It is as wrong to say 'a border' as it is to say 'a scissor', for borders come in pairs just as scissors do. There is a border to leave a country, governed by the country you are leaving, and a border to enter the next, governed by the country you are entering, so we should properly talk about a 'pair of borders'. I know this is stupidly obvious, as on almost every flight I have ever taken I have had to pass through two, but as they were some hours and thousands of miles apart, I did not ever think of them as anything other than 'a border'. I failed to notice that they always came in pairs.
It came home to me for the first time on a recent trip to Cyprus. On the evening of my last day, my host wanted to take me into North Nicosia or North Lefkosia – the north part of a city divided like Berlin was by a wall. While trying to cross this pair of borders I passed unchallenged through the first checkpoint (one to exit the southern part of the island) but was rejected 50 or so metres down the path at the second checkpoint (to enter the northern part). On being turned back, my host said perhaps only 90% jokingly: 'You better hope they let you back in or you'll be stuck in no man's land'. Thoughts of Tom Hank's in The Terminal
came to mind and I was relieved that the same guard who let me out of the Republic of Cyprus quickly let me back in, challenging my logic a little by saying: 'I did not check your passport before so... go...' and waved me on. They did not want to know what the complication was. I was turned away from the checkpoint to the northern side of the island, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, because they are governed by Turkish law, which requires all visitors to hold a passport valid for more than six months. Mine expired in a month.
Thinking back, it may not have been so bad to be trapped in no man's land, for it is not like the no man's land of World War One. It seemed quite well occupied by women and men wearing blue helmets with the letter UN in white on the front. There are over 1,000 troops in the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus. They have a barracks in an old hotel building that was itself trapped in no man's land after the war. I might have ended up there for the night.
A pair of borders is a strange thing. How they shape the community on either side. How they come about. Each pair has a story, sometimes snapping in or out of existence, moving north or south or east or west. But they all involve some agreement or conspiracy on both sides that this is where the borders should be and we will set up our portacabins here and you can do the same 100 yards down there. They exist for various oblique reasons involving geography, trade, language, religion, random events, the history thereof and the whims of people in power. Somehow, out of that muddle, we get the idea of having a 'nationality': being in a nation, a place in which we belong bounded by pairs of borders.
The flight to Cyprus was long – five hours in a locked upright seat with little padding. With no entertainment, I passed the time marking essays and listening to The Brothers Karamazov
on audiobook. It happened to be a chapter that is in part a story within a story. Ivan reads a 'poem' he has written about the return of Jesus Christ to Earth. In Ivan's poem, Christ, most unfortunately, returns to Seville during the Spanish Inquisition. On raising a child from the dead, he is arrested and is told he will be burnt at the stake as a heretic.
On arrival, I took the shoogly cargo lift out of the plane along with the other mobility-challenged travellers. The manufacturers logo on the back of one wheelchair read 'Quickie', reminding me of the panto joke: 'I'm off to Greggs for a quickie' – 'It's a quiche you idiot!' The man in the chair was dark-skinned, an OAP maybe, but handsome and energetic with a soft, warm Scottish accent. He had great bonhomie and spoke to everyone as if he had known them for years.
Cyprus has been a united island for most of its history though it was often occupied by outsiders – Egyptians, Greeks, even Richard the Lionheart ruled it for a few years – and many outsiders became insiders. It was a British territory from 1878 and some of it still is from where RAF aircraft have flown hundreds of missions dropping bombs in Syria over the last few years. The division of the island is a fairly recent thing – when exactly the seeds of that division were sown is debatable but they sprouted and grew into conflict in 1955 when many people on the island wanted independence from Britain and at the same time wanted to join a union with Greece.
familiar? Many others on the island did not agree but the idea seemed so just to some that it became for them at least worth fighting for. Violent conflict went on for years, pausing for a while after the end of British rule in 1959 before resuming and growing into civil war between Greek Cypriots pursuing 'Enosis' and Turkish Cypriots who wanted the island to remain independent. In 1974, at the height of horrific inter-ethnic violence and in the face of a Greek nationalist military coup, Turkey settled the matter by invading and divided the island in two. In 2004, the southern part – the Republic of Cyprus – joined the EU.
