Bridging the divide: Cyprus choir spreads message of peace | Cyprus | Al Jazeera

Bridging the divide: Cyprus choir spreads message of peace

For 21 years, the Bi-Communal Choir for Peace has defied threats, insults and bans to promote unity and reconciliation.

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    Nicosia, Cyprus - Costas Kyranides was a young psychologist in the mid-1990s when he started exhibiting symptoms of what he terms "political schizophrenia".

    A Greek Cypriot born on the divided Mediterranean island, Kyranides had grown up embracing the values of solidarity and respect for others. But a battle of principles was brewing inside of him.

    "Division is not only on the ground but also in our minds," Kyranides says today, sitting in a cafe in the UN-patrolled buffer zone that has for decades separated Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots in Europe's last divided capital, Nicosia.

    "With all this brainwashing, propaganda and stereotypes that we were taught at school, I would catch myself sometimes having feelings that did not correspond to my ideology, and I wondered: 'What is happening? I need to do something'."

    Fortunately for Kyranides, he was not alone. Just as he began his quest, a group of like-minded Greek and Turkish Cypriots were coming together to learn more about their respective communities and explore the differences and similarities between their cultures.

    A series of cross-community meetings in 1997 led to the formation of the Bi-Communal Choir for Peace in Cyprus, a group aiming to use melodies and songs to spread its members' common vision of unity and reconciliation.

    Passionate about music himself, Kyranides soon found himself knocking at the choir's door.

    "I decided to get to know the enemy," he recalls, with a smile.

    "I joined the choir driven by curiosity and - as a psychologist - a desire to communicate in order to get to know firsthand what's behind this 'demon's mask'. What kind of people are they? What are their thoughts and their feelings?

    "And that's how I got on board the peace train."

    Costas Kyranides: 'The choir express me both as a music lover and a pacifist' [Dimitris Sideridis/Al Jazeera]

    Twenty years later, Kyranides is one of the choir's longest-serving members.

    The group has, over the years, defied threats, insults and bans to become one of the largest and oldest bi-communal movements on the island.

    And after performing more than 250 concerts across Cyprus and abroad, including in Turkey, Greece and other countries in the Middle East and Europe, it's arguably the hardest-working and most committed one, too.

    Hayriye Ruzgar, communications officer at Home For Cooperation, a buffer-zone-based community centre supporting intercommunal efforts, says that participation in groups such as the choir traditionally ebbs and flows according to political developments in Cyprus. 

    The island has effectively been divided since 1974 when Turkish forces invaded northern Cyprus in response to an Athens-backed Greek Cypriot coup seeking union with Greece. Repeated diplomatic efforts to solve one of the world's most intractable conflicts have failed, often in acrimony.

    "The ability to move on [despite the ups and downs of the peace talks] requires a lot of passion and commitment - and the choir has been doing this for the last 21 years," says Ruzgar.

    "These kind of initiatives are providing exactly what is needed in Cyprus to achieve sustainable peace: working with the people of Cyprus and creating opportunities for meaningful collaboration and positive contact between different communities on the island."

    Ledra Palace Hotel is located in the UN buffer zone between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot checkpoints [Dimitris Sideridis/Al Jazeera]

    Each Wednesday, the choir's members arrive from both sides of the divide to practise at Ledra Palace, an iconic former luxury hotel-turned-UN base that sits in the heart of the buffer zone.

    For several decades after opening in 1949, the hotel welcomed everyone from Cyprus's top business people to major international celebrities, as well as diplomats and reporters covering the island's turbulent events.

    But for the past 44 years - since Cyprus' effective partition - it has been under the control of the United Nations, housing British troops serving as part of the world body's longest-serving peacekeeping mission.

    Ledra Palace Hotel [Dimitris Sideridis/Al Jazeera] 

    The building's ground floor meanwhile has become one of the most significant sites for intercommunal activities and political meetings in search of peace.

    Passing through Ledra Palace's decrepit, frozen-in-time lobby, after a passport check and sign-in with the UN, the soldiers' chatter fades away as the choir members shuffle down a long corridor to reach a large, chandelier-lit room.

    Inside, dozens of people exchange smiles and friendly greetings. A sense of joy permeates the hall as they quickly take their seats around a piano, folders of sheet music in hand.

    For these doctors and designers, teachers and clerks, this get-together represents way more than just a weekly singalong.

    "It's a way of life," says Zumrut Oral, a Turkish Cypriot architect who's "very rarely" skipped a rehearsal in the 12 years she's been a member. "I always try to participate because we miss each other," she adds, during a break.

    "We're always sharing good and bad moments together, organising parties, celebrating each other's birthdays, attending funerals - it's like a family."

    Zumrut Oral: 'We want to spread our message to all the people in the country and the world,' [Dimitris Sideridis/Al Jazeera]

    The choir, which now boasts about 65 members, works under the direction of two devoted maestros: Greek Cypriot Lena Melanidou and Turkish Cypriot Kursat Tilki.

    It also has a 10-person organising committee, split equally between members of both communities and elected in a vote in which all the choristers can participate.

    It's a fair and equitable process, which Kyranides says political leaders on both sides of the Cyprus divide negotiating a solution could take a lesson from.

    For its performances, the choir typically picks traditional songs from the island's communities - all focus on the themes of love, friendship and unity.

    Covers of more recent tunes in Turkish, Greek and other languages, including special arrangements of international hits such as The Beatles' Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Amigos Para Siempre, are also part of the repertoire.

    "We choose the same number of Turkish and Greek songs as a symbolic move to show that a life of balance and mutual trust, love and understanding is possible," says Tilki, the Turkish Cypriot maestro.

