Thump! The dry Mediterranean heat introduced itself with a body blow as I climbed down from the Boeing 747. I’d never before experienced such temperatures; then again, I was only eight and my horizons up to that point had been limited to south London’s dull, grey skies. I knew little of the world beyond Tooting or what it had to offer.
The year was 1974, the place was Nicosia Airport in Cyprus and the experiences that were to follow will be branded in my brain for as long as I live.
* * * * *
My name is Soner Kioufi, or Küfi to those blessed with a smattering of the Turkish language. I’m the son of Turks from Cyprus – or Kıbrıs, if you prefer to give the island its Turkish name. My father, Hassan Küfi, was a Turkish Cypriot who, like many of his compatriots, fought with the British army in the Second World War. Captured by the Germans, he spent the last five years of the conflict as a prisoner of war.
Dad was born in a small village called Kritou Tera, and had two older sisters. He came from a strict Muslim background; as a child he was fascinated by the violin but his mother wouldn’t allow him to take lessons because the violin bow, when placed over the strings, formed a cross: a symbol of Christianity.
Dad, in turn, became quite strict – he needed only to raise his voice for us kids to be shaking in our boots – but he never laid a finger on us.
Clean cut and with a big frame, he stood around five feet seven tall and had brown eyes and short grey hair that was always combed back. Dad, who was 54 when I was born, always wore a shirt and tie, smart trousers and polished shoes. He would never let us buy jeans and he hated modern music with a passion, blaming the Beatles for bringing the object of his hatred to the UK.
“What is this danga-dungu-danga-dungu, yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah?” he would demand in Turkish. “Turn that rubbish off!” Then he would play some old–time Turkish ballad or other, insisting: “Listen, this is what you call music and singing – not shouting and banging.”
Dad nurtured a similar hatred for men sporting the long hair that was fashionable at the time in the 60s and 70s. Every male under his roof, therefore, had to have very, very short hair – cut by Dad himself. When we were little he would use scissors but he later bought a Bressant manual hair clipper. Once the blades had become blunt through vigorous use, it was off to the barbershop, with ‘short back and sides’ the usual request on our monthly visit.
After three weeks he would look at our slowly lengthening hair, rub his chin and say: “Looks like we need to make another visit to the barber soon.” The following week we would all be off to see his Greek Cypriot friend Theo, the barber in Balham, whose shop had the traditional striped pole outside.
We would spend at least an hour there while Theo cut my two younger brothers’ hair, then mine and last my dad’s. All the while, Dad would be speaking in Greek to Theo about the two subjects he was passionate about: politics and history.
Dad got on famously with both the Greek and Turkish communities in London, and everyone respected him and enjoyed his company. He loved to laugh and to make people laugh, and wherever we went you could guarantee the room would be filled with merriment sooner or later.
I remember Dad telling me stories he found so funny that he couldn’t get the words out. The tears would be running down his cheeks, and you couldn’t help but join in because his laughter was so contagious. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t get to the end of the story.
Yes, Dad could be tough and stubborn, yet his softer side was on show most of the time.
* * * * *
Turks in Cyprus didn’t use surnames; instead, they were given a name at birth that was followed by their father’s first name. My dad’s given name was Hassan and his father’s first name was Küfi, so Dad was called Hassan Küfi.
As well as Turkish and Greek, Dad was also fluent in German and adapted to the English language. The few years he spent at school had taught him the old Ottoman Turkish writing, which used Arabic script, but he didn’t understand the Roman characters that have been in use since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Republic of Turkey’s first president, introduced them in 1928. Imagine, even the most educated Turks had suddenly become illiterate overnight.
Under the British colonial rule of Cyprus he had been asked his name and British officials had written it down for him. And that’s where the spelling Kioufi came from: it’s a very precise spelling of my father’s pronunciation of the Turkish name Küfi.
In the late 1950s, he left Cyprus and emigrated to the UK, leaving his wife and son behind on the tense, troubled island. Once he had settled in London, he sent tickets enabling his wife and son to join him. Sadly though, his wife found herself unable to adapt to the new environment of England and returned to Cyprus, taking their son, Üner, with her.
In the years that followed, Hassan met my mother, who had left a violent relationship as a result of which five children had already been born. I followed, in 1965. My father wanted to follow custom by naming me after his father, but answering to the name of Kioufi Kioufi (or Küfi Küfi) would have been distinctly odd. So it was that my mother came to name me Soner, and everyone in the family just called me Küfi.
Mum was much younger than Dad – 28 years younger, to be precise. She would have been only 24 and he around 52 when they met.
Mum, rather short and somewhat overweight, was fair-skinned and had blue eyes and brown hair. At times a tough character – she was not afraid to say what was on her mind if someone upset her – she nevertheless showed a sensitive and shy side until she got to know someone.
She loved her jewellery and make-up, and kept up with the times when it came to fashion: in the 50s the beehive hairdo, the girdle and swing dress; in the 60s the Mary Quant mini skirt and bouffant hairstyle. Mum loved her Turkish books and read romantic novels whenever there was a spare moment. She also enjoyed the new musical sounds of the 60s and 70s.
Brought up in traditional Cypriot village life, Mum looked after her three youngest brothers, cooked and cleaned and did as she was told; there was no time for idleness. She came from a family of seven – two older sisters and four younger brothers – who lived with their parents in a small house in Lefkoniko, now in the Turkish sector of the island.
At the age of fifteen, she was sent to England to get married – a marriage that had been arranged by her parents.
* * * * *
What an extraordinary feeling; stepping off the aircraft stairs on to the scorching Nicosia ground, it felt as if the rubber soles of my shoes were at melting point. I was used to the more temperate climes of my London home and nothing had prepared me for these temperatures.
But what a great time I was going to have on this yearned-for holiday, my first ever. Already, its first, weird experiences had filled me with delight. I had been so excited about the trip that I had been practising Cliff Richard’s 60s hit Summer Holiday for weeks, and daydreaming about bursting into song on the plane, with all the passengers joining in.
We’re going where the sun shines brightly.
We’re going where the sea is blue.
We’ve seen it in the movies,
Now let’s see if it’s true.Naturally, it didn’t turn out that way, for I was a shy boy and didn’t have the nerve to sing out loud to a cabin full of bemused strangers. Instead, I contented myself with singing the song in my head and smiling all the way to Cyprus.