The streets of the city have names of murderers… Deaths for which no tombstone was placed… But how can we talk of such things? We are forced to find a language that can express them. A language that while talking about loss, bears the cries of birth.Tongue, directed by Andreas Anastasiades & Panayiotis Ahniotis (2019)
This place of pure pain. This place of pure contradiction. This place of pure fiction. This place where nothing is pure. This place built over disregarded bodies. Over mine fields. Over rivers. This no-place. These non-people. This non-language. And yet myths are susceptible to cracks, through which hope creeps up to the surface, even if only to lie dormant under the torturous Cyprus sun. Andreas Anastasiades’ and Panayiotis Ahniotis’ TONGUE moves through a crack forged by a previous generation, the crack – that secluded, lonely, underground space – in which they were born and raised, widening it, allowing facets of the Cyprus imagined decades ago to timidly move closer to the surface.
TONGUE takes as a point of departure the passing of Costis Ahniotis (1952-2017), a central figure of that previous generation that fought for the fulfilment of the promise of independence, of that Cyprus free of the very real but almost fairytale-like motherland beasts that poison the land to this day with conflicting nationalisms and grand unmalleable narratives. The point of departure is one of intense loss, but it becomes clear from the opening funeral scenes – where Costis is laid to rest in a graveyard that hosts national heroes, the burial ritual accompanied by the Internationale anthem, farewells delivered in the Turkish language in a Greek Orthodox church while Greek flags line the camera’s frame – that loss is turned into fertilizer for transgenerational hope. And so the two pairs of eyes behind the camera of TONGUE assume that hauteur of the marginals Costis ascribed to the Cypriot consciousness; their tongues twist and turn, learning the language used by their loved ones before them to talk about that other Cyprus, while sifting through the dust in search of a new way to speak of a longing that seems to be constantly moving beyond our reach, but which in those moments of its brief appearance, becomes the only thing that makes any sense in this nauseating island.
Watching TONGUE at this moment in time was a highly emotional experience. We follow the memories of a handful of those who had for decades pushed for that unpartitioned land, that Cyprus unburdened by nationalisms of altogether other nations, only to return to a today when checkpoints between the north and south are pseudo-open*. And then images from the documentary’s archival footage flash back, depicting the massive demonstrations in the north that led to the lifting of the ban on crossings through the UN Buffer Zone in 2003 (all except the Ledra Street crossing, which was finally opened in 2008), and hope creeps backs up. Why we’re not at the Ledra checkpoint every day pushing against the barricades and screaming ‘Kıbrıs’ta barış engellenemez’ is a conversation for another day.
But most of all, TONGUE, in tracing the history of the struggles of the Cypriot far left, was an experience that put roughly a decade of my own past into perspective, a decade spent alongside the two guys behind the camera and many others, as part of that younger generation that imagined things differently. Ascribing meaning in retrospect carries the risk of nostalgia and romanticised memories, but I’d like to believe that the relative (temporal) distance of today from that past allows for a certain clarity. I realised the discontinuity between the previous far left generation, that struggled for Cypriotism in a country plagued by Greek and Turkish nationalisms that perpetuated the island’s division, and us, who were then a new generation of radicalised teenagers that eventually lost their playground in the square outside Faneromeni Church in the old quarters of Nicosia to gentrification. We took hits at capitalism, the exploitation of workers, the EU, the institutions of education, the economy, the army, religion, had endless discussions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we defended our right to the city and to have fun on public benches rather than bar stools, all while throwing uppercuts against Greek nationalism at every possible opportunity.
But not so much against that Greek nationalism that kept the island slashed in two. Even when we spray-painted the city with the slogan ‘no borders no nations’, that internal border that stood just a minute’s walk away from where we spent the entirety of our days (there was a lot of skipping school) and nights, wasn’t consciously part of that critique. Though we crossed through the Ledra checkpoint at least twice a week to get cheaper tobacco, and spent months in that no-man’s land dividing the Ledra and Lokmaci checkpoints during Occupy Buffer Zone, we, or at least I, couldn’t really grasp the significance and heavy symbolism of our actions, how they could only come about as a result of the struggles of those who came before us, how they intervened in the grand narratives of this place where the present is so pregnant with its undealt-with past that any puncture to the status quo of partition reverberates across the modern history of Cyprus.
And it’s not something I hold against our teenage urban struggles. We were, after all, “born sometime in the 90s, on an island that seems to have always been divided,” as Andreas’ voice narrates in TONGUE. A Cyprus without a Green Line was available to us only in history books and in the memories of our elders, and those times of peaceful cohabitation feel more and more like legends as time goes by. As teenagers, the Cyprus Problem was this inaccessible giant mountain of unfathomable, impenetrable bullshit with secret footnotes and appendix pages that structured our partitioned lives. All we knew was that we wanted ‘One Cyprus, No Bullshit’, as the Occupy Buffer Zone slogan went, but we didn’t really know how to go about it. And we still don’t. But growing up, learning the language of those who strive to keep the island partitioned at all costs, and finally understanding the tongue of those who came before us and resisted from the margins, “the questions asked by our loved ones became our questions. While we walk, we clumsily whistle the song they left behind.”
*After a complete shutdown of all checkpoints in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the political game evolved into the partial reopening of all checkpoints except the one on Ledra Street, with the Republic of Cyprus setting a condition whereby those crossing must present a costly negative coronavirus test result no more than 72 hours old.
Featured photo by Seta AK, taken on 12 April, 2012, depicting one of the largest demonstrations organised by the far left over the past decade. The demo was in response to the violent eviction and arrests at Occupy Buffer Zone on April 6, 2012.