The stolen tomatoes

Stephanie Jacobs takes a closer look at Christian-Muslim relations in Cyprus

On Monday 8 June 2015, my parents and I took my great-uncle Andreas to his birthplace, Agia Irini (Akdeniz) in the north of Cyprus. Andreas was born in 1933 and had been a farmer since he was about twelve years old. He had contracted meningitis, a complication of measles, as a child and since the age of five he has been deaf, and blind in one eye. He went to school and had a private tutor who came once a week and he completed primary school. He can read and write; he lip-reads and speaks very loudly.

Andreas had his limitations but he was a successful farmer. He was very proud of the produce that he grew. He had found underground water, bought a pump and set up the village’s first irrigation system. He had lots of Turkish Cypriot friends, many of whom worked with him in his fields. He remembers celebrating Greek and Turkish Cypriot weddings all together and even gave us a demonstration of the dances they would perform and mimed the musical instruments they would play.

Andreas had been working in his fields on a day in July 1974 when a friend ran to him and told him that Turkish soldiers were coming – RUN! He ran; he had nothing but the clothes he wore.

He found his way to his brother Iordanis in Nicosia, and stayed with him and his family for a few years. Then, in 1979, when he married Iasimoula, they went to live in an abandoned cottage, formerly the home of Turkish Cypriots, in the village of Polis Chrysochous. They had one child, a daughter named not in the traditional manner after Andreas’ mother, but after his village – Irini.

Andreas had belonged in his ancestral village, where he was judged not by his disability but by his character. The villagers knew to face him when talking, so that he could see their lips, but as they’d all grown up together this was no concession – it was second nature. Outside of his own village, Andreas could never achieve the success or sense of belonging that he had known before. He has worked at all sorts of odd jobs and even now, in his 80s, he works at the bakery across the road from his cottage.

My parents and I came to Andreas’ house early in the morning and put him in the front seat of the car. The old man didn’t want a seatbelt; within a minute a beeping noise was telling us that his seatbelt wasn’t fastened. That didn’t bother Andreas at all, of course; there are some advantages to deafness! Irini told us that, whenever her mother is annoyed with him and tells him off, he turns away so that he can’t see her. He is a cheerful and cheeky old man. I pulled the seatbelt, stretched it behind his seat and fastened it so that the beeping would stop.

The first time he had visited his beloved village since July 1974 was in 2013 when a large family group went with him and his brother, my grandfather Costas. Andreas was fixated on finding his water pump, but we couldn’t locate it. Now, driving north again after two years, Andreas was again adamant that he would find his pump. He was more concerned about finding the pump than about finding old friends. Why? I suspect that the pump is a symbol of his former, successful life all those years ago. Finding the pump would be a sort of affirmation of his identity, melding the old man with his younger self.
After we’d crossed the border to the north, we stopped at a road-side stall to buy strawberries – we could see the field and smell the beautiful aroma of ripe, fresh strawberries. Andreas would not take a single one. The trauma of his flight from his land and the loss of his sense of self as a successful farmer are too strong; he will not spend a cent in the north.

When we reached his village, Andreas first wanted to find his pump. We drove along a road and found the field where it should be and he and my father went searching for it. They couldn’t find it; we later found out that it had been moved. Next time we take Andreas, we will ask his old friend Huseyin to show us where the pump is now. It is important; it is not just a pump.

While in the field where the pump wasn’t, Andreas surveyed the crop of tomatoes. He decided, “This is my field; they are my tomatoes.” When he found a couple of sacks on the ground, he started picking his crop. My mother and I had waited in the car and when we saw Andreas and my father coming back to us, each carrying a heavy sack, we were horrified. Oh, no! How could they?! Are we going to end up in a police cell?!

Dad said that he couldn’t stop Andreas – the man who turns away to avoid an argument – so he helped him so they could get away more quickly. The sacks went into the boot of the car and we drove off.

We took Andreas to the abandoned house in which he grew up. The front door is padlocked but the side door is not, and we went inside. Andreas became very emotional. So far, this was not a happy visit . . .

Andreas in his childhood home.

We took him to visit Erol, our good friend whom Andreas had met on his previous visit in 2013. A small village, thank goodness, is full of eyes. A minute after we entered Erol’s kafenion, Andreas had a visitor: Ibrahim, who I had interviewed the week before. He recognised us and recognised Andreas, too. It took Andreas a few moments to remember Ibrahim, as he was much younger (and had more hair) the last time he saw him. All of a sudden it clicked, and he was thrilled to see his old friend.

Ibrahim, with his arm around Andreas, brought him over to meet a group of Turkish Cypriot men sitting under the trees outside the kafenion. Several of them remembered him and greeted him warmly. Even the young men in the group, born after 1974, had big smiles as they watched the delighted faces of Andreas and his friends. Ibrahim kept his arm around Andreas – claiming him? Protecting him? Showing the rest of the group that he was someone to welcome? I was so grateful for Ibrahim’s affection, and so glad for my uncle. It was very moving to watch.

Another man quickly approached the group and came to Andreas with a smile. Fuat wasn’t recognised, so he took off his hat . . . and Andreas suddenly smiled from ear to ear, grasped his hand warmly and they started talking animatedly. It was a lovely reunion of men who had worked closely together, filled with many laughs. Andreas told us later that many of the Turkish Cypriots of the village worked for him on his land. He paid them a wage and he shared his profits with them, too. He had been loved and respected, and had then fled his land and lost his community.

We spoke with Erol about the stolen tomatoes: did he know who now worked that field? Should we leave some money to compensate them? Erol laughed and told us not to worry. The current ‘owners’ would understand.

We visited the abandoned church of Agia Irini. Andreas is a deeply devout man. He was very pleased to see that it had new wooden window shutters and doors, so would not deteriorate further, and to hear that around 100 people came from the south to celebrate the name day of Agia Irini in May 2015.
He looked at a young olive sapling outside the church and gestured, what is that? I guess that it was planted on the saint’s name day, in May, as a symbol of a new phase for the old church. Andreas told us that his father, my great-grandfather, built the stone wall around the church. Each time I visit more and more details are filled in, giving me more and more connections to this village.

Stephanie and Andreas inside the church.

We drove along the beautiful coast, back to Polis Chrysochous, and took Andreas back home to his wife. A few days later we went and had lunch with them. Iasimoula put a lovely fresh salad on the table.
Hmm . . . are they the tomatoes . . . ? Yes! But Andreas didn’t eat any. He doesn’t like tomatoes.

* Stephanie Jacobs is a PhD candidate at Flinders University. Her thesis examines firsthand accounts of Muslim-Christian relations that existed on both the individual and community level between Greek and Turkish Cypriots in several former mixed villages of Cyprus, before civil unrest broke out on the island. You can read more stories on her website: