Memory, Myth and a Human Narrative: the Role of History in the Reunification of Cyprus


Memory, Myth and a Human Narrative: the Role of History in the Reunification of Cyprus

The Role of the Past in the Future

In co-operation with Goethe-Institut
Goethe-Institut, Nicosia:  26 October 2015

Memory, Myth and a Human Narrative: the Role of History
in the Reunification of Cyprus
Costa Carras
Board Member, Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeast Europe,
Rapporteur for the Joint History Project

We all know, from experiences with loved ones and with friends, that if memory is lost, personhood is tragically impaired. It is even worse with peoples: without a shared memory they cannot recognise themselves, let alone be recognised, as a distinctive people.That is why to destroy a people’s historical records, as for instance Portuguese conquerors did to the Eastern Christians they found in Kerala, or as Spanish conquistadores did to some of the Amerindian peoples, is tantamount to destroying a people, with the purpose of moulding them into something different. Α recent example of such a procedure was the white Australian attempt to destroy the collective consciousness of Australian aborigines, removed from their parents to be subjected to European education.

History is reliant primarily on memory handed down over time, namely on tradition, whether that be oral and therefore easily alterable, or written and hence in principle at least rather more secure. Not surprisingly from what I have said it is events that define self-consciousness and identity that make the greatest impression on the memory of peoples. Such are great victories (Trafalgar for the British) , great defeats (Kosovo for the Serbs) and crises of redemption or salvation, those crises which appear to put a people’s very existence at risk yet which conclude with a dramatic rescue. The exodus of the people of Israel, or perhaps in reality only a small part of the people of Israel, from Egypt, is such a story, handed down for innumerable generations, without losing any of its power to mould Jewish self-consciousness and identity over time.

In illiterate societies such stories of victory, of defeat and of redemption will naturally emphasise any element that appears miraculous.This will certainly make the story mythical, but not necessarily false. That is to say, the outline of what occurred and the effects of what occurred may remain true even if there are episodes within the narrative which do not stand up to critical examination.

It is also to be anticipated that, particularly at times when oral tradition dominated, there would be a natural tendency for some circumstances of the original myth to be replaced by more recent memories. This is something which occurs, for instance, in the Ancient Greek heroic tradition.

We all of us have however, as individuals, sometimes played the game of consciously manipulating our memories. It is notorious that communities, ethnic groups and kingdoms or other polities, often play the same game. This occurs when a narrative of memory is slanted to point a lesson, favourable to “ourselves”, and unfavourable to the “other” or “others”. Not only does literacy not alter this process: precisely because texts are less easily alterable than oral tradition it tends to make the process a far more conscious one. Whether oral or written tradition is concerned however it is all too easy, by preserving faithfully only the memories of our own virtues but forgetting our faults, and only memories of the faults of the “other” or “others”, but not their virtues, to turn myth into group propaganda. Nation states have proven exceptionally proficient in this exercise. In fact to some degree, more in some places than in others, the very creation of the nation state has involved a series of exercises in distortion, sometimes indeed to the point of falsification in order to privilege one group overwhelmingly compared to others, but more frequently a mixture where true memory and its deliberate distortions are not easy to disentangle.

Attempts at critical history writing go back to ancient China, ancient Greece and ancient Israel, long before modern nationalism. The range and power of critical thinking has however greatly increased over recent centuries.The consequence of these parallel but very different developments is that our generation is witnessing, among many other conflicts, a contest where on the one side we find an advanced critical attitude to historical evidence, one that acknowledges that even after scholars have scrupulously debated the issues with a shared respect for the truth, there is room for disagreement and debate; and on the other a demand for security in self-serving myth. Many such self-serving myths, as in Cyprus, are nationalist or communalist in intent and affect the relations between specific national or communal groups.Some others elsewhere have been far worse, indeed positively inhuman, precisely because their myth judges other human beings as less than human, with consequences evident in the killing fields of Cambodia or the gas chambers of central Europe. Hitler, Stalin and Mao, titanic figures of the last century, shared the capacity to mobilize millions but also to eliminate millions with the power of such distorted myths, abolishing common humanity in their proclaimed zeal to promote a particular race or class.

