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AP Essay: My Cyprus, changed forever

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TAMER FAKAHANY | April 3, 2013 07:05 AM EST | AP

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NEW YORK — Nicosia, Cyprus, 1973: Riding with my parents and two elder siblings in a taxi, the kind of large Mercedes favored in the Middle East. The driver gestures to an alley where you can just make out people behind barricades.

"Turks," he spits derisively.

We keep quiet. We hadn't been brought up to think of any people that way. Later that day, my father tells us that things don't bode well for Cyprus, a place we had been coming to for three summer holidays and that he visited frequently on business over the years.

A year later, war broke out.

My thoughts have turned frequently to Cyprus and its patient, resilient people in recent weeks as the ruinous financial crisis that swept across southern Europe engulfs the tiny Mediterranean island. The angry and worried faces, waiting in ATM lines to withdraw their money, were very familiar to me. Over four decades, to my family, the country became a convoluted relative of sorts.

Famagusta, that most beautiful of ancient port towns (its name in Greek means "hidden in the sand") had been our idyllic destination: a golden beach lined with luxury hotels and a child's swimming pool dream. The aroma of street vendors' charcoal-grilled corn on the cob lingers in my nose.

In 1974, Famagusta was occupied by invading Turkey. There were deaths and disappearances, and thousands of Greek Cypriots lost their homes and businesses. Parts of Famagusta remain neglected to decay even today. The island of Cyprus is now split into the Turkish north and the Greek south.

Within minutes of meeting Cypriots, I usually can tell if they were among the displaced. I get the sense and then I ask, anxious to share memories of that lost paradise.

We never returned to Famagusta, part of an internationally unrecognized republic. But two years after the war, my family purchased a plot of land in the Greek Cypriot territory – a small place called Coral Bay.

Cyprus was in shell shock; postwar recovery was taking hold only slowly. The capital, Nicosia, was divided by a "green line." The Turkish Cypriot flag was emblazoned on a hill. From the Greek side, you couldn't miss it. Nicosia's airport was now out of bounds and Larnaca's took in the many visitors to the island. I remember the tortuous, hours-long journey on winding single-lane roads, often in the dead of night.

This was one of the many things that would change. Tourism boomed, the national infrastructure modernized and the economy and the island's people began to prosper.

I think back to the accelerated construction as if it were a time-lapse video. Hotels, holiday apartment blocks, shops, supermarkets, restaurants – build, build, build and then build more.

In Coral Bay, our house now stood proudly. It was named "Samantah," combining the first letters of my family's names. The battles of foreigners owning property abroad were well known to us: haranguing the municipality, chasing after builders, grappling with electricity and water issues.

But you could also just walk out into the garden and pluck a lemon off a tree for evening cocktails. The beach was two minutes' walk. We listened to the BBC World Service ("This is London ...," my family's home at the time) on the veranda as a gentle breeze cut the stifling heat.

We spent wondrous times together there. And of course there were bumps, too.

In 1983, my father, outraged that a restaurant had sold out of Kleftiko, the national dish that he had promised to his guests, declared to the owner we would never return. We didn't.

"Nice move, Dad," my brother, who would later become a successful restaurateur in Manhattan, remarked dryly on the walk home. "Now our dining-out options have been reduced by 50 percent."

The relative unspoiled, sun-kissed nature of a traditional existence began to fade. In its place, hurtling toward us, came a party-town hedonism and a myriad of places blaring, "English Breakfast All Day Here!"

And the price of everything went up and up.

There seemed to be an ongoing national obsession with accumulating wealth as each year passed, though many nations are like this. But in Cyprus, I always sensed the bubble was going to burst.

As I grew older, I began to see another, less savory side. After the fall of the Soviet Union, an avalanche of money poured into Cyprus – a good amount of it ill-gotten. There were Russian and Georgian extortion rackets and mafia-style hits. We heard whispers of a villa near to ours being used for prostitution.

This is the money, or some of it, that swelled Cypriot bank coffers to $88 billion, which was then followed by catastrophic losses on Greek bonds and the prospect of people having to bail out the state with their own hard-earned savings.

But for us, for many years, still there were the warm people, the lovely beach and the fresh, delicious food. It was still a place for our family to congregate from far-flung places. Whenever there, we felt part of the community.

Characters came and went: the affable Lebanese water ski instructor who just disappeared one summer (drug smuggling, we heard); the kindly and stately family lawyer; the driver cum supermarket and restaurant owner who ran off with a Romanian woman half his age, deserting his family; the German neighbor who suffered through the Allied firebombing of Hamburg as a young girl in World War II and wanted to visit London to see where the Luftwaffe had struck.

My parents retired to the house in Coral Bay. It didn't last very long.

In 1992, my father suffered a fatal heart attack just a year into his retirement. Months later, my brother-in-law fell seriously ill and passed away not long after he, my sister and their young son had made a new life teaching at the international school and living in a house next door that my parents had built for her. Eight years later, my mother fell while dropping fruit off to a Syrian friend. She broke her hip and died two months later.

After that, the visits from my siblings and me became less frequent. It was only a matter of time before we drew the curtain on a significant part of our lives.

We sold the two properties to one of the Island's hotel and real-estate tycoons in 2005, a year after the country joined the EU. A seat at that top table was, for Cyprus, a dream finally realized – and one that would turn sour.

The Cypriot entrepreneurial spirit became its curse. Not thinking of the future took over. In the end, it was a soft target because it carried that desire to make the easy buck on its sleeve for some to exploit and bad financial decisions were made all around.

My last trip there was in 2006 with my pregnant wife and my sister. I expected to return much sooner, and I have watched intently from afar the successes and tribulations of this beloved relative.

I realize now: Cyprus is in a time of need, and it's high time I went back. I have a son, soon to be 7, the age I was when I first took in the wonders of Aphrodite's island. I have some family history to share with him.

___

EDITOR'S NOTE – Tamer Fakahany is a deputy managing editor of The Associated Press.