VIEW FROM ABROAD: Considering the Cyprus question

Smoky scents of chicken, lamb, and hookah float through the alleyways around me. In front, a domed structure and two minarets loom, the worn stone reducing its imposing nature by only a small extent.

The only words of English spoken around me are either in response to my appearance ("Hey, America! Buy here!") or to entice me to enter the various stores ("Good scarf! Have six Euros? Very cheap!"). Rather than street signs in the phonetic spellings of their Greek names, there are boards designating the area as part of the Turkish/Cypriot border by the United Nations nailed at every corner.

I had officially crossed into the Turkish-occupied territory of Northern Cyprus.

During a tour of Nicosia on my second day of living in this country, I remember hearing my roommate make the comment, "I don’t know if I’d be able to cross over to the North. I don’t want to get shot!" Initially, it may have seemed valid as we passed by UN trucks and armed guards standing at the Green Line – designated as a safe zone of the occupied area – separating the two halves of the city. Six weeks later as we stood to cross the Green Line, passports in hand, I was anxious to see what awaited me on the other side.

Known as "the Cyprus question," the situation of Turkey occupying the northern territory of the island is constantly on the minds of both Greek and Turkish Cypriots alike. No governmental or non-governmental agency acknowledges the Turkish occupied territory as belonging to Turkey, giving the Turkish army no legitimacy in their rule of the North. However, it is along the entrances to the North that armed Turkish guards stand, their presence justified. As when entering or exiting any other country, visitors are required to present their passport and a Visa. The North, non-existent as a separate entity to all but Turkey, is not permitted to force visitors to purchase a Visa but is resistant to allow completely free travel between the two sides. Instead, a small piece of paper no larger than a 3×5 inch index card is marked with spaces for the name and passport information of the visitor, and serves as the "visa" to enter and exit the North.

My passport is scrutinized as the officer looks down at it, asks my purpose for this ‘visit,’ looks back up at my face and finally stamps the paper with hesitation. Considering that it was only beginning in 2001 that any free travel between the two sides was even permitted, I find the hassle of being questioned and suspected a small price to pay. It is in this line that tensions between the Greek and Turkish side are most evident.

Entering the northern side was far less climactic than I had expected – it appeared almost identical to the southern part of the city that I had just left behind! The Turkish flag was flying proudly at every turn, and people appeared to be happy to see Americans visiting. I was often greeted in Turkish and found myself unable to respond in anything but Arabic or Greek – the city was a different country in itself. But the people would not allow us to feel like strangers.

Upon hearing we were visiting from the Greek side of Nicosia, the people we came across were excited to discuss how amazing the other side is, how their relatives living in the South are calling for them to move, and there is a genuine appreciation for their supposed enemies. It seems that the people of the North have no hostility toward their neighbors to the south; any tension in the air comes from the armed soldiers on either side.

The "Cyprus question" is just that – a question regarding the unification of a population that is able to live in peace. While what the people want is not what their governments want, it is the difference of opinion between the governments that keeps the city – and the people – divided.

And no, no one was shot.

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