The thing about dividing an island with a pair of borders is that after you have done it, orchestrated the conflict, fought for peace, put the barriers in place, hired the guards and customs inspectors and so on, it is still the case that the land on which the islanders live is entirely surrounded by water. Rather than the people becoming more free, they have instead only imprisoned themselves on one side or the other.
Besides this self-evident issue, borders are to criminals as sewers are to rats. Businesses develop around borders involving such things as moving goods and people secretly across them. Organised crime flowers on both sides. In human terms, borders dividing an island represent a great failure on the part of the people and the politicians. It is a testament to the intolerance one group of people hold towards another, fuelled by all kinds of conscious, unconscious, justified and unjustified bias. A testament to a lack of political imagination. An inability to imagine some means of common government by which the island can remain united.
In a museum, the curator told us how after the Turkish invasion he, his parents and eight brothers and sisters, had to flee their farm in the north, on which they grew oranges for the UK market. How they lived as refugees for two years sleeping on a concrete floor in a house in the mountains with no glass in the windows. He had a novel take on Brexit which he thought was a 'big mistake': that Angela Merkel had always wanted the British out and how, in a Machiavellian or Merkelvalian way, she had achieved it by planting some seed in the head of David Cameron.
'People should be able to go from where they are to where they want to go and no-one should be able to stop them. There should be no borders,' he concluded. Whether he really believed that this was possible, or was saying it only in theory, I do not know. Still, I think from what he said we can be sure that many of the children of the very people who today might be campaigning to divide an island will tomorrow be campaigning to re-unite it.
On the morning of my last day, we visited the birthplace of Aphrodite, also known as Venus, the place where she emerged as a fully-grown woman inside a giant clam. The very definition of a beautiful woman I should think famously converted from text into image by Botticelli. There wasn't a single shell on the beach but the rush of water over the pebbles sounded like an orchestra of mice playing tiny xylophones. A nearby 'clootie tree' had a 'Brexit is Bonkers' sticker on it.
In the afternoon, we went to the Tomb of the Kings, a landscape like another planet showing signs of some extinct civilisation. Heading back to the car, I became aware of a deep noise growing into a rhythmic beat and started to look for a helicopter. Far out to sea, dots like bugs appeared to be flying towards us. It was possible to see, as they got close to land and turned to fly along the coast towards Akrotiri, a fleet of Chinook helicopters escorted by two Apache gunships. Every tourist stopped to watch just as the builders of the tombs 2,500 years previously might have stopped to watch an oar-driven fleet of wooden warships powered by chanting slaves.
I have never heard so many helicopters fly together and the sound filled the bay with deep resonant threatening beats, a familiar sound probably to the millions of refugees scattered around the war-torn continent less than 200 miles across the sea. One million people, hundreds of thousands of children among them, right now washed-up against a pair of closed borders between Syria and Turkey. What is going to happen to them? As horrors unfold akin to the siege of Leningrad, we in our warm houses worry like the ancient Greeks did about the weather and whether we can see in it signs of our impending doom, while raging about and exaggerating our petty political differences. It all seems pathetic in so many ways.
On the flight home, I saw the same man in the Quickie wheelchair. While waiting for the cargo lift, I asked: 'Are you Cypriot?' 'A lot of people ask me that,' he replied. 'I don't think so. I was born in Scotland but I don't know what I am. My dad buggered off before I was born and my mum never knew where he came from'. It was said with such matter of fact cheerfulness, it made a kind of bright flash. Would the world not be a better place if none of us knew what race or people we were? Why do we care? To be proud of 'your people' is simply to care less about others. If the children in Idlib were white and spoke English, things would not be the way they are.
We ended up at opposite ends of the shoogly lift down to the tarmac and I had to shout across at him. 'Were you ever in the PMR?' (The Princess Margaret Rose Orthopaedic Hospital) 'Yes. Oh, I loved the PMR, it was like home,' he said in his warm tone. 'Home?' I called out: 'It seemed more like a prison to me'. 'Aye, you could be right. It did feel like that sometimes. It was maybe a bit of both. Part home, part prison.' The very definition of a nation perhaps?