In the summer of 1972, Famagusta in Cyprus is the most desirable resort in the Mediterranean, a city bathed in the glow of good fortune. An ambitious couple are about to open the island’s most spectacular hotel, where Greek and Turkish Cypriots work in harmony. Two neighbouring families, the Georgious and the Özkans, are among many who moved to Famagusta to escape the years of unrest and ethnic violence elsewhere on the island. But beneath the city’s façade of glamour and success, tension is building.
When a Greek coup plunges the island into chaos, Cyprus faces a disastrous conflict. Turkey invades to protect the Turkish Cypriot minority, and Famagusta is shelled. Forty thousand people seize their most precious possessions and flee from the advancing soldiers. In the deserted city, just two families remain. This is their story.
Maria Hadjivasili has the easy, relaxed glamour of a successful professional woman in her 50s. Divorced with a grown-up daughter, she runs her own law practice in Nicosia. Our paths first crossed earlier this year when I was on a research trip to Cyprus and I was captivated by her story of an idyllic childhood cut short. Her life followed a completely different path than the one she had imagined in 1974 at the age of 17, before conflict divided her island.
‘I thought I was going to become an artist, get married, have children and have a calm, easy life, going to the beach every day,’ she reflects. ‘But what happened in 1974 totally altered the course of my family’s life.’
Maria grew up in 1960s Famagusta, then one of the most glamorous and sophisticated seaside resorts in the Mediterranean. The beach, with its famously pale sand and turquoise sea, was lined with luxury hotels that attracted millionaires and celebrities such as Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Brigitte Bardot and Paul Newman. Nearly half of the island’s hotel rooms were in the town, which was also home to Cyprus’s main port.
Today, however, glamour and wealth have given way to decay and the main tourist area – a quarter known as Varosha – is an uninhabited ghost town, its port a Turkish military zone, a no-go area fiercely guarded by the Turkish army.
Forty years ago Maria’s home was abandoned when the family fled the invading Turkish forces – sewing was left half-finished on the kitchen table, food abandoned to rot in cupboards, jewellery to languish in drawers and clothes in wardrobes, gardens to overgrow. It was a state of affairs repeated thousands of times over in Famagusta as 40,000 Greek Cypriot residents were forced to flee with only the clothes on their backs. (read the full story at the Mail Online)
Last time best-selling author Victoria Hislop came to Lytham, she really enjoyed it. So the Oxford-educated novelist is looking forward to returning again in less than two weeks’ time, for a meet- and-greet session at Lowther Pavilion, to coincide with the publication of her latest work, The Sunrise.
“It was two or three years ago when I was last in Lytham. “I stayed in a really nice B&B, I can’t remember the name – a boutique style B&B and it was beautiful. Lytham is lovely and I had a great evening, so I’m very much looking forward to coming back.”
She is also looking forward to meeting and talking to fans. “I am hoping there could be a few people come along who will remember the 70s because that was their time and perhaps be able to share some living memories. “The question and answer bit is nice, it’s dynamic, I love to hear from readers and I love them to ask questions. I enjoy that interaction. I like to listen to other people. I’d love to hear from anyone there who has lived in Cyprus, especially during the period in question. Anyone who has memories of the events, that would be really exciting for me.”
The Lowther visit is Victoria’s only northern tour date, so it’s a rare chance to hear her speak about her new book, The Sunrise.
Set in Cyprus in the summer of 1972, it follows the story of an ambitious couple about to open the island’s most spectacular hotel, where Greek and Turkish Cypriots work in harmony. Two neighbouring families, the Georgious and the Ozkansm, are among many who move to Famagusta to escape the years of unrest and ethnic violence elsewhere on the island.
But beneath the city’s facade of glamour and success, tension is building. When a Greek coup plunges the island into chaos, Cyprus faces a disastrous conflict. Turkey invades to protect the Turkish Cypriot minority and Famagusta is shelled. Forty thousand people seize their most precious possessions and flee from the advancing soldiers.
In the deserted city, just two families remain.
Victoria said: “It’s a fictional story, but built on a part of history. Readers of my books hopefully find themselves exploring a piece of history they maybe knew very little about, or perhaps they knew something about but can’t remember or didn’t know in detail. This story is based on the events of the 70s. My other works were set further back in time, in the 40s and 50s.”
Part of the Cypriot city of Famagusta was fenced off by the Turkish army after being captured, in the invasion of 1974. And it still remains in that state today.
The Greek Cypriots who had fled from Varosha were not allowed to return, and journalists are banned. It has been frozen in time with houses, department stores and hotels empty and looted, even tiles on bathroom walls. “This piece of history is still there, just living like this. “There is still a ghost town there in Cyprus. I found it so extraordinary.
“It’s been like that for 40 years and it’s something which is still not resolved. And I think it has relevance at the moment.”
And what about the writing process itself, is it something she enjoyed?
“It would be wrong to say I enjoyed reading about all these terrible things that people have done to each other.
“I had to of course research parts of history and I can’t say I enjoyed reading about those painful events.
“At the end of the work, there’s a little bit of hope and optimism that results. So it was a mixture of pleasure and pain, like a lot of jobs.”
The story of conflict and its consequences of course has great relevance today, with the current troubles in Gaza, Iraq and Ukraine.
