to unite our worlds. It’s not the easiest path, but it’s certainly worthwhile.