The photographs accompanying this diatribe were taken last year by Turkish photographer Bastermur Bilal. They depict a couple of semi-nude stick figures attempting to assume languid attitudes of sensuous nonchalance. As such, they could be dismissed as yet another accretion to the derivative drivel that poses as art, if it were not for the context in which these were taken. For a closer inspection of the photographs reveals that the models are straddling Greek gravestones. The inscription of one broken cross, held erect by the expressionless female Turkish model, as she sits upon the head of the deceased’s tombstone, states that it belongs to Giorgos Dimitriou who died in 1953. The male model, in turn, sets his foot upon a broken cross, which marks the grave of a person unknown.
All about the models are strewn pieces of crosses and broken stones, for the models are ‘posing’ in an abandoned Greek cemetery in Turkish occupied Cyprus. The cemetery displays clear signs of desecration and vandalism, a phenomenon which is well documented, for since the invasion of Cyprus in 1974, occupying forces have perpetrated a systematic program of looting and vandalism against the Greek cultural heritage of Cyprus. This has not only been restricted to churches and art, but also the remains of departed Cypriots.
Earlier this year, Bastermur Bilal, talking about his photographs, stated that “it’s clear that a lot of mistakes have been done, but we will have to use every possible chance to apologise”. Asked why he chose to photograph models in a cemetery, Bilal said it was just a location that had struck a chord with him as he passed by. I do not see how anyone can accept such an apology. Throughout the world, but especially in the Middle East, special reverence is paid towards the dead and the funerary rites of all religions, this being common knowledge to all inhabitants of the region. Bastermur Bilal knew that he was taking photographs in a desecrated Greek cemetery. He also knew that he was asking his models to use religious symbols and the identities of dead people as playthings. He did not baulk from doing so. His conscience did not prick him, neither did he seek to take similar photographs in a Muslim, Turkish cemetery. Instead, he proceeded to perform his own act of desecration, presumably thinking that it was of no consequence, for the Greeks had gone, they were Christians instead of Muslims and thus unimportant, and most importantly, his target Turkish audience would not care.
Forty years is ample time to desensitise people as to the enormity of the crime of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. The world moves on, other crises unfold, the world powers cynically downgrade the issue from a violent violation of sovereignty to an inter-communal dispute, the victims give up hope of return or restitution, while arm-chair patriots, who, for the past forty years have dutifully attended the various rallies held on the abandoned streets of the city centre on Sunday afternoons, despairing of a political solution, throw their hands up in the air, bewail the impotence and friendlessness of the Greek race, simultaneously reaching for their frappe, and stay at home. “Δεν βαριέσαι,” they exclaim. “Every year we do the same thing and every year fewer and fewer people come to the Cyprus rally. We aren’t achieving anything.”
Originally, the Justice for Cyprus rally, organised every year by the Co-ordinating Committee for the Cypriot Campaign, (SEKA), was a conduit for community outrage and indignation at the brazen brutality of the Turkish invasion. It was believed, and is still officially claimed that by attending the rally, which members of the Greek community used to do in their tens of thousands, we could a) galvanise public opinion, b) send a message to the Australian government that it is in its interests to support our stance on the issue (which they always have, at least publicly) and c) send a message to Turkey and the world, that the occupation of the island is unacceptable.
This year, with the fortieth anniversary of the invasion, members of the Greek community are vociferously disputing the efficacy of such a rally, which is poorly attended, not taken seriously by the state or federal political sphere and appears to address only ourselves and our own fears of forgetting, which are inextricably linked to our own fears of assimilation. In our subconscious, the rally assumes a Poseidonian Cavafiesque function: one of the many poorly understood and yet necessarily performed litanies that underlie our identity and must therefore be perpetuated in exactly the same form, year after year.
It is true that the rally is no longer the rallying point it once was. It is true that as the first generation enters old age, its passion and fervour has cooled, a passion and fervour that is not shared by the latter generations. It is also true that there seems to be no solution to the Cyprus issue on the horizon. This does not, however, mean that we should abstain from supporting or participating in events that have as their aim to spread awareness of, or commemorate, a crime against humanity.
The Armenians, for one whole century, have campaigned for the recognition of another Turkish crime, that of the Armenian genocide. They have done so, as a refugee minority, largely without a country of their own. Their ardour has not cooled, nor have their efforts flagged in the face of vested interest and world indifference. Slowly but surely, they have continued to campaign, wherever they may be situated so that now, one hundred years on, majority world public opinion supports the view that Turkey did in fact perpetrate genocide against the Armenians.
This, then, is an example from which we have much to learn. The slogan of SEKA is ‘Δεν Ξεχνώ’ (I do not forget). We cannot, single-handedly from Melbourne, dislodge the occupying forces from Cyprus. Yet we can, through unceasing Armenian-style efforts, ensure that the perpetrators of this heinous crime, their supporters and apologists, do not let their consciences rest easy at night. We can point to banal instances of desecration, such as those committed by Batermur Bilal, to show that the Cyprus problem is not one of inter-communal strife, but rather, where one militarised community refuses to acknowledge or respect the existence of the other.
If we stay away from the commemorative activities of SEKA, if we do not engage with SEKA in order to suggest alternative or additional methods of activism, we run the risk of participating in the legitimisation of the occupation and the continued persecution of Christians throughout the Middle East. After all, the ethnic cleansing of the Greeks and other Christian minorities from Turkish occupied Cyprus was the precedent for a whole stream of similar persecutions against other Christians of the Middle East, culminating last week in the expulsion of every single Christian in the city of Mosul by the ISIS forces. They left, just as the Greeks and other Christian minorities of Cyprus did, with only the clothes on their back. Their homes have been taken away and their churches destroyed. By our silence or indifference, we assist in the perpetuation of a regional culture that sees nothing wrong in treating a religious and ethnic group as mere playthings of broader fundamentalism, or other designs.
We cannot always alter the policies of the mighty, stay the hand of the murderer, the hammer of the grave-destroyer, or the flash of the insensitive photographer. With our continued activism however, we can ensure that their crimes are never forgotten or forgiven, in the hope that in the future, persecution of the vulnerable will be rendered more difficult. Hence the wisdom of that cliché: ‘ΔΕΝ ΞΕΧΝΩ’
*Dean Kalimniou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance journalist.