Our little family group – my mother, brothers Niazy (then aged seven) and Erden (five) and I – collected our luggage and made our way towards the airport exit through customs control. We were met by a man dressed in a uniform with a flat army-style hat. He started asking my mother questions in Greek.
Although Mother was Turkish, she knew some Greek as she had mixed with Greek children and learned the language when she was growing up. The island of Cyprus has had a mixed Greek-Turkish population for hundreds of years, and they had mostly got on well and learned each other’s languages.
The officer’s manner was abrupt. “Why have you come here?” he demanded to know.
“We’ve come to see my mother and father,” replied Mum.
“There is trouble here,” advised the officer. “You should go back to London.”
But Mum was not to be deterred. “No, I want to see my parents,” she insisted. “I’m not worried, so let us through.”
I remember the anger that distorted the officer’s face as he stamped Mother’s passport and waved us through. He would have preferred that wave, I felt sure, to be a blow aimed at any one of us. As it was, he contented himself with confiscating Mother’s two cartons of duty free cigarettes, which she had bought for Granddad, and telling her she could have them back on her return journey to the UK.
I had no understanding of Greek, but my young senses told me there was a problem. “What was the matter, Mummy?” I asked as we hurried away from the confrontation.
“It’s OK,” said my mother casually. “Some Greeks just don’t like Turkish people.”
This was the first I’d heard about friction between Greeks and Turks. I remembered that my father had many Greek friends with whom he got on very well, but I realised later why he hadn’t wanted us to go on this holiday.
Dad was one of those people who would never miss the TV news broadcasts. As he couldn’t read he never bought newspapers, but he always watched the news – and only the news – on TV, and listened to radio broadcasts from Turkey every Sunday. He knew something that Mother could not quite comprehend, but she could not be talked out of travelling to see her parents again, no matter what rumours were flying around.
We walked out of the airport building and found a taxi to take us to a small village called İpsillat, which has since been renamed Sütlüce. This was where my grandparents and aunt were living. I found out later that my grandparents had lived previously in a neighbouring town called Lefkoniko by the Greeks and Lefkonuk by the Turks (it’s now been renamed Geçitkale). It’s to the north-east of Nicosia, on the way to the Peninsula, a finger of land that points towards the Turkish mainland town of Samandag.
Sadly, the grandparents had to leave their home in Lefkonuk as a result of the troubles between the Turkish people and EOKA, which wanted Cyprus to be unified with Greece. The Turks of Lefkonuk, I learned, received clear threats forcing them to leave the town and, once they had left, their homes were razed to the ground.
“İpsillat, lütfen (İpsillat, please),” my mother requested the taxi driver.
“Tamam, binin araba’ya (OK, get in the car),” he replied in Turkish.
The driver placed our luggage in the spacious boot of his Mercedes and set off. The journey to İpsillat was a pleasant one. The car’s windows were wound all the way down and although the breeze ruffling our hair was very warm, at least it cooled us down a little.
But as well as being a nice ride, for us boys the journey was a real eye-opener. The scenery was a completely new experience, the arid landscape leading to the beautiful Kyrenia mountain range to the left of us, all the way to our destination. We’d never seen mountains before. Well, we were unlikely to come across mountains in South London.
“Are we going to go up the mountains, Mum?” I asked, my stomach knotted in excitement.
“No, but your grandparents live not too far from them,” she replied.
“So, can we walk up the mountains then?”
“Maybe. I don’t see why not, but you’ll have to be careful,” Mum warned. “There are a lot of snakes living on the mountains.”
Snakes? This was something else that we hadn’t come across in Balham. “Wow!” we all three replied, wide-eyed.
We made a left turn on to a narrow road that would only take one and a half cars side by side, at a squeeze. Every time a car approached our taxi from the opposite direction, its driver and ours would slow down and manoeuvre their vehicles, half on the road, half on the roadside dirt track, in order to pass safely. Used to London’s broad and bustling thoroughfares, we watched each manoeuvre with trepidation and fascination.
On the way to İpsillat the road passed through several villages, which effectively prepared us for the kind of place we were heading for. To our young eyes, the houses looked incredibly old and run down. We passed odd-looking shops without the familiar glass frontages, and cafés where old men sat on chairs made from wood and hand-woven straw, drinking coffee from tiny cups.
