Sunday, March 10, 2013

Embrace your story

Outside Kyrenia, in late spring, 2003

(This blog post is adapted from a piece I wrote for the Old Gold & Black, the Wofford student newspaper, in March 2012.)

I am squeezed into the backseat of a compact car between my husband and my mother. I clutch a bag of fresh eggs, and I sweat, desperate to keep the eggs from cracking as we careen around roads my father and uncle navigate from decades-old memories. We are behind the U.N. Green Line in northern Cyprus, a place I know only from stories told over meals, at weddings, holidays, christenings, in villages and cities on both sides of the Atlantic. The border opened to Greek Cypriots like my father and uncle only two weeks before, in late spring, 2003. They once lived and played –"those are the pignoli trees we planted!" "this is our grandfather's spring!"— in this landscape we traverse on a day pass.

One summer, in 1974, bombs fell here, shots echoed, and a partition went up. My grandparents were behind the partition. A journalist covering the conflict took my grandparents' photo and mailed it to our address, and my parents breathed a sigh of relief. It would be years before they saw them again. In fact, as my brother and I grew up, we saw my grandparents only when we traveled to Cyprus, only when Turkish troops allowed them to leave, only when Red Cross personnel could escort them across the Green Line.

Their story anchors me. It made me skeptical of U.S. foreign policy. It made me feel different in the American South. It made me cherish the stories of my father's childhood, of the mountain ranges and coastline where little kids that became my father and uncles and aunts collected mushrooms, picked grapes, pestered parents, and rode plodding donkeys past graveyards they knew, knew, knew, were haunted. I knew the stories after the invasion, too. My great-aunt who died. The cousin who was killed. The young soldier my grandparents hid until he could escape over the mountains to the south. That my grandparents were among the few Greeks who stayed put after the population swap that made the north, Turkish-Cypriot, and the south, Greek-Cypriot.

That day in May, looking for vineyards, springs, and childhood friends of the Barbas boys, I was confronted by facts that complicated my story. We visited an elderly Turkish woman who had been a friend of my grandmother. Two weeks earlier, she had learned my grandmother had died – a couple of years ago, on the other side. She wept. The day we came, she insisted on striding across the street and banging on the door of my grandmother's house so that the family members who'd come from America could see it. We reluctantly followed her. What do you say to people who live in a house for which you have a yellowed title and no key? We met a Turkish family. I liked them. The teenage kids spoke English; no one spoke Greek. They showed us around and gave us eggs.

In the backseat of the car, I held the eggs up, translating the Greek chatter of my uncle and dad for my astonished husband. More stories: the Turkish girls who greeted my aunt in Greek, days after the border opened, when she arrived at the house where my grandmother had lived. My aunt was stunned; no one teaches Greek in the north. So how did you learn, she asked. The old woman who used to live here taught us. My grandmother: I imagine her tending her garden, teaching the girls a language because with a language you can communicate, share, understand.

The college where I work, Wofford, just awarded the Sandor Teszler Award for Moral Courage and Service to Humankind to Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, and his visit has made me deeply reflective, again, about my own story. Religion is the excuse that divides north from south, Turkish from Greek, Muslim from Christian, in Cyprus. And yet, for my grandparents, faith did not divide them from their neighbors. "Why do my grandparents stay in the north?" I used to ask. Your grandfather believes that insofar as it depends on you, you should live at peace with all. They're staying, in peace with their neighbors. Faith rooted them in a sense of justice and gave them strength to live well. 

What does it mean to be rooted, now, in a mobile world? I must somehow end my story for you today, and the word "rooted" makes me think I can. It reminds me of the dogwood saplings I tried to dig up to give to a colleague last winter. The trees grew from berries the rain scattered on the slope of my yard. The saplings were short, and I was stunned that their roots spread so wide, held up so much soil. This, I think, is the perfect metaphor. A crumbling British empire, Cold War, ethnic and religious tensions scattered my family around the globe. Our stories anchored us. We took root, true to our stock and nourished by new soils. So, I conclude as I began: Embrace your story. Like the dogwood, spread roots where you find yourself. Hold others up, and be held up by them. Live your life well. Your story will not just be yours, then, it will be ours.