The girl at the Turkish Airlines counter in Delhi surveyed me with suspicion. “Ercan?” she asked, sceptical. “Er… yes.” She called her supervisor, who asked me why I was going to Ercan, and what work I did. He eventually kept a photocopy of my press ID card and passport before giving me the boarding pass. Not surprising, perhaps, considering Ercan airport is in a country whose existence India — like most of the world — doesn’t recognise.
Ercan is the only ‘international’ airport in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Most of the flights here are from Turkey, one of two countries that recognise TRNC’s existence. The other is Azerbaijan. Since airlines can’t fly to places that officially don’t exist, it’s a bit difficult to get a direct flight. The best way is to just take a ticket for Istanbul, and then hop onto a connecting flight from there. I had a ticket booked through all the way to Ercan via Istanbul, which is why my documents got photocopied.
No visa? No problem
One of the several good things about going to a country that doesn’t officially exist as far as India is concerned is that between low rolling hills, stretches of sand by the clear waters of a gently undulating sea are scattered around the coastline. Several of them turn into a party that you don’t need a visa for. A Turkish visa of any description will get you on the plane. At Ercan airport, they’ll look at you, look at your passport, smile, and wave you in. No stamp.
You can begin thereafter to sample the pleasures of this Mediterranean island.
First of all, there’s the beaches. Nestled spots (with hot babes in scanty clothes) on Friday and Saturday nights. It’s hot in Cyprus right now — about 35 degrees in the sun — but the water is cool. It’s good for swimming and zooming around on a water scooter. Both tourists and locals do that a lot — and then get out of the water to head for a beer or some of the heavenly Turkish coffee at the roadside cafes.
Richard the Lionheart was here
Those cafés are an important part of life on the island. If you’re hanging around Girne harbour, down the road from the castle that was conquered by Richard the Lionheart on his way to the Third Crusade in 1191 (he later sold it to the Knights Templar), you must sit at the corner café and drink some Turkish kahve. The little road that winds its way along the seaside and bends around that café into the island is a favourite among young men and women, all dressed up, driving around showing themselves off. Some of them doubtlessly end up in the alley behind the castle. Looking down from the ramparts, I caught a glimpse of couples smooching. The Turkish Cypriots might be Muslim, but they’re certainly quite Western in their attire and their display of affection.
The outside world — especially the US — is a big influence there. For a country that’s locked away from contact and the rest of globalisation, it is perhaps a natural yearning to seek to connect. So you’ll see shops called duniya (world), housing complexes called duniya, internet cafés called duniya. You’ll also see all the brands from everywhere else — Levis to Ray Ban to Mercedes. They get there via Turkey.
There’s also an American University at Girne that looks like it’s been plucked out of an Archies comic book. The road from the town to the university is lined with smart new bungalows and apartment blocks. All the papers here are full of property ads; it seems there’s a building boom in the country.
At least some of this is fuelled by a return of the country’s last colonisers, the British. In their new avatar as tourists they often decide to buy a sunny home here. It sometimes leads to legal problems: there’s a case on in a court in London about a British couple that bought a home in North Cyprus. A Greek person from South Cyprus, which is the part that’s recognised as Cyprus, filed a complaint saying the home was built on the land that belonged to him before he was displaced by the Turkish invasion in 1974.
That may well be true. Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots did indeed push each other out of their homes before the country’s de facto partition in 1974. The Turkish Cypriots claim that they had already been ousted from all organs of government of the Republic of Cyprus within three years of the country’s independence from Britain in 1960. They say they were a minority that the completely Greek government of Archbishop Makarios (in whose name we have a road in New Delhi) then proceeded to persecute. Makarios himself was deposed in a coup backed by the Greek Cypriot National Guard in ’74. The Turkish Cypriot minority, fearing for their lives, sought help from Turkey — and received it. Turkish forces secured almost half of the island. Since then, Cyprus has been divided into a predominantly Greek Cypriot south which goes by the name of Republic of Cyprus, and the north which calls itself Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
TRNC has a present that is quite in keeping with its history. In other words, it is beautiful and complex. It wants to reach out to the world. For now, it’s got few friends. Pakistan is one — the country’s President Mehmet Ali Talat said so, and I bumped into Riaz Khokhar, former Pakistan ambassador to India, at a reception hosted by him in Girne. India wasn’t quite so well represented.