I sit here, on my way back from Cyprus to England feeling a little sad, somewhat excited (I’m going to see my children – it has been a long week in that sense) and slightly comforted. Don’t get me wrong I’m not a great flier, mainly because of the truly horrendous journeys (almost always exclusively to Cyprus) we had as a family when my sister and I were kids. My comfort, however, comes from the words I hear in my headphones. Akala talking about his “Scottishness” and the pull he feels of his Jamaican culture but at times not really fitting in anywhere. Too dark for England to light for Jamaica. Why does this comfort me? I’ll explain all but before I do let me tell you why I feel sad.
I’m leaving my Cypriot family on a small portion of that tiny island behind me. I never know if it’s the last time I’ll ever see my late father’s mum, Yasemin Nene (pronounced neh – neh it means grandmother). She is 88, so they tell me but I promise you no one really knows their age in North Cyprus (pronounced Kibris). She is weak in body but strong of mind. She almost has an ethereal quality a 6th, 7th and 8th sense when it comes to understanding how people feel and why they feel. She has an uncanny way of making you feel better – she makes my life better in a way that is unparalleled. Although my father has 3 brothers and 3 sisters and a multitude of cousins aunts and uncles, my Yasemin Nene is my final real link to my dad. She tells me stories about him and his youth that make my jaw drop. Seriously. It’s genuinely impossible for a human to feel the way I already do about my dad but my grandmother tells me things that make the pride I have in my heart overflow through my eyes. To make me gasp for breath.
When he was young, my father loved school. “His head was always in a book” my Nene tells me. Even during his summer job when working at the department of water, during his teens, he would sit under the olive trees for shade and read. He used to tell me this with his eyes closed and head tilted up, as though he was back there looking through the shade of the leaves at the sunlight flickering between them. He was a truly intelligent man, he was perceptive, worldly. He was the only child out of the 7 brothers and sisters to go to university which back during the early 70’s in North Cyprus was a massive deal. Unfortunately that was short-lived though.
My dad was a Socialist, a Communist, a “Lefty”. He believed in the ideal of power to the people and that all should be equal. He believed in his convictions to the point that he was involved in the Right/Left clashes in Turkey (where he was a university student), he attended marches and was part of mass rallies which would invariably end in bloodshed and death. To believe in a political ideal enough that you would die for it-Wow, I mean would you fight, I mean physically fight for the ideals set forward by the labour or conservative parties? My father was made aware by those higher up in his political movement that a manuscript from the opposition party had been intercepted and it had a list of people they wanted to be dispensed of i.e assassinated. My dad’s name was on the list. Needless to say, he fled Turkey and he ended up traveling to England to work with my uncle who had just set up a business (yes another take away!). The idea was that he would go to one of the universities here then go back to be a teacher in Kıbrıs. He never did, he never became a teacher. I’m truly gutted that he never had the chance of seeing me become a head teacher – I know he would have been proud!
My comfort from listening to Akala’s words comes from a feeling of not being alone. It’s interesting – I mean how many countless people in the last 70 years or so have felt the strangeness of not knowing where they fit, where they belong? They suffered in silence and solitude. Look I’m 40 and it’s taken me 28 years to articulate my feelings because I hear someone else, in a similar position, explain how it was for them growing up.
In Cyprus growing up I was know as the English boy. In England I was known as the ‘Fat Turk’. I am from both. I was born in Leicester (England) but my blood and culture belongs to Cyprus (both my parents were from there) yet both treated me in a less than welcoming way. This I feel can be someway explained by the colonial ruler and ruled mentality. I remember my dad talking to a customer in the shop. He was an older gentleman and seemed nice enough. It was only when he told my dad that he had served in the British army, in Cyprus no less, that the mantra “the customer is always right” was thrown out of the shop like an unwanted drunkard. My dad proceeded to tell the veteran that if the British hadn’t meddled with the country everything would have been better for the island. The man did not get it, to him “you people” wouldn’t have been able to settle your differences if it wasn’t for us. Did they feel the same about Ireland (northern and southern) and India/Pakistan. Cyprus had for centuries had Greek and Turkish Cypriots living side by side. Don’t get me wrong it wasn’t without issue. There was some tension in parts of the country. But on the whole. we lived together. My grandparents and some of my older uncles and aunts can speak Turkish and Greek (fluently) and enough English to easily get by. The food we eat is almost identical and the names of the food we eat are so similar that they might as well be called the same thing. Our way of life, mannerisms, loud (shouty) conversational style and physical appearance are so similar that to the untrained eye they would be indistinguishable. But division, through hook or by crook, was imposed by the British on the island. The effects of which have had a detrimental (mainly financial) effect on the Northern Turkish side of Cyprus.*
My lack of belonging because of my ethnicity was further highlighted at my secondary school. At the age of 13, I remember walking into the canteen (my favourite place as you can imagine) and it was the first time I actually analysed the room. It unsettled me. It changed me and my self perception immediately. I hadn’t realised just how segregated the pupils were. Cliques and groups of people created by the children themselves. But it was visible. White British kids together in a group, black (mainly Caribbean) kids together, Indian children together but separated from the small Pakistani contingent. Damn it! Where do I sit? Seriously it was a real concern. Prior to thi,s I’d sit anywhere with anyone. I still do. But that sense of belonging wasn’t there. I was on my own. The binary of black and white doesn’t help explain this. Because I don’t see myself as either. They saw me as neither. I ended up sitting on my own that day.
For me, now as a headteacher, the hall where children eat is an important place. I don’t allow my children to be segregated in any way; girls and boys sit together, those that have packed lunch and those that have a school dinner sit side by side, and I encourage white children to sit next to the growing number of children of colour and/or different ethnic backgrounds. I am the model for this. I sit with the children and I continually talk to them about their lives, their beliefs their understanding of the world. It’s the best time to connect. Barriers down. I talk to them at length about belonging. It’s one of our four binding words that runs through the School and is part of everything we do (Belong, Care, Persevere, Succeed).
Bring your colour, your culture, your ethnicity to my school they are always welcome, they belong to us all and they will always have a place at my table in our canteen.
*Below is a link to the Economic and social research council “British divide and rule policies pitted Turkish and Greek Cypriot communities against each other, says study” which explains the impact of British divide and rule on Cyprus further.