And if the distorted myths of those titanic figures were so powerful in the twentieth century, let us not be too complacent either about the twenty-first. We are already faced with the consequences of at least two distorted self-serving myths that we had ignored, very much, as it turns out, at humanity’s peril.One is today prevalent not so very far from Cyprus: it is a distorted religious myth which unlike Hitler, Stalin and Mao, does not even to attempt to conceal its atrocities but instead advertises them and, in consequence of such advertisement – a sad commentary this on contemporary humankind – even obtains numerous further recruits.

And, finally, there is the distorted secular myth to which most of us in this room either partially or fully subscribe, the myth that the “great escape”, as it has been well described, of many, and potentially all human beings, from the limitations imposed by nature, can continue as hitherto without a fundamental existential reorientation in our relationship to the natural world and a readjustment in the balance between human creation and the natural order, to bring us closer to what had sometimes been achieved in earlier generations.The insistent denial by many of us of the need for such a reorientation is the consequence of an unscientific and indeed illogical belief that any line of growth can be extended indefinitely in a finite world.The on-going attempt by much of humankind to achieve something impossible seems fated to plunge humankind itself into acute danger.The “great escape” may -if we do not become far more careful than we currently are- conclude in a dead end.

The issue of myth, history and the distortion of both therefore, is not some tangential issue, interesting only for a few historians or some philosophical thinkers with surplus time on their hands. It is central to the dilemmas of human existence in every century and more particularly in the twenty-first century of what we call our common era. This means it is central to every human society, not just to that of Cyprus, but of course to that of Cyprus as well as to all the rest.

The particular challenge facing Greek and Turkish Cypriots, as it has appeared to me for many years now, is not to forget the past but, first, to remove the distortions in currently prevailing narrative; and, then second, to set an example to many others by rising above it, through finding a new narrative, more human than particularist. To forget the past, to deny or suppress genuine memory, is to deny or suppress one of the most fundamental elements in human experience, one of those elements, as I have already said, which make each one of us what we are. In the various discussions that have taken place over the 18 years of work carried out by the Center for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southeast Europe’s Joint History Project, a project strongly and currently supported by the European Union, I have always been among of those who have insisted that massacres and other crimes should not be concealed.   Such a course of action would be to imitate the type of distortions introduced by the apostles of the nation state, even if in a different cause. Or, to use the words of T.S. Eliot:
“That is the worst treason-
To do the right thing for the wrong reason.”

The correct reason to investigate, challenge and, where necessary, to deconstruct and reconstruct current history teaching is not to impose a new version of history with some or most of the unpleasant episodes excluded. It is, by contrast, to impart a shared respect for establishing the truth and a shared use of critical method as a means to bringing this about. This is indeed a longer and more painful road to follow. The choice of the more convenient alternative however would first diminish the integrity of the process and ultimately cancel the very meaning of the exercise. It would represent the broad and easy road that leads to perdition.

This in turn means that the effect of revised history teaching, in schools and of history transmission in home kitchens, around places of worship and at the football club, cannot be short-term. It takes a generation and rather more than a generation to modify and make more accurate a received narrative. Now this is not in general good news for Cyprus, where the process has only just begun. There have indeed already been some substantial achievements. One is the acceptance of the Joint History Project’s four existing workbooks, a project strongly supported over the years not just by the European Commission but also by the US and several EU member states, separately into the libraries of Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot schools.Another is the quite outstanding recent book by my colleague on this panel, Niyazi Kizilyurek, on the year 1958, that critical and disastrous year when anti-colonial turned into inter-communal violence, setting up what has proven thus far a decisive downturn in a vicious cycle. “Thus far” does not however translate into “for ever”.  Niyazi’s work represents a critically important attempt by critical and humane historians to seize back the narrative, not by suppressing ugly events, but by resolutely exposing them.

