When you come by sea slowly approaching the coast from the north, from Turkey, you will see the coastline of Cyprus in a purple mist with the chain of the Kyrenia mountains throwing their shadows onto the narrow plains in front of them.
And when entering the old harbour of Kyrenia, with its fortress at its entrance you have the feeling of coming home. That is what we thought when we first came here with our sailing boat. We were coming home.
Don’t go to Kyrenia
“If you should come to Kyrenia
Don’t enter the walls.
If you should enter the walls
Don’t stay long.
If you should stay long
Don’t get married.
If you should get married
Don’t have children.”
From an old Ottoman-Turkish song of Cyprus
Translated by Lawrence Durrell
Kyrenia gets into your system, the harbour with the old city around, a few cobbled streets, where people at the time of our arrival in 1999 still used to live in the local stone houses with old men sitting in front of their open doors, doors with the typical rhombus pattern, resting and watching, perhaps playing at backgammon. Today snug little restaurants have taken over the romantic old buildings. When you walk the old cobbled streets with their shining stones polished from numberless feet walking them for centuries, watch your soles – there could be some dust stirred up by Richard the Lionheart and his crowd when he conquered the place.
We lived onboard our boat Early Bird in the old harbour for two winters. The Muezzin woke us early to remind us that Allah is still watching over us, and the sun from behind the old castle warmed our faces while we drank our coffee, listening to the noise of the wakening harbour. Fishermen going out, tuck tuck tuck tuck, restaurant people hosing down their forecourts; first deliveries being made. Windows opened to let the sea breeze in; the wafting smell of fresh bread. Cats and dogs were looking for leftovers. If it had rained overnight, the morning sun would dry the puddles, tint the last clouds an orangey pink - the colours of winter. Perhaps you would be woken by heavy rains and thunderstorm with the sea coming over the harbour walls, and the boats were rocking madly. This was when you be better staying in your bunks and waiting. Later, during the first months of the new year, there might be some snow on the mountains behind the skyline of Kyrenia.
Write Songs about Love she said
A little girl in Kyrenia,
Moonlight to the eye, companion to the heart
Said, “Write songs about love.”
To me, to the woman condemned to pace Kyrenia
Through her body, forgotten by love.
Unaware of the dirty overflow in the strets,
The harbour a filthy rope wrapped
Around my neck.
Who said snails are luminous?
History wherever you trod. A monument to time in stone surrounded by the ever returning sea thundering against the walls, often damaging them, taking part of them with it. I have seen the old Roman lighthouse destroyed by huge waves along with part of the pavements. There are stories behind every streets turning, individual stories of people who were stranded here and have gone again but are still remembered, political prisoners kept behind the walls of the fortress for criticising the politics of their country, poets and writers, among them famous Namik Kemal, young students who have dwelled in their revolutionary ideas. Royalty came, and other aristocratic British tourists to spend their holidays, officers would have their daily drink in the Officers Club, where today there is a restaurant, with the same old wooden panels on the walls around the bar. When I touch these old walls - where possibly hands from another time have touched them - could I possibly travel through time and land some hundred years back and witness the place? Would I feel a stranger? Or is the past contained in our present, to be carried on into the future? Like the molecules of sea water constantly moved by the wind but never leaving their place of birth. They have seen it all, have carried boats loaded of goods, pirates, guns and misery.
A little girl in Kyrenia
With her sweet doll’s mouth open,
“Write songs about love”, she said.
Unaware of the carcass piles of crow choirs
In airless boxes on wheels,
Place a knot above suffocation in my heart.
I threaten Kyrenia and it threatens me,
Knowing our roads will never meet
But intersect. We are still unaware.
My daily walk used to be along the sea front from the old customs house where our boat was moored towards the Dome Hotel; it is there where you can hear the song of the sea best, sitting on the wall among the young and old anglers with their long rods, listening and staring with wide open eyes, in peaceful silence. There are hardly any fishing boats out, or any other marine activity, hardly any sailing boats coming from the other end of the Mediterranean for a stopover. The Cypriots are no seafaring people, there is no fishing fleet, at least not on this side of the island.
People come and sit here for hours behind the row of anglers; young couples, holding hands; children playing with their grandparents watching over them, or just old people sitting very still, just looking out onto the sea, enjoying the breeze. What are they thinking? Are they remembering something momentous from their past?
“Write songs about love”, she said
A little girl with essence of honey
Still at the first crossroads of love
Pain loaded ships, snake in my heart.
“Where is love?”, I said.
Either I have become too purified or too corrupted.
Filiz Naldöven 1988
Translated by Aydin Mehmet Ali
I love going through the Dome Hotel where in the entrance area are huge paintings by famous local artists such as Emin Çizenel, Feridun İşıman, and many other more conservative artists, showing scenes from Cyprus. There is also Sevcan Çerkez’s huge ceramic relief wall. The hotel – full of stories and names (I wish I could read the guest book) – was often mentioned in many books on Cyprus, including by Lawrence Durell in his Bitter Lemons.
Opposite the hotel is the long-established Niazi Restaurant where we loved to go sometimes in the evenings, taking leave from cooking on board the boat; it was smaller then and I admired the Art Nouveau glass partition door which is gone now. Where can these swing doors be today? I could visualise elegant guests coming in wearing panama hats and white suits, travellers of the old kind.
I learnt of many facets of life in Kyrenia in those days through my interviews with people who grew up there or around it: Ali Nesim, a sociologist and writer, who lives in Zeytinlik, used to come down with his father on the back of a donkey, carrying the farm produce to the Bandabulya; or Ümit Ali Esinler, a great photographer, who spent his childhood days at his grandparents’ house which was near where the highway now runs to Nicosia, near the mosque in the old Turkish quarter. He would come down to the coast for his daily swim after school; in the afternoons he would go to help an English painter who gave him his very first camera, which decided the direction his life would take later. On the other hand, there were numberless Turkish Cypriots who never saw the sea for eleven years between 63 and 74, as Feyziye Hulusi, one of the first broadcasters on Bayrak Radio told me. For the last years of her life, she lived very close to the sea and looked out on to it until she died in February 2009.
They say you will forget the love for your own country when you come under the spell of Kyrenia. There is some truth in it. You can sense the painful years it has gone through, and if you have been here long enough, you come to see the wounds everywhere.
Today, when you come down from the mountain pass, you see there, after the first bend, there it is, in all its beauty, the white pearl of the Levant. From up here, you are only aware of its beauty and the surrounding foothills where, in times long past sinners were transformed by the spell of St. Hilarion into the huge rocks you see strewn about. So, take care!
Copyright Heidi Trautmann 2009