Interview with Katie Economides
August 1st, 2017 at 1:00 p.m. in Nicosia
Anna Prodromou (AP)
Katie Economides (KE)
AP: Katie Economidou. A professional, a woman, a singer, a wife, an activist, a mother. Quite a few identities - individual, social, collective identities - intersecting in just one person and I’m sure we could add more. Which identity, or which part of your identity do you feel defines you the most?
KE: Identity is a social construct, so it’s acquired, it’s not natural, it’s not something you bring with you. What we bring with us I think is our femininity, is our gender, and you remind me now of Hanna Arendt and her studies on gender and who we are, where we come from, who we are actually and our stand point is our identity. So, we are first identified as women, as feminine, and we are supposed to perform our social roles according to what it is prescribed by the society. I’ve done many things in my life and I’ve done them out of curiosity, out of passion, out of love. I’ve never done anything out of duty, I’ve never been able to be part of a system, I only shake or question the system. I never keep timeframes, I’m never on time, although I’ve worked. I’ve been working for 35 years now in a civil service job, which taught me a lot. Again, it’s a passion, it has to do with my love for Cyprus, the whole of Cyprus. But it’s nothing to do with my position in this system or whatever. In my life, I have been blessed to become a mother and to raise children in more or less normal conditions. If you ask my daughters they will probably tell you the opposite. I’ve never been a conventional mother, most of the time I was not at home, not because I was going for coffee with my friends or shopping or playing cards. I was out there searching; but I don’t know what I was searching for. I was investigating this world, I was questioning and I was looking.
AP: You mentioned that your work is related to one of your passions, Cyprus, the whole of Cyprus. Are you a refugee, is that why you emphasize that?
KE: I’m not a refugee. I am from the centre of the city and I didn’t lose anything in ’74, except a couple of acres of land in Ais-Yorkis. But I lost my youth and my memories; I was affected because apparently, I was a very sensitive person. I realized that after a few years, after many years, when friends and immediate family members pointed out to me that I’m different. I’ve never thought that I was different but apparently I was. And I was different in a sense that in ‘74 during the three-day war, on the 20th of July in fact, I was in Famagusta. My father came to meet us in the morning of the 20th of July. I was there with my mother and my sister was a baby. I was 14 years old and as soon as there was a ceasefire in the fighting, I went out with a “κοφίνα”, this big basket, to collect food from the neighbours and to take it to the hospital. At that time, on the 22nd of July, a couple of hotels, some hotels in Famagusta, had been converted into hospitals because there was not enough space in the state hospital; so we took food there by walking along Kennedy Avenue. Most of my friends and neighbours were just sitting at home or tried to run away, but I was doing this thing. Then, at night, I remember the fire in Kantara. The forest around Kantara was burning. I remember the bombs falling into the sea, my father tried to show that there was nothing to fear about then he went swimming and an object, it must have been the shell of a bomb, dropped next to him. I remember the blackout at night.
AP: So even from the early days, you felt that you were traumatised by those events?
KE: Yes I was, and then we went back to school. The school didn’t open until November I think, it was a different environment, a different setup, the makeup of the classroom had changed, it was not only the Nicosians any more as there were refugees from different villages, etc. Then these girls were describing the conditions they were living in, they were sleeping in tents, and I said I’m going to the camps to help them with their studies, so this is what I was doing. I lived through it, although I was not a refugee, I lived through it.
AP: Obviously you felt it and you experienced it deep in your soul, in a traumatic and emotional way. You mentioned that you were perceived as “different”, that others described you as being “different”. But you never felt different? Did you have a sense of belonging growing up or did you actually sense it too?
KE: I never felt different. I feel that I belong to any circle. I’m very comfortable in every circle, with every nationality. I probably wouldn’t be comfortable if I found myself in a circle of soldiers, people with guns and knives, but other than that, I feel that the world is a projection of me and I am a projection of the world, it’s a continuity.
AP: So you try to mirror things?
KE: I try to internalize things actually, rather than mirroring them, and that’s why I never felt different. My sister opened my eyes a couple of years ago when she said “Can’t you realize you’re different?” you know, and we’ve accepted it, we’ve accepted it, my family accepted it, because I was doing weird things for them and weird things for my friends.
AP: Some people might say that you were making unconventional choices in your life, unconventional for the time you were doing them. You were involved very early in bi-communal projects, you established an organization, a citizen’s action group, a bi-communal choir, and many other things. Was it something specific that sparked your interest or shifted your attention in that direction, or was it just a natural process for you, a kind of curiosity?
