Interview with Nikoletta Christodoulou
July 21, 2017 at 11:30 a.m. in Nicosia
Anna Prodromou (AP)
Nikoletta Christodoulou (NC)
AP: Nikoletta Christodoulou, a woman, a professor, a researcher, an activist, a friend. 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?
NC: Thank you for the question, first of all, thank you for the interview. I feel nice but also rather weird being in the position of the interviewee this time. So, you asked me about being an activist, a professor and a woman and so on. I think I am all of these identities; I cannot really separate one from another. Yes, I am a woman, I am an activist, I am a professor. I think each one of these identities helps to define the other one better. For instance, I cannot imagine being an activist without being a woman; many of the things that I do are because I am a woman. At the same time, I respect every person, men as well, so I don’t only give credit to women for the things that they do, but I am also an activist because I am a professor. I feel I have a particular responsibility towards my students, towards the world, and towards myself as well. And again, I would say that each of these terms defines me in terms of the others too; so really, I think that all these identities are part of me, of who I am.
AP: You emphasized that you could not imagine yourself being an activist without being a woman, as many of the things that you do are due to your feminine nature. Where there any experiences or events in your life that shifted you towards that direction?
NC: I guess, I think I should mention that I have had many different, diverse experiences because of the different things that happened in the life of my family. So, I lived for 10 years in Saudi Arabia for instance. That’s where I finished elementary school. My parents were refugees, that’s why my father decided to move abroad and like many hundreds of thousands of Cypriots. However, they moved to Saudi Arabia so that they could give us a better future. I was not born when the invasion happened, I was born three years later, so I went to Saudi Arabia when I was 2 and left when I was 12, so really, I spent my childhood there. And you know, we say how important the first years of our lives are in terms of how we absorb things and how we start interpreting and understanding the world and ourselves. So, I do believe that living in Saudi Arabia left an imprint on me. It was good for me, I mean in my opinion I had the best childhood, we had great years in Saudi Arabia, but at the same time I remember my mother, you know, she had to wear the burka. I mean, she didn’t have to cover her face but she did have to cover her hair and when I was 5 and my sister was 6, we were also told that we had to wear that to cover our body parts. And I do think that somehow this really affected me, even though at that time I didn’t really think about it. But I think all of these experiences showed me that there is oppression and you cannot always be who you are, as a woman. For example, if you asked my mother, she wouldn’t want to go back there again. For me it was OK, but for my father, it was a completely different experience. So yes, I think growing up and seeing my mother wearing that outfit and then many times she had to act in a certain way, you know women were not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, they could not walk next to a man unless he was their husband. So you just realize that women do not have an identity there, they do not have a say, they are not human beings. And, because of who I am, I think the way I started reading all of these things, interpreting them, somehow, you know, made me who I am today. My sister for instance, my siblings, they don’t necessarily read the world in this way. So that’s why I said my personality is a combination of these things.
AP: Was studying education a decision you made because it was something that particularly interested you?
NC: My bachelor was in pre-primary education at the University if Cyprus. I worked for a year in a kindergarten in Cyprus and then I went to the USA and I did my master’s in instructional leadership and then my PhD in curriculum studies. The words of my parents still echo in my ears. After they lost everything, they started believing that education is the only thing that we can never lose. So, they really wanted us to become educated and my parents sacrificed many things in their lives. They had to live for more than 40 years in those countries, to help us have a better life so yes, my mother used to say that education was the most valuable thing you can have and they really pushed us in that respect. Of course, I was a very good student, I didn’t really need anyone to push me to pursue my education. I was just always very motivated to read and learn more. I still am. I still believe that I don’t know a lot of things. I still believe that I can learn a lot from my students, from kids. So I’m still like this. I still think that there are so many things out there that we just don’t know and the only way to understand these things is through studying, through reading, through trying to perceive things in a different way. So yes my parents. When I go back to your question. It was because of my parents. I really wanted to become a pilot, that was my dream job (laughing) but I ended up being a teacher, that was my mother’s dream, I would say, I never imagined myself as being a teacher I would say. And I think after I got my bachelor’s degree, I thought that I want to do something more, that there was more to come for me.