“My approach to it, both myself and things that happen in my books, is that these are decision that were made by men.
“But the consequences are not just for men, they are also for women and children.
“I’m not anti-men at all.
“But a lot of people suffered in Cyprus and it wasn’t the fault of women. If women could take charge and rule the world just for a month, it would be interesting to see. Just to see what happens. In the troubled areas of the world, you don’t usually find women in charge. Mrs Thatcher led us into war in the Falklands, but she is the exception. In Cyprus in the 70s, the military was not led by women.”
Victoria, who speaks fluent Greek after having lessons for several years, says foreign climes prove an irresistible draw – and they are where she gets her inspiration.
She said: “I feel very comfortable being a foreigner. I don’t find languages that difficult, I speak Greek, French and bits of Spanish and German.
“I’m starting to write a few things in Greek, one day I may write a novel in Greek and have it translated into English! The first year of learning Greek I spent learning the different alphabet and the grammar is quite complex – each noun has three cases, masculine, feminine or neutral. And sometimes it can quite illogical. But I can now speak pretty fluent Greek. It’s always been travelling which has given me inspiration. But we should always be prepared for surprises.
“One day I might be sitting in London and just have an idea.”
She says the success of her best-selling first book, the 2005 novel The Island, took her by surprise. Not least because of the subject matter.
“Leprosy has always had a stigma attached to it as a disease. There are the awful deformities if it’s left untreated, the physical appearance of people who’ve lost limbs and it’s a condition thought of as having largely gone away – but it still is prevalent today in some parts of the world.”
Victoria became an ambassador for LEPRA, the international leprosy charity, which enabled her to travel to India and see the work it carries out.
And her final words to Fylde coast readers: “People are welcome to come along to Lytham, whether or not they have read my books.
“Hopefully they will come along, have a chat, ask some questions, share any memories. I’d be interested to hear what people think would happen if women ruled the world for a month!”
Successful British novelist Victoria Hislop is about to release her new book, set in Cyprus. THEO PANAYIDES meets a woman with a zest for life
Victoria Hislop first came to Cyprus in 1978. That’s a story in itself. She was 18 going on 19, and answered an ad in the back of a magazine: “Overland journey to Cyprus, £90”. She was just out of school, and “I wanted an adventure” – so she found herself in a packed, battered nine-seater mini-van with a half-dozen other youngsters.
Looking back, she says now, sitting at an outdoor café in Phaneromeni Square in Nicosia, there was something very odd about the whole thing. The van belonged to a middle-aged couple, who did all the driving. They were surly and not very friendly; by the end, none of the youngsters would even speak to them. The idea was to see the sights along the way, but in fact all they saw was the inside of the mini-van. They drove and drove, relentlessly – then, in the middle of the night, the van would stop and the passengers would be ordered out to pitch their tents. Victoria recalls “waking up in Belgium in someone’s garden”, being harangued by an angry Belgian woman, clearly having been too tired at 3am the night before even to see where they were camping.
Why did this grim-faced couple offer to drive to Cyprus? Maybe just to make some cash – but then why did they take a detour across Turkey, veering east to the plains of Anatolia where the man woke them all up one night to announce that they’d been robbed, and all their money was gone? They must’ve been delivering something, muses Victoria, green eyes dancing with amusement in her lively face, “either delivering or taking”, with herself and the others brought in as cover. A gaggle of wide-eyed young people was much less likely to attract the attention of Customs than two miserable gits in their 50s.
Needless to say, that first trip was memorable. Victoria knew about the invasion, 1974 having been “the first summer that I actually remember following current affairs; I was 14, and kind of waking up a little bit”, but she’d somehow forgotten that she was coming to a divided island – and was surprised when the van crossed from Mersin to the occupied north and she found herself in a non-place that wouldn’t even stamp her passport. The rest of the trip (she was here for two weeks) was equally disconcerting. She had very little money, the bulk of it having been stolen – or was it? – in Turkey, and mostly ate watermelon, bread and countless tomatoes that ended up making her violently ill. The tents were boiling-hot and unbearable. The girls were courted (if that’s the word) by Turkish soldiers, but Victoria felt threatened and unsafe. After all, she says, “we were English girls, and everyone makes the same assumption about English girls on holiday. And that wasn’t really my thing”.
That traumatic teenage trip left its scars: “I’ve never been camping since,” she admits, laughing merrily. “If someone tells me we’re going to sleep in a tent, forget it!” Fortunately, that dislike doesn’t extend to Cyprus itself – and in fact Cyprus is the subject of her new book The Sunrise, her fourth novel since making her name with The Island in 2005. That debut, a big hit in Britain and even bigger hit in Greece (where it became a hugely successful TV series), was set on the leper colony of Spinalonga, off the coast of Crete; since then she’s written The Return, set during the Spanish Civil War, and The Thread, set in Thessaloniki – and nowThe Sunrise, which takes place in Famagusta before and during the invasion.
Writing about other countries’ histories has its pitfalls, but so far no-one’s complained about ignorant foreigners sticking their nose into things they don’t understand. That could change here, notes Victoria with a rueful grin. I feel like I’m licking my fingers and putting them in a wall socket, she says, pointing vaguely at the wall of the café: “I’m going to have some electric shocks, for sure”. (read more at the Cyprus Mail)
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