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Interview with Oya Akin

July 21, 2017 at 9:30 a.m. in Nicosia

Anna Prodromou (AP)

Oya Akin (OA)

AP: Oya Akin an artist, an activist, a friend, a mother. Numerous 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?

OA: Identities can change, they change depending on who you’re with and what you’re doing actually, but I would say at the moment, for the last ten years or so, I really kind of pushed on the multicultural bi-communal side and what I can do to bring communities together, so I would say I actually prefer the activist side that I have within my identity.

AP: From reading about you, I believe that you are fortunate because your work involves the things that you love.

OA: Yes. I’m using theatre as a tool to bring people together and when I say people of different ages, I mean children, infants, teenagers and adults, and we’re trying to focus on people who have not made contact. It’s their first time. Even though the borders opened 13 years ago, there are still people who have not crossed, have not met each other, have not shared an experience or crossing other than for shopping or seeing a village, they were not necessarily interacting so we were trying to create opportunities for people to make that interaction and then to follow up, to kind of make sure on a kind of social basis of course. To make sure they sustained that contact with the crossroads theatre camp, for example, that we’ve been doing for six, seven years now and it’s a summer youth camp which uses theatre. We do workshops throughout the day, we live together for 10 days and then we perform.

AP: You studied psychology and then theatre. So was the whole concept of working on reconciliation and peace something you always felt the need to do or something that formed because of various occurrences or events in your life?

OA: I was born in ‘75 and I’m one of the lucky families that wasn’t misplaced, we have no missing people, nobody in my family was killed, no rape that I am aware of, no killers, murderers, that I know, so I can say that in a Cypriot context, I’m from a lucky family who didn’t have trauma related to the war and the struggles before it. I grew up in London, came back in ’85 when I was 10, studied here and then I went to Istanbul. My curiosity was more aroused with making contact, so when the borders opened, my first experience working with GC’s was in 2004 on a production we did together, actually in this space behind the GC checkpoint. And it was a curiosity that I think was waiting to burst, because during my education unfortunately, we didn’t talk about the other, it’s as if we perceived the island, the north part of the island to be the whole island and nobody lived beyond. And, even if they did live there, we didn’t want anything to do with them, they weren’t nice people. So, it was making this crossing, the first crossing and meeting people and working together that kind of gave me this sudden rush, “Why was this hidden? This urge to meet more people and make sure that other people are meeting and I’ve done, I mean I can’t even count how many projects I have done across the divide with different people, different artists or somehow encouraged people to come together to collaborate or just share an experience.

AP: Do you think that the fact that you were born outside Cyprus and spent some time abroad perhaps helped you to become more open-minded?

OA: I would like to think so and also I feel that, as I don’t have roots, I think this puts me in a more of an advantageous position than people who have roots and they were somehow cut from these roots. Because my family travelled a lot, I travelled a lot afterwards, so in Cyprus, I was the Cypriot from London, although in London I was not British or English enough. I lived in Istanbul for seven years and I wasn’t Turkish enough. So I always felt misplaced in that sense, not having the right criteria to belong somewhere, so I think looking back, that worked as an advantage that made me more accepting and I don’t have any strong feelings about a place. I can kind of take and enjoy the whole of the world.

AP: You said this “not enough” that I hear from a lot of people. Can that be translated in terms of gender? Do you think your feminine nature has been an obstacle in your life or you’ve never experienced it like that?

OA: In Turkey a little bit, because I lived there for seven years. Towards the end, not that I wasn’t enough, but that I had to change a little to be accepted or to not encounter any problems.

AP: You had to adapt to the norms.

OA: Yes, I had to adapt to the environment. If I was going to places, I would make sure I was careful. That kind of sensitivity developed which I later didn’t enjoy and felt the need to move away.

AP: As a woman who has a voice, do you think women in modern society in general and specifically in Cyprus have a voice?

OA: I think they have, I think they even have a stronger voice than some other places. So I don’t think as if I’m not enough, I haven’t felt as if I’m not enough.

AP: I’m just referring to how others perceive you. Because of course we’re enough, we are more than enough.

OA: No I haven’t been made to feel that. Quite the opposite actually. I have felt that, as a woman, I’m accomplishing much more, even that I have balanced many things.

AP: Do you think women have a substantial place in the negotiation process, in the peace process?

OA: Not strong enough. I feel it should be more, could be more and it definitely would be more effective if they did. I mean, when we look at the negotiation process, we’ve always seen middle-aged men, not even middle-aged, old men. I mean, I’m middle-aged now, so its old men talking about negotiation and talking about making a peace agreement and I think its lacking a female perspective.

AP: Also bearing in mind the notion that wars are fought on the bodies of women and children of course; children are being upheld, while the same doesn’t apply to women.

OA: Yes, but we should also add that women have been used within this process for certain propaganda messages, let’s say.

AP: On what terms?

OA: For example the weeping mothers, the image of war is always based around women.

AP: You mean that the image of women is associated with suffering.

OA: The suffering of the war, but then when it comes to actually discussing the issues or making change, they’re kind of left to one side.

AP: Through your workshops, you think that art could help create bridges between the communities. Why is it so important for you to get closer to the GC community?

