By Habib Toumi
Limassol, Sept. 13 (BNA): As the booming beat turns into an oriental rhythm filling the restaurant in the old part of Limassol, Cyprus’ most vibrant city, a movement ripples through sitting diners pause for a moment and outstretch their arms, undulating them softly, like gentle waves lapping the beaches of the beautiful city in Cyprus.
The rhythm and the ambience transport the mesmerised diners at the Sykaminia restaurant, where the live music and a wonderful atmosphere complement the tasty Cypriot food, from their plates of traditional mezze appetisers to the fairy-tale world of the 1,001 nights.
As I speak with Dena, the guide licenced by the Cyprus Tourist Organisation, I realise how young Cypriots are moving forward with their lives, smartly combining their rich heritage and old traditions with modern lifestyles and present-day culture. Like Dena, they seem to be at ease with both their past and their present, allowing them to coexist without any deep clashes or hampering contradictions. These young people are keen on having the best from their country’s history and geography, from the rich past and promising present, from Europe and the Middle East.
Their geographic location has been both a blessing with benefits and a challenge with opportunities. Over its long history, it welcomed the Greeks who arrived on the island as merchants and the locals over the years willingly adopted their culture. It was ruled by Phoenicians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Richard the Lionheart, Templars, Crusaders, Venetians, Ottomans and British colonialists. Since May 2004, the island country is member of the European Union. However, geographically, it is closer to the Middle East than to Europe.
Cypriots see their history and geography as advantages and they are seizing them openly, drawing on them to build and consolidate their unique character.
Dena is equally at ease dancing gracefully or engaging in deep political issues. She can cheerfully sing traditional songs in Greek in the middle of a crowd and she can readily sit with foreigners from various backgrounds to talk about history in English and German.
She refuses to allow herself to be frozen in moulds and she cannot tolerate being held up by bickering and standoffs, even if they are happening on her beloved island.
On our way to the Sykaminia located a few metres from the vibrant castle area, Dena highlights the history of the neighbourhood without resorting to hyperbole or euphemism often used by guides in the language of tourism.
She speaks softly and slowly, giving away details as a matter of fact. She does not seek to impress or try to influence, confident that people almost invariably fall in love with the city.
The castle is unassuming from the outside, but it has a rich history as it had been regularly used by conquerors throughout the island’s history.
It also has a romantic dimension.
It is in the chapel of the original castle that in May 1191 Richard the Lionheart married Berengaria, thus changing the status of the 26-year-old from a little-known Basque princess to the Queen of England, a country where she had never set foot. Al least not until her marriage.
Several newly-weds today believe that it oozes the charm that makes their days special and use it as a backdrop for their romantic pictures.
We walk through the old part, a fascinating combination of old shuttered houses and modern boutiques. The area is vivacious, the squiggle of lanes offering restaurants and cafés.
We stand near the Grand Mosque, a Turkish-looking edifice surrounded by towering palm trees in full harmony with the tall slender minaret. We are in the heart of the old Turkish quarter and the gate of the mosque is open.
I walk through, enter the courtyard and go up the stairs into the praying hall. One man is praying while others are reading from the Quran. A typical mosque scene. A group of young boys are waiting for the muezzin to call for the Isha (evening) prayers. Enthusiasm shows on their baby faces as they cluster and talk in a low voice.
I approach them.
“We are from Syria, like most of the worshippers you see in this mosque,” a bright face says. “We are really happy to be able to perform our prayers in a mosque without any problems.”
Hani, the father of one of the boys, walks towards us, curious about our conversation. His greeting is warm and welcoming.
“This is the main mosque in Limassol, and it always has worshippers,” he says. “On regular days, two to three rows of people can be seen at the prayers. However, on Friday, the premise is full and worshippers who come late find no space inside and pray in the courtyard,”
Most of the people are Arabs, from Syria, but also from faraway places such as Morocco, he adds.
Mbarek suddenly shows up as if he is waiting for a prompt about his country.