AP: So you pushed yourself in a direction that expresses you more as an individual. As with every situation, something comes to our doorstep and we just have to deal with it and even make the most out of it. And that’s what you did, using it as a step to go further, to continue and pursue what you wanted.
NC: Exactly and that’s very important, that’s something that I have always been doing. Again, because this is who I am, right? I don’t think that my parents could have ever stopped me doing the things that I am doing because that’s who I am. You grab the opportunities I guess and if you feel that OK this is not enough, this is not me, what’s the next step? What are the resources or who are the people that I know that can help me, guide me, or mentor me to take my next step, and what is that next step, right? So yes, from being a kindergarten school teacher, and many of the things that I did, I had no idea that I would do them. I mean, I have a plan and I know the big picture, but I don’t necessarily know how I will get there.
AP: You go with the flow
NC: Yes I go with the flow. I’m very flexible. So I didn’t really think that I would pursue a PhD, it just happened. And because I thought, yes, this research PhD involves research and I like researching, I like learning so, step-by-step, I made that decision.
AP: I keep thinking that you said that your parents were refugees, and they left and they went to Saudi Arabia. They lost everything you said. Of course, because you were born after the events, you only see it through the eyes of your parents. What was it that they lost? What was the life that they lost? Because I would like to see how they transmitted those feelings to you. Primarily, you learned history from others.
NC: Wow…Yes that’s correct. I mean I said wow because you asked me this question and I felt I was shivering a bit. Yes, I think losing everything, it’s not just the material possession, the house, or land that you have inherited. These are part of what they lost, but I think it was also more than that. It’s about losing a neighbourhood, losing friends, relatives; you know the spirit and the soul that existed in the community. Where they lived, losing the scenery. When I visited Lapithos and I went to a friend’s house, I was really stunned by the view they had, and then I became so sad because my parents’ house was on a hill and they had a view of the beach. That could be one of the million-dollar houses that we now see in Limassol or in other places that have a sea view, right? That’s what my parents’ house was. Of course they had the land and it didn’t cost them a million to build it, it was part of their life, right? It was not a big deal but then they had this view. And I have always dreamed of having a house with a sea view. I don’t know if I would ever have it, but OK. You know, it’s losing that scenery, losing the smell of the lemons, or citrus in general. Losing the sounds that you’re used to hearing. So, whatever you think when it comes to senses, it’s all of these things that leave an impression on us. It’s devastating to lose these things that you had experienced since you were a kid. And it’s not just a matter of a decision like let’s leave this place, no, it was being forced to leave that place that makes a difference. Many people have lived abroad in different houses, you don’t feel when you leave from that place or when you leave from, I don’t know, a place that you’ve been abroad and you come to Cyprus, you don’t miss that place that much. Well you may miss it, but in a different way. So it’s losing all of these things.
AP: How do you feel been born after that, being raised in a different country, then spending a lot of time abroad for studying. Do you still have a strong bond with Cyprus after all that?
NC: Yes I do. In matter of fact I always felt that I love Cyprus. I truly love Cyprus. Not in a sense that I’m going to put a flag on my balcony. I am a Greek Cypriot. I do feel that I’m Greek; I do feel that I am a Cypriot as well. I am a Christian Orthodox, you know, all of these things nurtured me. Maybe the way I see my nationality or my religion is different now than when I was little, right. Now, there are many twists and colours and shades. I don’t necessarily go to church for instance. So, these things change, evolve and what do I mean when I say I love Cyprus? I feel that it is because of this country that I am whom I am. I want to know my roots and I think that I have had the opportunity to expand wherever I have been, and I have travelled a lot, I do feel lucky, I feel very lucky to have been able to travel almost everywhere, except Australia so far, but Cyprus was always my point of reference. I think it’s important to have something that keeps you somewhere, otherwise, in my case, I really did have difficulties to be honest, which I didn’t realize until recently when my parents moved back to Cyprus about a year ago. I realized that I always felt that I am everywhere, I belong, I don’t know, I can be anywhere but then when my parents came here, I felt that OK, not only am I from Cyprus, but now my parents are also there, my brother is there too. Because my family was a bit scattered, in Greece, USA, Saudi Arabia, and Dubai, so I always felt again because of who I am, and I emphasize this, my sister is not like me, she is very different, my brother, the same, but because of who I am I, always felt that I can just be anywhere and I could. My professor in Chicago for instance, was so impressed with me because I was able to adapt to the place in just two months. And he said it’s not common to see somebody to adjust so easily, so fast. So, I think it is my experiences, knowing that I am from Cyprus, that my roots are here and also knowing that I am from Lapithos, the details. That helped me, I don’t know, become more integrated, it was kind of putting all of these experiences together, like the fact that I am from Cyprus. If it makes any sense…
AP: I can’t help but wonder that you twice mentioned the differences between you, your brother and your sister. Even though you had years of shared experiences, you are different and have different perspectives on life, so I might add that you have different interpretations of your common background. In relation to that, do you think we need to go back and revisit some of the events that occurred, and I am talking about the history of the island, the tragic events that led to the divide? Do you think we need to go back as a community, and reinterpret the things that happened? Are we ready? Are we ready to see the perspective of the other side?