KE: Even with my friends and classmates, to whom I’m grateful, we’ve been doing things not just to meet and nurture each other, we’ve been doing things to help other people. I feel it’s their love that keeps me going, but I’m doing things that are not conventional. It might sound weird, but my friends accommodate me because they love me and I’m grateful for this love because I talk to them, we have been very close since we were five years old. I mean, I have friends from primary school who live in the States and come over every year or every couple of years and we can be together. I mean, as soon as they step foot in Cyprus we are together, so it’s this togetherness. For some people, togetherness might be a basic need, for me its togetherness plus loneliness, because togetherness is not sustainable forever on its own, when it’s accompanied by loneliness it gives you the space to reflect on things and to decide, where do I go from here? I was always asking myself, who am I? Why am I doing these things? And a lot of things, most of the things, are things that were done with a low profile, no one knew. I mean no one knew that I had founded the bi-communal choir until they saw this year that the choir honoured me with an award, with a thank you, etc. So, hundreds of training sessions that took place in the north or in the south of the green line took place without anyone knowing. Primarily, I felt that I should protect myself and I should also protect the process and protect others. Sometimes, when all these actions were exposed by publicity, it was destructive.
AP: You were involved in projects and initiatives that at that point in time that were deemed to be unacceptable by many. Do you think that the fact that you were a woman made it worse?
KE: It was easier actually, because I could act based on my emotions without being misunderstood; it probably would have been more difficult for a male, because our males, the men in Cyprus, are too masculine I’ve always had a male near me too, a man close by to support me. Although my husband came from a family that lost everything in ’74, his house was there, his garden was there, the place of the invasion. They’re all traumatized. I made a deliberate decision that I would fight against all the odds and try something different, something that would come from my heart. It wasn’t anything to do with Christian forgiveness, I’m not religious. It didn’t have to do with a way of pampering the others. It came out of a deliberate decision of exercising, re-influencing the sense of humanity. What is humanity? Humanity is not pointing guns at each other. Humanity is not excluding people from basic needs, humanity is inclusive, and humanity is about creating connections, for me at least. So, who was this “other” who decided that I should be extinguished and eliminated from this island, or anywhere else in the world? I understood over the years that the invasion and its consequences were not only because of the military actions that the Turks took against Cyprus, it was also the actions we took in our everyday lives. I’ve seen people acting in the same manner, with the same sentiment, here where I work. People try to eliminate others when it comes to getting a promotion, extinguish others when they are jealous, extinguish others when they don’t understand them, extinguish others when they perceive them as threats. I’m sorry to say that such mentalities are largely observed in women. It’s like hell when you think about it.
AP: Why do you think that happens? Have you reflected on that?
KE: I think it’s because of insecurity and I think it’s because of lack of opportunities to develop, which is then expressed in a violent way. When I was 40 years old, I was awarded a scholarship and went back to school in England to study conflict resolution. At that time, I wrote a dissertation on violence and when I worked on this, I was reading day and night about the subject. I was very puzzled by this, why do people inflict violence on each other? Why is it happening in our everyday lives? Why can’t we be more tolerant, why can’t we be more accommodating? And because I thought it was worth it, to pursue this philosophy, I just applied it in my case, in my life. I thought that we couldn’t expect others to do it for us. It’s us that are going to do it, so I am the paradigm of myself and this is how I imagine this world. And, because I imagine this world, I mean the dream for a better world is me, myself so I can’t expect it from others, I can only do it because I believe in it.
AP: You mentioned that this attitude from women possibly comes from a feeling of insecurity and the lack of opportunities. In terms of the Cyprus problem, do you think that women in Cyprus have a voice and do they have the opportunity to participate in the negotiations or the reconciliation process?
KE: I think that women don’t have [a voice], unless they are well networked, unless there is a good network around them or they try to pursue it through careers or maybe through, I don’t know, political parties. Unfortunately, political parties are extremely influential in Cypriot society, so the women are also engaged in that. I mean, opportunities are only provided if they belong to a specific party.
AP: But do they actually have something different to offer in this process?
KE: No, I feel that it’s not a matter of gender.
AP: It’s not a matter of gender you say, but some would argue that if there was equality, if both genders participated, then perhaps we would be able to create a plurality. When you see a committee and it’s just men or you see the negotiation process now and its only middle-aged men around the table, don’t you think that there is something missing there, and I’m not only talking about women?
KE: The experiences I’ve had throughout my life from women have been the worst, so I don’t think it would make any difference. Of course, women should have the opportunity to have a voice, not only women, what about the poor people, the poor people don’t have a voice, and what about the young people, they also don’t have a voice. The only people who have a voice are the mainstream politicians, businessmen, the rich, those who mobilize the economy, and that’s it. So it’s not a matter of women and not it’s a matter of being marginalized or not marginalized. So opportunities should be given so that the voices of all people can be heard. It has been very rewarding working with some of the women in the bi-communal projects, although with some it was very disappointing, so it’s not a matter of gender I think, it’s a matter of perspective. What you bring along with you.
