This is Cyprus

A divided island nation at the edge of East and West

“Χαίρετε,” said the cashier at the grocery store, and I did a double take. The AlphaMega hypermarket in the Nicosian suburban neighborhood of Egkomi, flanked by a McDonald’s across the street, feels so American that the Greek greeting, which goes all the way back to ancient times, comes across as jarring.  

After all, packages of Oreo cookies and Kellogg products line the shelves, and the store’s speakers alternate between American pop songs in vogue stateside 15 years ago (Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day”), and others 25 years ago (R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”).

Globalization generates paradoxes, and on the island of Cyprus, tensions of identity are a part of life. Located at the corner of the Eastern Mediterranean, wedged in a chunk of sea between Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon, Cyprus has always been at the edge of East and West.

Inhabited since the Bronze Age, Cyprus has been repeatedly absorbed by whichever particular empire was on the rise in the Mediterranean, including ancient Egypt, the Achaemenid dynasty of Persia, the Macedonian successors of Alexander the Great, the Romans and Byzantines, French Crusaders, the Ottomans, and finally the sun-never-setting empire of Queen Victoria.

Today, the Republic of Cyprus is a member state of the European Union that has been independent of British rule since 1960 and divided between Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities since 1974, when Turkey invaded and began occupying the northern part of the island.

The United Nations-controlled “Buffer Zone” manages the space between the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus that occupies two-thirds of the island, and the Turkish-occupied territory to the north that takes up the remaining third, a polity which goes unrecognized by all other states except for Turkey. Some of the communities which fell directly in the path of the Buffer Zone, such as areas of the city of Famagusta, continue to lay abandoned as modern ruins.

Just a couple miles north from my AlphaMega hypermarket experience is the Old City of Nicosia. Here the Buffer Zone narrows to form a Berlin Wall-esque experience in the capital city, where photography is expressly forbidden at UN checkpoints and barricades that cordon streets off into dead-ends. It’s the last divided capital in Europe, as the Greek Nicosia’s municipal website states in a curious yet accurate tagline.

In 2003, the crossing between the two sides was relaxed, so for the past two decades members of both communities have been able to cross the line without significant hassle. Further peace talks, however, remain in a state of arrested development.

This is but a too-brief introduction to the many facets of Cyprus. Over the coming nine months, I’ll be chronicling the experience of living in Nicosia and experiencing other regions of Cyprus as part of my Fulbright grant—as well as the convoluted bureaucratic measures required to manage a temporary transition from the U.S. to Cyprus.

As it turns out, Kafka and Catch-22 have nothing on Cypriot bureaucracy. When one arrives at one of the cradles of civilization, it should come as no surprise that one has also arrived at the fountainhead of paperwork.

Until the next time.


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