NC: Yes. I think it’s important to do that. Because it is only when you reflect on something or do self-reflection and critique yourself and your actions that you can start to see whether you may have been wrong, or have done things that have somehow hurt the other community or other people in your own community. Otherwise, if we don’t do that, we will always believe that we’re right.
AP: We’ll continue to believe that we were always the victims, and the only victims.
NC: Yes, we always see ourselves as the victims. It is important, not only in this case, but with whatever we do, we must go back at some point and see, you know, what we have done.
AP: See things from a distance, more emotionally distant.
NC: Exactly and you asked me if we’re ready now. To do that now. I think yes. I think we’re ready now because the generation of our parents, let’s say, who left their properties and had to run away, now they’re getting older, right? And it’s us, the new generation that maybe lived during through those times, we were kids during the invasion or we were born right after the invasion, and we are the generation that continually heard from the previous generation about all the things that we have lost as a community. And then we have the newer generation, so I think yes now of course, you need some time. When something devastating happens to you, it is not possible to start afresh immediately, you’re not ready so I think…
AP: As with any loss, you need to reach a level of acceptance of the situation and then start reflecting on it.
NC: And it’s also this idea, you know, that the generation who used to live there, I mean they’re ageing, they’re passing away and I think they feel that somehow, if they don’t start talking, then we will not know and then we will really lose.
AP: Maybe that was something that motivated you to work on the “Cyprus Oral History Project” that ignited your interest for that kind of research?”
NC: Well, I grew up hearing stories from my parents and grandparents about the invasion, the day they had to start running away to save themselves from the bombing, their occupied village, Lapithos, their lost land, their neighbours and the neighbourhood, and the like. Therefore, the questions I thought about for a long time were, “What did other people experience? What were they doing on the day of the invasion, before the invasion, and after? What is it like to have to run away to save yourself? What is it like to be a refugee? Did others feel, see, experience, and in general, sense the invasion in the same way as my family? What other stories are there that I should hear and know about? What about Turkish-Cypriots? What did they experience? At school, we did not get to learn about the invasion, about the events between 1960 and 1974. I do not recall learning anything at school on this matter. I only remember that we participated, during our school years, in demonstrations against the invasion and the occupation of Cyprus. But we didn’t really learn anything substantial about that era. I was also wondering about the experiences of people with different political beliefs, thoughts and orientations. What did they experience, how did they experience it and how did they feel about it? What stories do they have? What do they remember and how do they remember it? And what about people from different communities, genders, ages, social status and positions, and so on? So, after I completed my Doctoral work in Chicago and I became acquainted with qualitative research techniques, including posing questions and interviewing, I was also introduced to the terms oral history and oral history research and I read oral history work. Consequently, I started formulating my question: “What do you remember from the era 1960-1974 in Cyprus? Where were you? What did you experience?” which became the principal question of the funded Cyprus Oral History and Living Memory Project. Thereafter, I connected my project to education, living and educative experiences, and what we can learn from them, based on the work of prominent curriculum studies scholars who are dealing with narrative, biographical and autobiographical work, and the issue of experiences, memory and testimony in education.