AP: All these things that you’re doing come from an internal need, as you said, a passion. I’m sure that it is rewarding for you. Do you feel that it has an impact on other people, do you see a change happening?
KE: It’s not rewarding. It’s something that I feel, you know, If I had the chance to restart my engines, my life, like we restart a computer, I probably wouldn’t get involved in these activities, I would be more relaxed as a mother. I mean, I’ve missed motherhood, I’ve missed sisterhood, I’ve missed being a member of a family and spending time and energy with my parents, with my friends, quality time, even with my husband, being a wife I mean.
AP: So do you think there was a choice there? How can you feel safe and comfortable and relaxed if you are ignoring the things that are happening around you?
KE: OK, I remembered a friend saying that I am very angry and because of my anger, I became an activist. For me, it was the natural flow of things. I don’t know how it happened, but after I came back from my scholarship in the States, I studied conflict resolution. I was at the Fulbright office and they told me they were going to start this bi-communal conflict resolution program and would I like to be a part of it? I said, “Meet with the Turks?” No way, I don’t want to see them, I don’t want to hear them. And then, out of curiosity, I said I would go to the very first meeting. And I went, and I stayed, and this is described in Louise Diamond's book, how I stayed. I realized that others felt the same pain as me and these others were TCs, happened to be Turkish-Cypriots, so I wondered how they could feel pain if they were comfortable in our homes? How do they feel pain when it was the Turkish soldiers who killed and raped Greek women, or children etc... And then I realized through the meetings that at some point in time, GCs did similar things, although probably not to the extent that they described. I mean we never launched an invasion, there were no air force bombings etc. So it was no longer a case of ethnic background, it was a matter of emotions that are generated in times of violence, when this wildness that exists inside us is somehow triggered and comes out. Just like you can see in other disputes all over the world.
AP: Starting from the minor disputes, like in football matches, the idea that the masses amplify the anger.
KE: The anger of injustice. I remembered Vietnam and America and then I conducted this special study on Rwanda and I was shaken when I read things about this conflict. So I realized that the root of these unfortunate situations comes from within us. It’s not something that comes from the outside, is imposed on us. It’s created inside us and we express it and it’s probably created around the tables of those who draw lines between countries and those who decide the war games, etc. But those who execute them are people like me, so my responsibility is based on what stand I take when all these plans are decided and are imposed on me, and what decisions I take. It’s noble to write against an invasion or to write against, you know, human rights etc. The point is, when we do this, do we take the other into consideration as well. Yes, we get the Turks out of Cyprus, the mainland Turks, I mean the soldiers, and it’s a statement that it’s legitimate one way or another. It’s a form of security for the Turkish Cypriots. Can we provide this security for my friend if the security that he or she perceives is not actually there? Take the Turks for example. I mean to say, get Turkey out of Cyprus and sit comfortably on your sofa and enjoy your Chinese take away meal and your soap opera or have a very good time here and there and just shout a motto or a slogan, it has to be imbedded in your everyday life. You have to be reminded of the issue every day. As we have to be reminded of the issue of hunger in Africa every day, because we are responsible. As we have to be reminded of the burden on the environment everyday in order to be more aware and to actually do things. I mean to take a stand is not sufficient for me anymore, it’s just a mickey mouse. To be serious, one has to take a stance and take steps, and so the steps that one decides to take are those that define one’s life and have an influence on the lives of others around us. In response to your question, it has an influence and then an impact. Now, whether it is a good impact or a negative impact, you can see what is going on and history will also judge us. But it’s in my conscience when I go to bed at night. I take a few minutes to think about my day. Because I always tell myself, there might not be another day tomorrow.
AP: Last question, are you optimistic or hopeful for the future?
KE: Always. My friends write to me to tell me how disappointed they are because of the failure, the collapse of the talks. I’m not disappointed, it will happen in its own time. Timing and placement are factors beyond our reach. What we can do is to situate ourselves in a context of time and a context of place. Other than that, we don’t define them so the time hasn’t come yet, but it’s coming, it’s on the way. Now what the end will look like might not be the ideal scenario, but I think that as a collective group, we have to be able to dream of this time in order for it to become real.
AP: Visualize it you mean, in order to make it a reality?
KE: Exactly. If we are not inspired by our everyday lives, if we are not inspired by the things we see around us and we always complain, about the health system that is not working, the educational system that is not working, the civil service, the traffic lights that are not working, then our hearts are not working, our brains are not working and we are not functioning. What will be the ultimate result? Death. Death in all things. I think we have to be inspired from within, all this energy that embraces, whatever we can embrace. I mean we can’t be the messiah, but we can affect the lives of the people, our immediate environment and much more. Then, I think the good energy can be transmitted.
AP: Thank you very much for your time.
KE: Thank you!
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