“We have not faced any difficulty and the harmony in Limassol is really good,” the Moroccan man says. “We have no complaints and the cultural coexistence is highly satisfactory. Nobody bothers us, and we come and perform our prayers in peace. Everybody is genuinely keen on the cultural diversity that marks the city.”
As I step out of the mosque, the smell of food is powerfully inviting, mainly local dishes that are, judging by the people at the tables on the pavement, appreciated in equal measures by the Cypriots and the tourists.
“The new trend in town now is the smoking of the shisha,” Dena points to tables where the pipes are placed to attract clients.
She cruises like a breeze through the area once inhabited by Cypriots who moved up north after 1974 when the eastern Mediterranean island where, according to myt,h Aphrodite, the deity of love and beauty, was born, was divided into two and Cypriots became Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots.
The past defines where people live today. Turkish Cypriots to the north of the Green Line and Greek Cypriots to the south. Even though 46 years have passed, the bitter standoff has not been resolved, and each community insists it has a strong case to defend.
I want to know how the vibrant and vivacious Dena felt when she first crossed the Green Line, the no man’s zone that slices the island in two — an ugly reminder of the senseless onslaught on conviviality.
“What was it like when you went to North Cyprus the first time?”
Dena does not hesitate. “The first time I went there, I was a tourist. I did that several times. Then, I started going there for work. The whole experience was like an onslaught,” she recalls. “I felt I could not breathe. It was not easy. But after experiencing strong feelings, I said I would not allow my emotions to overcome me. I had to act professionally and that is what I did.”
She is pained by the division of the Cypriot community, but to her, it is not an obsession.
She is not the only one.
Agapios, a 58-year-old bus driver, says that he has a house in the North. “After the border was opened and I was able to cross, I went to see it,” he says. “I found that it was inhabited by others. I simply left. It was sad, but I had to move on with my life. I could not freeze in a mould of time and keep lamenting. I had to keep building my life in order to enjoy my life. I have to keep making money in order to support my family.”
As we stare at the sandy beaches and sparkling Mediterranean waters from the majestic Coral Beach hotel in Paphos, the words by Agapios take me back to several years earlier when I visited Kyrenia in the North.
On my first evening in the coastal city, I engaged young Turkish Cypriots sitting at the table next to mine. There were no seething masses of pent-up frustrations and bitter vehemence. They said they wanted to go way beyond their tales of long lists of grievances and memories of dark anniversaries. Exactly like Agapios is now telling me on the other side.
Agapios looks forward to the reunion of the two communities, but believes that there are too many layers and dimensions that make turning the wish into reality highly challenging.
“I am sure the people can get along fine and can settle it out, but there are so many other actors and this high number compounds the situation.”
We head towards Hala Sultan Tekke, a mosque located in a superb garden on the west bank of the Salt Lake, approximately six kilometres southwest of Larnaca, the country’s main airport city.
I have heard a lot about the mosque and the significant status it holds for Muslims on the island, particularly those living in the northern part.
I recalled how Fatima, a brunette from North Cyprus, told me that her dream when she gets married is to go on her honeymoon to Istanbul — a city for lovers, she explained — and to Hala Sultan Tekke near Larnaca.
She said she wanted to go during Bayram (Eid) with several Turkish Cypriot women and asked her mother to apply.
However, the Larnaca-born mother refused flatly. “Too many terrible memories,” Fatima explained.
Like most of the older Turkish Cypriots, her mother was deeply entrenched, pleased with the status quo and content with her peaceful life.
I am fascinated by the beauty of the landscape as we reach the mosque nestled among the palm trees and named after Umm Haraam Bint Melhan Al Ansari, one of the earliest Muslim women and who had insisted on joining the first group of Muslim civilians to head to the island with the army of Mouawiya in 649.
On the island, the extraordinarily courageous 86-year-old woman fell off a mule and died. She was buried where she died and her grave steadily became one of the landmarks of the area.
The mosque was built much later, just before 1787, along with dwellings and water cisterns that contributed to its fame. The mosque’s present plan was completed in 1816.