OA: Because it’s my community. I don’t see it as something different. And I also feel as if the GC friends that I’ve met along the way are more vulnerable, more kind of hesitant to approach and I have a kind of need to open, to create that space, to tell them that it’s ok. I don’t know, maybe it’s something that I’m creating subconsciously, but the people that I have met are always more hesitant to take a step towards the TC’s. They want to but…

AP: You mean they’re not so open by nature or they’re just more reluctant?

OA: More reluctant I think, at least the younger people that I’ve met. I feel the pressure from the education system is strong and they have been fed lots of misinformation. Some of them, at least the teenagers that I’ve worked with, have been very confused by what they’ve found out. The adults, I mean it’s wrong to generalize, but this is a very kind of brief generalization, there are many exceptions. It’s more difficult I think for people who have been bombarded with years of misinformation to cross over for example. I think it’s a bigger step for them to take than the TCs. Because, I think that when you think of the war, the TCs emerged with a so-called victory, whereas the GCs didn’t, so there is this kind of stronger pain. I think that the authorities have been using it in a certain way to keep the feelings raw. Whereas, I think the TCs, the majority, I’m not saying they all have, the majority, especially the younger people because the education system is milder, have found it easier. We kind of moved on a bit quicker from the past.

AP: So you felt that you had to take a step forward.

OA: Yes, I mean, if I see two steps coming my way I will try to make five or ten and I’m trying to do that and then it kind of bounces out and we kind of move on together. But I have felt that with some of the collaborations, maybe it wasn’t their need, but I’ve felt the need to make sure everyone was more relaxed or that I was more accepting.

AP: Now, after a number of years that you’ve been doing it, are you hopeful? Do you see a change?

OA: You’re asking me this today? (laughing). Maybe if you had asked me that ten days ago. At the moment I am feeling very down, very down with everything that’s happened.

AP: You’re referring to the outcome of the last negotiations in Crans-Montana. Let me rephrase then. Through your experiences with people all these years, do you feel there is hope for change?

OA: Yes, with the people I’ve met and all the people that they have met and the kind of butterfly effect that’s going on, the ripple effect is small, but it’s there and it’s hopeful for me. Yes, I do feel hopeful but sometimes, when we’re talking about social media, some of the things that I read and see, it’s just so worrying, especially as it’s coming from young people, the hate speech that’s going on, the attacks on Greek Cypriots. I mean it doesn’t even reach the TC community sometimes.

AP: You’re referring to nationalists?

OA: Yes that’s why I’m feeling kind of lower today, because it’s worrying, it’s very worrying. I feel that all it takes is a few fanatics for everything to suddenly turn to mayhem again. I get really upset about it. With the Unite Cyprus Now (UCN) initiative that I have been part of since mid-May I suggested that we do something, that I wanted to meet these people, but they’re like “you’re crazy, don’t even go there”! We were thinking of doing something last night, like a peace protest, but my friends were saying that somebody might do something. Would they really? If I was just standing there, not saying anything, not doing anything, would they really come up to me look me in the face and do something? And my GC friends were like, please don’t even do that.

AP: We have to acknowledge though that this tendency towards nationalism is increasingly observed across the EU and in the US. This is not something that’s happening only here in Cyprus, it’s more of a global phenomenon I should say.

OA: For (In the North) it’s mostly the mainland Turkish, the “wolves” that we have, and we have lots of them and they’re also a threat to us. They’re very big, mostly students, its worrying.

AP: On a political level, are you hopeful?

OA: I don’t know, it feels like the division is getting wider and wider, that’s how I’m feeling today, ask me in a few days and I might change my mind, but I’m constantly going up and down with how I’m feeling nowadays.

AP: So how can we overcome these ups and downs? Where does someone find the strength to believe that something is going to change after all these efforts have come to nothing?

OA: Because we have to, because we need to, we want to see a change and now I have become a mother, I feel an increased sense of responsibility to make a change. And I think I selfishly just want to see it end. I’ve had enough, it’s been there my whole life. I want to see something happen, I’m very impatient in that sense.

AP: In your opinion, what actions could help the whole process?

OA: Oh! There are lots of things. Trust issues that need to be solved, small steps that can be taken. I know for a fact that the Ataturk Cultural Centre, for example, has art pieces that belong to GC’s locked up in their storerooms. I feel bad, I performed on that stage above those pieces of art for more than seven years, I feel uncomfortable and I believe it is necessary that they are given back. Something very simple but something very humanistic, they have to be given back to the owners, to the families, if the artists are not alive. Small steps like that, the education system. I’m tired of speaking to teachers and students and still finding out that yes, the first page of every text book starts with “I will not forget”. At least change that, small things. I’m tired of seeing Turkish and Greek flags everywhere, listening to the Turkish anthem or the Greek anthem. I feel ashamed for most of the things that we’re doing, that have been done, even though I’m not part of it, but it’s been done. I feel like that about last night’s celebration at the Presidency (Declaration of the Republic of Northern Cyprus). I feel ashamed to be a part of it, to be experiencing that.

AP: More goodwill initiatives then.

OA: Yes. There’s lots of things that can change that would help the process if it’s not going to happen now, but it would be like building blocks for the future, preparing people, I think it’s something we should be doing, as well as more initiatives to get people together again.

AP: Build blocks towards peace then. Thank you very much Oya!

OA: Thank you

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