Dispatches from the present
When I arrived in Palaiomylos in March, the cherry tree outside my window was bare. It was only a week earlier that I had first realized I might be moving out soon, leaving university two months too early. On that day, my disappointment was tempered by a touch of hope that I might see Cyprus in the spring. The previous winter was the rainiest my mother had ever seen; every dam overflowed and rivers of glistening silver gushed over long-dry beds to meet the Mediterranean. I might never see Cyprus so glorious again. And besides, I thought, what better place to quarantine for a few weeks than in my grandmother’s house in the Troodos Mountains?
It was still cold when I moved in. I was exhausted after five days of travel, always just one step ahead of cascading border closures. For the next weeks I led two lives: one in a Cypriot village with a population of twelve and another on a bustling college campus that was suddenly only virtual. Just as the semester was ending in May, our first heatwave hit. The temperature skyrocketed to 35 degrees Celsius. The cherry tree grew heavy with ripe, red fruit and my time at university drew to a close. The day after my graduation, I waded through the waters of the Diarizos river and caught sight of a blue dragonfly twinkling in the sun. One day, I decided to plant a garden. I splurged on tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers, but soon realized why my grandmother’s grandmother had always made the long trek to a plot by the river instead of farming at our house: while the apple and pear trees at the bottom of the valley grew heavy with fruit, my meager plantings struggled in our rocky soil.
The heat continued unabated as June turned to July, July to August, August to September, September to October. The afternoon light glaring through my window grew so hot that I thought of doing all my work next to a cool stream a short walk away, the only air conditioning we had. Accompanying the heat was a protracted drought: four months without a drop of rain, unusual even by Cypriot standards. I grew transfixed by a weather website run by a local meteorologist as we broke record after record—the hottest July, August and September ever recorded; the highest temperature yet seen in October; and on one excruciatingly hot September day, the highest temperature ever recorded in Cyprus: 46.2 degrees Celsius (115 degrees Fahrenheit). Four months of unprecedented heat in quick succession is inarguably the result of global warming, and this is but a taste of years to come.
The sweltering heat of the country last summer was political, too. As the pandemic temporarily subsided, the nightly news returned to their usual routine of leading with some story about Turkey. The underlying theme this time round was natural gas. Since 2011, the Republic of Cyprus has explored gas deposits in waters off its coast that are contested by Turkey and the internationally unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Ankara sent “research ships” to Cypriot waters; Nicosia, lacking any real naval forces of its own, resorted to strident rhetoric and appeals to the international community. Tensions simmered in the warm waters of the Eastern Mediterranean. Only a handful of young activists were brave enough to suggest that we might lower the temperature of these waters, in both geopolitical and climatic terms, by taking fossil fuels off the table.
Finally, the heat broke in November and the rains came. The cherry tree began to shed its leaves even as the roads filled with trucks piled high with crates of grapes. Before this year, I thought little of “country”—less precise than “state,” less potent than “nation.” Yet there’s nothing like living in the countryside to make you love the country. The rocky soil I turned in my vain attempt to plant a garden was the same earth my widowed great-great-grandmother had worked for a living, before the mines opened and before everyone fled the countryside for the booming cities. Even today, most of the land around Palaiomylos is either agricultural or visibly recovering from farming.
Farms like these all over Cyprus are watered by the same rains. In December, when we gathered our olives to press into oil, trees shook off their fruit and green liquid flowed into empty containers throughout the divided island. In this time of pandemic and climate crisis, there is something to be said for a revaluation of country. For some, this turn is expressed as ugly nationalism—the return to an idea of country founded on common blood and soil. Yet we might find the ground to resist this kind of turn in the very land being expropriated. After all, the “country” is something more than an empty container waiting to be filled by the chauvinism of “nation” or the violent hegemony of “state.”
These ideas had preoccupied me throughout my time in university, and especially in my final year, first on campus and then when our classes went fully online. But living in my grandmother’s village, even as I continued studying virtually, forced me to live through them. My attitude towards nationalism has been mellowed by a love of the quiet country, the human and more-than-human rhythms of life in Palaiomylos. It was here that I began to see the possibility, at least for a moment, of refiguring the idea of “country,” not as an empty signifier or nationalist symbol but as something more vital: a public thing that might bring people together, in all their plurality, around a common object.
Photo credit: Troodos Mountains, Kellerbrandt Foto (CC BY / Flickr)