The premises are blissfully quiet and well-kept. But beyond the structure, the fame and aura of the place seem to provide a pleasant setting of functional coexistence and to diffuse a strong sense of civilisational togetherness and cultural interchange.
As I visit the interior of the mosque, I notice some women tourists donning the long gown as they entered.
“I am from Britain,” one of them says as we engage in a brief conversation. I wonder whether Fatima has been able to fulfil her dream of visiting Hala Sultan Tekke.
As I step into my room at the imposing Amathus Beach Hotel in Limassol, I head towards the ample balcony, attracted by both the sight of the blue waters of the Mediterranean and the soothing sound of the live music.
The view is so enchanting and the setting is so serene that it is so easy to cocoon oneself in a world of peace and tranquillity.
I follow the music and I become a witness to a blissful wedding ceremony right on the sea. At least on the hotel pier jutting into the calm sea. The bride and groom are saying their vows, surrounded by relatives and friends and endless views of the blue sea as the sun is inexorably going towards the welcoming waters.
The wedding party is elated, confident they are capturing the perfect moment.
I learn later that the idyllic setting is highly popular among couples keen as they are getting married on the romantic view and on one of the most stupendous sunsets.
I am pleased that the renovated luxury hotel — a serene sanctuary of world-class comfort — lives up to its promise of offering newly-wed couples the special opportunity to “luxuriate in charming honeymoon sea view suites overlooking the Mediterranean, and experience a fairy-tale wedding and honeymoon”.
“My team’s as well as my prime responsibility is to ensure our guests’ well-being at all times and we are continuously striving to succeed with this target,” the affable general manager, says.
I like his unpretentious attitude and his references to his “brilliant team”. Highly refreshing since it is quite unusual among senior managers.
The next day, I turn my back on the pleasures of the tempting sea and head into the magnificent Troodos Mountains that dominate the south.
There are two ranges of mountains in Cyprus, and I have already ventured into the one in the north, known as the Kyrenia Mountains, also known as Pentadactylos in Greek, Beshparmak in Turkish and Five Fingers in English, and some of their castles hidden amongst the trees.
The Troodos Mountains, which cover most of the southern and western parts of the island, are fascinating. A sense of awe engulfs me as I contemplate the beauty and fecundity of the landscape that evokes a sense of romantic mystery, blissfully oblivious to time.
Nature is truly generous with Cyprus. Only a few kilometres from the Mediterranean Sea, and it is a totally different world.
Green carpets, high trees and waterfalls, and in between traditional villages with food prepared in traditional ways and Byzantine churches packed with icons and paintings.
In the charming village of Omodos, I cross the cobblestoned square surrounded by touristy shops and colourful cafés offering Cypriot coffee — not Greek or Turkish, please — to enter the ornate and well-kept church. I then take a stroll on the narrow alleys and under the wood crafted verandas. Peaceful and serene. I love the sight of the coloured flowerpots in every corner and on the stairs.
I am a heartbeat away from vivacious Limassol, but in a totally different world.
The enchantment continues and great taste is added to serenity when I sit down in an open-air restaurant placidly nestled among tall, slender trees. The murmuring stream cascading down the mountain and the sweet sounds add sensuous delight to the profusion of beauty and to the positive vibrations in the pure air.
A fresh trout from the nearby farm is served by Elizabeth, the owner, and her team in the traditional Cypriot. Highly palatable. It is obvious that the food on this Mediterranean island is both colourful and fragrant. Like in some other Mediterranean countries steeped in civilisation, here it is a feast for the senses, an art, and a way of life.
A gracious hostess and openly hospitable, Dena makes sure everything is abundant and fine as a plethora of dishes follow one after the other. She gives a vivid and skilled demonstration on how halloumi, the white cheese that is the hallmark of the island, can be consumed.
I often had halloumi before visiting Cyprus, but it has never been as appetising. I am curious. The secret I am told is that it is made here mainly with goat milk and following the traditional recipe. It is also made with great passion.
In fact, many wives in Cypriot villages continue to make halloumi in their houses using goat or sheep milk while following the traditional recipe. Elsewhere, industrial production that relies often on cow milk prevails.