The challenge to other Cypriot historians is evident.  It is to continue this work until a virtuous cycle replaces the vicious one that prevailed for decades, a cycle which seems to explain for instance why young Greek Cypriots are less keen on a settlement than their elders, as Charis Psaltis’ work reveals.   One of our first aims should be to end the constant repetition of the mantra we still hear all too often: “We do not want you to take away our history”. No indeed we do not; we are neither the Portuguese in Kerala nor the white Australians in relation to the aborigines. The whole point of the study of history however is that it cannot be unchanging:  it inevitably changes over time because of new discoveries, because of new analyses, because of a changed understanding of cause and effect in human affairs. Those who repeat this mantra unthinkingly seem to be wishing to live in the era before Herodotos.

The struggle for a new historical narrative or narratives is absolutely central to the success of a future united federal state of Cyprus. The emergence of such narratives however requires time and a great deal of effort and we need a settlement sooner rather than later: there are fortunately some powerful allies to help us along the way.  I shall end this talk by mentioning a few- all refer to our common humanity as critical in moving along the necessary process of understanding and reconciliation.

The first ally is in one sense aesthetic, in another conservationist, namely the common human admiration for the beautiful, manifested very clearly in Cyprus’ long, rich and variegated cultural heritage. Here the last decade has seen a dramatic improvement. Whereas previously nationalism might legitimate even the destruction or defacing of a monument, the respect for monuments in themselves is becoming strong enough to undergird a new sense of shared creativity and a common heritage. Comparatively few Cypriots are consciously part of this movement but all are unconsciously affected by it.

This considerable alteration in attitude stems partly from the wisdom and statesmanship of Greek and Turkish Cypriot participants in the Joint Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage and partly from the European movement for the protection of our common European cultural heritage. This is led by Europa Nostra, of which I have the honour of being the longest serving Vice President, and whose Secretary General, Sneska Quaedvlieg-Mihailovic, is here with us today, so also Androulla Vassiliou, who played the most positive role possible in promoting culture as central to European integration and identity while Commissioner for Culture over five years.

Europa Nostra is present in Cyprus today and tomorrow partly to promote a joint project with the European Bank Investment Institute for a conservation project in the Buffer Zone which we hope will be funded by the EU and partly to celebrate a completed project of European significance, namely the restoration of the medieval Latin church which became the Armenian Church in Old Nicosia. The symbolism of this particular event concerns Cyprus but also Europe as a whole.

The aesthetic impulse which supports the conservation of our common cultural heritage finds an at first sight unlikely ally in the economic impulse for rapprochement and collaboration driven by self-interest.  You are all aware of the support the two Cypriot Chambers of Commerce have given to this effort over the years and no-one yet has dared contradict the many studies that demonstrate a settlement in general, leaving aside specific terms which cause problems to one group or another, would benefit Cypriots in general and the wider region as a whole.

To this judgement I would enter one major proviso, however, namely that all Cypriots observe accurately not just the catastrophe occurring in neighbouring countries as a result of a civil war situation which followed on an extended five-year long drought in Syria but also the menacing developments, environmental in the broadest sense, that are increasingly affecting humankind as a whole. Given the impossibility of exponential extractive growth continuing indefinitely into the future, the challenge of our times is to achieve sustainable growth with acknowledged limitations alike in the exploitation of available resources and in the unbalanced emissions, which are currently moving our planet into the danger zone.

This challenge is in the final resort existential for humankind, just as the challenge to Cypriots to live together harmoniously is for Cyprus. The first however can influence the second in a positive direction.For it to do so, Cypriots have to adopt a narrative of the past and present experience of humankind in its entirety as primary and normative. If we can agree that we reject as existentially unacceptable societies that downgrade human beings- and I am confident most Greek and Turkish Cypriots reject such societies with almost equal vigour - then Greek and Turkish Cypriots are fundamentally allies in a life and death struggle which requires us to alter some features of our beliefs and behaviour in order to achieve overall victory. If we are allies in seeking a world founded on soundly human values towards our fellow humans but also respect of the natural world, then it is no luxury, but rather an imperative to give priority to the adoption of a human narrative within which the separate but related historical narratives of Greek and Turkish Cypriots will not be suppressed but will find an honoured place, all the more honoured the more rapidly they adopt such a narrative.

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