    The message, he says, is simple: "If we can sing together, why don't we live together?" 

    The choir has performed about 250 concerts, four were in the past month [Dimitris Sideridis/Al Jazeera]

    That's a point that resonates in the choir's exhilarating, stirring live performances.

    Always dressed in white and transitioning with ease between songs in multiple languages, the singers turn the stage into a harmonious soundscape where stereotypes no longer exist.

    "I saw them live and couldn't distinguish who was Greek Cypriot and who was Turkish Cypriot," says Orestis Agisilaou, who joined the choir five years ago at the age of 18.

    Today, the 23-year- old student is still the choir's youngest member and one of the few below age 50.

    "What I saw was a common voice - the voice of all of Cyprus - and this instantly drew me in."

    While there are many powerful moments throughout a concert, Agisilaou, Kyranides and Oral all agree that nothing compares to what happens during the live rendition of My Own Country.

    Written by Turkish Cypriot poet and activist Nese Yasin, with music arranged by Greek Cypriot composer Marios Tokas, the song's chorus translates as: "My country has been divided into two; which half should I love?"

    "This song always stirs so many emotions, for both us and the audience," says Kyranides.

    The choir's first trip abroad in 2000 to perform for Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots living in London was his most powerful experience as part of the choir, he says.

    "We began singing My Own Country, and we found it so difficult; the people in the audience started crying, holding each other's hands, hugging one another - and some of us started crying too. When you see the people's reactions, it's electrifying." [Listen to the choir performing the song here]

     

    My Own Country has become an anthem for reconciliation and unity on an island where reunification has long remained elusive.

    The prospect of a potential solution came into sight in 2004, a year after border restrictions were eased to allow people to cross from side to side.

    A peace plan brokered by then-UN chief Kofi Annan was put to simultaneous referendums on both sides of the island, and while a majority of Turkish Cypriots accepted the proposal, Greek Cypriots resoundingly rejected it.

    The result dashed hopes of reunification, and had a negative ripple effect on the choir, as well.

    Disappointed and hurt, about two-thirds of its Turkish Cypriot members, including the maestro, quit. Greek Cypriots were rattled, too.

    "The referendum created a big problem for us - the choir was almost destroyed," says Melanidou, the Greek Cypriot maestro.

    "For quite some time, instead of rehearsing, singing and setting goals, we'd be working on the subject of peace, discussing what it actually means. In the end, this whole experience benefitted us, in the way that we decided that ... politics should be kept out of the choir."

    The repertoire comprises songs in multiple languages that speak of love and peace [Dimitris Sideridis/Al Jazeera]

    But the choir had faced challenges even before the failed referendum.

    In December 1997, after a move by the European Union to delay a decision granting Turkey candidate status, the Turkish Cypriot leadership stopped giving permissions for Turkish Cypriots to cross into the buffer zone - also known as Green Line - and take part in bi-communal activities in Nicosia.

    With the Turkish Cypriot choir members effectively banned, their dispirited Greek Cypriot colleagues kept practising alone at Ledra Palace Hotel.

    For two long years, the choir's very existence seemed uncertain. But a solution arrived in 1999 in the shape of the mixed village of Pyla.

    Located in the buffer zone about 45km from Nicosia, Pyla was still home to both Greek and Turkish Cypriots, and it was the only place that the choir's two sides could both enter.

    However, the difficulties persisted, including frequent back-and-forth travel and lack of adequate rehearsal space.

    "Until we were able to find a house, we had to practise many times under the trees; in the forest, and sometimes in cafes, where we were not liked by Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot clients who were not in favour of rapprochement," recalls Melanidou.

    There was also the problem of surveillance and intimidation.

    "Spies from both sides would come to Pyla and go around to keep the situation under control and see what we were up to," says Melanidou. "Choir members would also face pressure, especially if you worked as a teacher or did any other job under the control of the government," adds Tilki.

    Kursut Tilki has been a maestro in the choir for 13 years [Dimitris Sideridis/Al Jazeera]

    The situation improved drastically in 2003 with the lifting of the ban and the opening of the checkpoints, which allowed easier movement across the Green Line and for Ledra Palace Hotel to become the choir's home again.

    Though their challenges have not entirely disappeared - anti-rapprochement figures have occasionally protested against, or even tried to block, the group's performances, while group members have received individual threats and accusations of being "traitors" - the group's reach and impact have only expanded over the years.

    In 2017, when the choir celebrated its 20th anniversary, both Nicos Anastasiades, the Greek Cypriot leader, and Mustafa Akinci, the Turkish Cypriot leader, issued highly laudatory statements hailing the group's peacebuilding efforts.

    "We have won the respect of all the parties," says Kyranides. "We don't get involved in the political differences and the content of a solution.

    "What we're dealing with is the base of the table - they can decide its shape. Without strong legs, whether it's oval, round or square, it will collapse."

    While a solution to the island of Cyprus' political impasse remains distant, the members of the choir remain hopeful and determined to go on for as long as necessary.

    "We always say that after the solution, the need for the choir will be even greater," says Kyranides.

    "The bridges will have to continue being built, because there will be side effects, provocations and a lot of tension, so our work will continue until the time is right."

    Agisilaou agrees.

    "This choir will never stop," he says, shortly before re-joining the rehearsal.

    "Even if there's a solution, [the choir's] role will then become stronger.

    "For the rest of our lives, we will be here, in the line of duty."

    Orestis Agisilaou, 23, is the choir's youngest member [Dimitris Sideridis/Al Jazeera]

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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