I like the great lengths to which Cypriots are eager to explain matters to you, to make you feel at ease.
The island’s proximity to the Middle East may well be the reason.
When Effie Caracas, a tourist guide, talks about the preserved mosaic floor in the four Roman villas in the huge archaeological park in Paphos, particularly the House of Dionysos, she gives the impression she is a member of the household, a relative. She is not the dispassionate guide who simply does her job, but rather a relative of the Roman family who highlights the grandeur of the immense floor displaying ornate mosaics depicting stories of Greek deities and myths.
She does the same at Kourion, projecting a vivid and lively idea about the well-preserved amphitheatre and its dramatic backdrop. The Roman times come alive as she speaks.
At the Charmers Restaurant by the newly renovated promenade in Larnaka, my friend Talal was delighted the soft Mediterranean breeze added to the charm of the moment in the Cypriot city.
The street was enchantingly inviting. The road by the sea has been transformed into a picturesque path for people heading for a swim, jogging, cycling or simply taking a stroll under the clement sun.
The restaurant offered one of the most delicious fish meze on the island, served with contagious smiles and cordial friendliness.
The octopus was definitely a gourmet signature dish that he was happy to eat alongside the other tasty components of the fish meze welcoming him to the charming island.
He was happy that his expectations for Cyprus were exceeded every time he visited the country.
He fell in love with the island when he came the first time. The Gulf Air communications manager had been to several countries, but Cyprus promptly held a special significance in his heart. And the palatable meze he was able to enjoy was one of the several reasons he wanted to revisit as often as he could.
Talal loved meze as they reflected the true spirit of sharing food in a convivial atmosphere, like the Ramadan spirit among Muslims, Thanksgiving among Americans and Christmas among Christians.
But for Cypriots, it is celebrations throughout the year since their meze are always celebrated as a social event, and not just a plain lunch or dinner.
Meze as an integral part of the Cypriot culture are much more than portions or types of food that you consume. They are a strong bond that brings people together, be it at home or in restaurants.
Families and restaurants have perfected the art of preparing meze which can be meat or fish, and are often preceded by a heaping healthy salad.
Talal who has been through the culinary experience in Cyprus knew that he should take it easy on the salad in anticipation of the tasty seafood that will be rolled out.
However, there was no way he would skip halloumi, the great star of the pre-meze show.
Traditionally made from goat and sheep milk, the brined, slightly springy white cheese was grilled and served out.
Talal decided to accentuate the taste by squeezing some fresh lemon juice.
He had meze on several occasions in Bahrain and elsewhere, but he never had a seafood meze. The halloumi he had in other countries was made mainly of cow milk, and paled in comparison with the one he was delightfully chewing at the restaurant.
Later wherever he went on the island, he insisted on eating grilled halloumi, taking advantage of the special taste that he could savour.
At one time, he had the chance of participating in making the traditional halloumi bread in a home located in a beautiful village. The experience was exhilarating and the bread was superb.
When at the Charmers Restaurant he was served a whole grilled fish, the main star of the meze, Talal thought he had enough and was full.
However, the fresh pièce de résistance was so attractive and so tempting despite all the bones purposefully left inside that he decided to go for it.
Although he was only a few hours into his four-day trip to the island of Aphrodite, Talal was certain that some of the best memories that he would recall with fondness later would be the Cypriot food cooked with great passion, served with gracious generosity and consumed with elated smiles
Sipping my fresh lemonade on the terrace of the Eléa Golf Club, I take in the breathtaking setting. The Par 71 course, designed by Sir Nick Faldo, incorporates numerous natural features and boasts magnificent views of the Mediterranean, only a few kilometres away.
I like the combination of outstanding golf and meticulous attention to detail in the Eléa Estate that takes me beyond all kinds of pressure and the frantic pace of modern life.
The riveting setting is so soothing that I forget everything and relax in the delight of the opportunity to have seen Cyprus, gained insights into its history and heritage, enjoyed its mountains and beaches and appreciated its character and charm.