Photoessay by: Gerrit Kurtz
It’s half past five in the morning, but the fast food restaurant at the airport is already open. This is not your typical American fast food chain however. It’s called “Burger City” and can be found all over the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. To the casual observer, the burgers look strangely familiar. One of our guides during this visit to Northern Cyprus explains why– “’Burger City’ is ‘Burger King’ pretending not to be ‘Burger King.’ It cannot open a restaurant under its own brand in the North because of consumer protests in the South,“ he says. Our guide’s explanation reveals an important feature of Northern Cyprus—the battle of perceptions. Mastering the art of pretence is a national sport in Northern Cyprus.
Burger City outlet in Northern Nikosia. © Gerrit Kurtz.
Trying to be a state
Deception is deeply rooted in Northern Cyprus. The statelet in the Eastern Mediterranean is only recognized by Turkey, which has stationed 42,500 troops in the territory. Ever since the abrogation of the power-sharing arrangement by the Greek Orthodox majority in 1963 and the Turkish military intervention in 1974, Cyprus has been divided.
Peace negotiations have been hampered by the unequal status of the of the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The Republic of Cyprus enjoys international legitimacy and full EU membership. The unilateral declaration of a Turkish Cypriot state in Northern Cyprus was an attempt to level the diplomatic playing field. Turkish Cypriots seek to gain politically equal status, even though they only make up about a quarter of the South’s population (313,000 to 1.1 million today).
Cargo ships at the ancient port of Famagusta only have one (legal) destination: Turkey. © Gerrit Kurtz.
Caught in limbo
Its unrecognised status has skewed the economy of Turkish Cyprus. Green-yellow mandarins and oranges are examples of the delicious produce grown here. But cargo ships in the ancient port of Famagusta cannot deliver these goods anywhere else except through Turkey because of the international embargo imposed on all Northern Cypriot ports and airports following its unilateral declaration of independence in 1983. Heavy regulations also stifle other means of exporting goods that would otherwise be possible. Meanwhile, uncertainty about property rights of land occupied after the 1974 Turkish intervention deter large foreign investors and hamper local production.
Since exporting agricultural and manufactured goods remains difficult, the economy depends more on its service sector. Driving along the central coast to the city of Girne/Kyrenia (many of the cities were given Turkish names after the Greeks fled), bright neon signs announce one of the mainstays of the North’s shadowy service economy–casinos. Eighteen casinos bring in money from the Turkish mainland, from where the majority of their customers hail.
Other economic activities are less problematic. The Turkish Cypriots have discovered a perhaps unlikely source of profits: higher education. Twelve universities currently attract around 85,000 students, with only about twenty percent from the island itself. The universities are connected to the Turkish higher education system, and are cheaper and easier to get into compared with European ones. Quality inevitably varies, but as The New York Times reported in 2014, for some foreign students, a degree from a Turkish Cypriot university can serve as a springboard for another degree from a western university. With one billion U.S. Dollars, the university sector as a whole contributes a third of Northern Cyprus’ GDP.
A church? A mosque! The Lusignan kings used to be crowned in the majestic St Nicholas church in Famagusta. The Ottomans turned it into a mosque in the 16th century. Not it is known as Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque. © Gerrit Kurtz.
First impressions can be deceptive
Things are not always what they seem. This is also evident in the historical architecture of Northern Cyprus. Many powers have conquered Cyprus throughout its history, contributing towards its rich architectural heritage, which can be found in large Gothic churches in Famagusta and Nikosia. Built in the 13th century by the crusading Lusignan (French) that ruled Cyprus at the time, they seem somewhat at odds with their surrounding landscape. Indeed, they are the southern-most examples of brick-stone Gothic churches. However, they are not churches anymore. When the Ottomans conquered the island in 1571, they turned many of the existing places of worship into mosques. Before arriving at the Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque in Famagusta, one can hear the call to prayer echoing across the square in front of the building.
A Turkish-funded mosque in Northern Cyprus. © Gerrit Kurtz.
Yet today, Turkish Cypriots are not very religious; rarely can the mosques in the medieval halls be filled. At a recent evening prayer in Nikosia’s main mosque (that used to be the St Sophia Cathedral), barely thirty people follow the calls of the imam. Across Northern Cyprus, newly built white mosques dot the landscape; smaller ones along the villages, and bigger ones in the cities. These new mosques are a visible sign of the influence of Turkey’s Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, which has funded many new mosques in the past fifteen years in Northern Cyprus. They usually remain empty.
The Islamic influence sits uncomfortably with the secular Cypriots, who tend to revere the secularist Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. Dozens of statues, busts, and larger-than-life photos of Atatürk attest not so much to the nationalism of Turkish Cypriots, but to their secular, Kemalist antics. Just another sign that first impressions can be deceptive–the display of a Turkish nationalist leader can actually be a sign of tensions with the Turkish mainland.
The division cuts streets in half, but life continues as if nothing happened. Café at the UN Buffer Zone in Southern Nikosia, Republic of Cyprus. © Gerrit Kurtz.
A Western fast food chain pretending to be a non-branded restaurant, an economy built on dubious entertainment and higher education industry, churches turned into mosques, and a building boom of new mosques giving the impression of a very pious society–all are related to the status of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus that pretends to be a state, but lacks international recognition. While the two leaders of the Republic of Cyprus and Northern Cyprus have publicly announced that they want to conclude their current negotiations by the end of this year, observers voiced serious questions whether that was possible and whether reunification is a plausible prospect.
Acting as if the situation was temporary but stable has been the North’s practice since the war in 1974. In the meantime, its society has grown more independent. Identities are a matter of construction, as our Turkish Cypriot guide points out: “Towards Turkey, they are more Cypriot, towards the Greeks they are more Turkish, and towards everyone else they are just Turkish Cypriots.“
A bright future? Street in the old town of Northern Nikosia. © Gerrit Kurtz
Gerrit Kurtz is a PhD Candidate at the War Studies Department, King’s College London. He recently attended the Cyprus Course of the Research School on Peace and Conflict Studies by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), of which he is a member. His publications can be found at http://www.gerritkurtz.net.