April 28, 2003

ANOTHER WALL HAS FALLEN, this one in Cyprus. Christopher Hitchens writes:

I wish I’d been there to see it, having so often traversed this grim border in both directions as a journalist, but I was able to get cell-phone reports from my former sister-in-law, Manto Meleagrou, who was one of the first to make the trip. The sense of exhilaration and liberty was extraordinary, as if people indefinitely confined in a cramped cell had suddenly been allowed to stretch and exercise. And also as if a “no talking” rule in a barren jail had suddenly been relaxed: Conversation that had been impossible for decades was suddenly and volubly resumed.

Germans were Germans on either side of the wall, while Cypriots are either Greek-speaking and Orthodox or Turkish-speaking and Muslim. One of the few benefits of British colonialism is that English is widely spoken on both sides, and the temper of both communities is also heavily secular, but there has been enough mutual distrust in Greek-Turkish history for demagogues to work on. Nonetheless, Manto and others told me that they were greeted very warmly by the Turkish Cypriots and that the local police and army seemed to have taken the day off. The same was true reciprocally: Turks venturing south were embraced by former friends and by new ones. . . .

The fraternization among Cypriots — a people long written-off as hopeless victims of “ancient hatreds” and tribal feelings — is of course mainly a compliment to themselves. Those of us lucky enough to know the island are well aware that the majority is immune to fascistic rhetoric and maintains a long tradition of courtesy and coexistence. However, it must be emphasized that the idea of a democratic, open, law-governed society, represented in part by the “pull” of the European Union, does now constitute an alternative pole of attraction and a challenge to traditional, confessional, and nationalist modes of thought. And this has implications across the region.

Along with the slow but now unstoppable movement among the Palestinians for a democratic “civil society” approach to their common problems and their long battle for statehood, this sudden development in Cyprus shows that there is indeed a “wind of change” blowing in the Middle East.

I hope he’s right. It does often seem to be the case that “ancient tribal hatreds” stem from modern demagoguery more than actual longstanding history.