Although the weather struck us as searingly hot, the men wore trousers, long-sleeved shirts and jackets as they sat outside the cafés playing backgammon, chatting loudly, emphasising their points with expansive hand gestures and slamming the backgammon pieces aggressively down into the box to show opponents and spectators they were playing a serious game. In the near-empty streets, the women were dressed in long-sleeved tops, long skirts or flowery dresses, and their hair was covered with headscarves. This was a very different style to the mini skirts, platform shoes, wide collars and flared trousers that were fashionable in London at the time.
It took no more than a few seconds to pass through each tiny village. In between these settlements lay expanses of flat, arid, open farmland with the occasional, still-as-stone tree breaking the horizon. As we gazed through the taxi’s windscreen, we could see waves of hot air shimmering and dancing above the hot tarmac.
We were approaching İpsillat. As the village came into view, we made out the shapes of a few men who seemed to be blocking the road. Closer inspection confirmed that it was indeed a blockade and the car came to a halt next to a tall, slender cabin on the side of the road, similar to the sentry boxes I’d seen outside Buckingham Palace. A police officer stepped briskly out of the box and approached our taxi. He was the bearer of unwelcome news.
“You can’t enter the village,” the tall, broad-shouldered man in uniform informed us. “You will have to turn back.”
“But I’m dropping off my passengers,” argued the taxi driver.
The policeman peered into the back of the car, where we three youngsters were wondering what on earth was going on. Nothing in our experience had prepared us for this. “Where are you going?” he asked my mother.
“I’m visiting my parents.”
“Who are they?”
“Mehmet and Ayşe Salih,” Mum told him. “What’s the problem?”
The policeman gave no answer but parried with a question of his own: “The driver is Greek; why did you choose a Greek taxi?”
“How was I to know he was Greek?” answered my mother. “He speaks fluent Turkish.”
In response to the policeman’s demand that we get out of the car, we all scrambled out on to the roadside and the men took our luggage from the boot. Mother paid the driver and he turned his car round and drove off without a word. Not surprisingly, he seemed quite anxious to get away.
“Don’t you recognise me?” the man in uniform asked Mother. She scrutinised his dark, handsome features but drew a blank. “I’m Erdal, your cousin. Leave your bags here and get down to your parents’ house. I’ll get my men to bring your luggage later.”
My mother was flustered. “Oh, how are you and your family?” she asked. “Sorry, I really didn’t recognise you.”
“They’re all fine,” Erdal assured her. “Go now, and we’ll talk later.”
Wondering silently what adventures and dangers lay before us, we set off and were at my grandparents’ house in no time. Once inside, we kids once again encountered something new: greeting our elderly relatives, we were told to kiss the backs of their hands and place them on our foreheads. This was the customary sign of respect to one’s elders. Grandma, meanwhile, could not stop kissing and hugging us, overcome as she was with happiness to see us. Grandma was very short, but large, with a wrinkled face that had happiness lines running from the sides of her eyes. She had few teeth so her lips were drawn into her mouth, but she wore a constant smile.
Her skin was tanned by the fierce sun and her grey hair –three-quarters covered by a headscarf with little round balls of cotton sewn round the edges – had tones of orange from the henna she used to dye it. Like many Turkish women she loved her gold, and on her wrist clanked a profusion of golden bangles . Her clothing was simple: long skirt, loose top, a pair of slippers.
As I inspected my new surroundings in the house and outside, I had the extraordinary feeling that I had stepped back a hundred years in time. On the village’s dirt roads, occasional passers-by riding donkeys raised thick clouds of dust. The little house had no lights and, even in daytime, seemed gloomy to someone who was used to the bright lights of Balham. The floors were laid, far from evenly, with stone slabs and the walls were made from mud and straw bricks that were rendered with cement and plastered haphazardly on the inside.
There was no TV – quite a shock for us London kids – and the house’s only electrical appliance was in the living room: a fridge-freezer whose large metal handle was wrapped with cloth. My puzzled questions about the cloth were answered: you were in danger of electrocution if you weren’t careful when opening the door.
To my surprise, the beds, made of black-painted metal frames and metal spring bases, were also in the living room. There was an unusual, pervasive smell of damp, dust and mothballs.
Yet it was not at all difficult to adjust to these unfamiliar surroundings. It had not been too long since we had found ourselves living in that halfway home, Darren Buildings. The ten of us had inhabited two two-bedroom flats that boasted neither bathroom nor toilet. We had had to wash in tin baths set on the living room floor, and we had shared an outdoor toilet with others in the block of flats.
So, although life in İpsillat certainly provided us with a change of environment, it didn’t strike us kids as too drastic a change. And hey, we were on holiday and we were going to have a great time. Nothing could possibly spoil our fun …