AP: Do you think as a society that we are inclusive towards other communities, or do we focus generally on the binary TCs-GCs and we tend to forget and ignore that we have Maronites, Armenians, Latins, and other communities sharing the same space. Do you think that the time is changing and we’re generally being more inclusive towards all members of the community? Of course, now we have the refugees and even the immigrant workers. Do you think there has been a change and are we being more inclusive?
NC: Yes I think we are. Actually, I am amazed and impressed how Cyprus progressed from being a more homogeneous society or maybe I should say the communities having being separated, having their own boundaries, that it was not easy to trespass and like after 1974. I mean, after the tragic events with the invasion and everything that happened now forty years later, having refugees here, having foreigners, even Europeans and non-Europeans and so on. And I would even say, not just about refugees or about different communities, I would even say that I feel we are also inclusive towards people with special needs. Having discussions about women being included more, maybe participating in the society. But, despite the progress that has been made on this matter, we still have a long way to go.
AP: Do you think that women are participating in the island’s political life, in the negotiation process, as part of the peace process? Do you think there are women that are interested in participating and they’re not being heard or do they not have that much interest?
NC: There are women. I think there should and can be more, but I don’t know why there are not. It’s a big issue, I mean we can keep talking about this for many hours. But I think that we live in a patriarchal society. I think growing up, we have been told to do things a certain way, I mean these are the things that as women we should be doing, so we exist within these boundaries that we created ourselves and we don’t necessarily see outside of that box.
AP: Do you think women have something extra to offer in this process?
NC: Of course they do. A different perspective, um, a different perspective but also, the way the use their feelings more and there are many different studies that talk about women and feelings and senses and how using this as a process, to think about something, how this can give you a different dimension or perspective. So yes, I do believe that both men and women have a lot to contribute, but there is an absence of women in political life not only in Cyprus, but around the world. I mean, if you look at our parliament or when people who have power and gather somewhere to discuss something, they are mostly men. So, this absence of women translates into the absence of a voice and perhaps a different way of thinking and a new perspective.
AP: Women and youth actually. You have to consider the average age of the people. Basically, you need a variety of perspectives, whether it be in terms of gender, age or ethnicity.
NC: Exactly, exactly! And I would even add, yes, we have to be inclusive in all respects, even when it comes to sexual orientation, when it comes to religion, when it comes to gender, ethnicity. If the voice of a particular community or people with particular characteristics is absent, then it means that these people are not represented, they are not there, so when decisions are made, they are made by others without their input, so our decisions are not inclusive, and I would say they are not ethical or correct.
AP: Are you optimistic about the future? Are you hopeful about the future of Cyprus? We have experienced another failure. Do you think it’s going to change?
NC: Really I was hoping that. First of all, I’m always optimistic, yes I’m always optimistic and a few months ago I was in America at the time that they started. When the negotiations started again between the two communities I was thinking that yes, now we’re going to have a solution and for sure I am going back to Cyprus and I am going to go back to Lapithos and start a business there. However, at the end of the day, we just saw that yes, it was another effort that failed. I don’t know, I’m not very optimistic at the moment.
AP: To conclude, what do you think should change? Do you thing that if some things change, we could have a positive outcome?
NC: Yes, well, something that I don’t like is that we have to accept that things will not be the way they used to be 43 years ago …We have to accept that, but to what extent? So what does this mean? Things will not be the same but OK, will we be able to go back and will we be able to live together? I think about education, people must be educated to be able to live together, it doesn’t matter about your nationality, ethnicity or gender. You must respect others. You have to learn to respect other people. It may be people from the same community; just because you are from the same community or the same religion, it doesn’t mean that you are the same. No, all of us are different people, but there are some issues that are controversial and challenging and these cultural constructs, I would say that we have to work and show tolerance without giving up our beliefs and our own characteristics. So I’m not in favour of a scenario where we all become the same. No, we have to be different, but then how do you learn to appreciate the differences that other person has and then build on this? If we don’t do that, I don’t think that we will be able to live peacefully. And it is important. Education is important. But again, education should not make me forget who I am. I believe that we must understand our history and our roots, but also show respect to others.
AP: I thank you dearly for this interview.
NC: Thank you again for the opportunity.
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