With its new office on the border between Southern Cyprus and Northern Cyprus, the Goethe-Institut hopes to make a small contribution to cultural harmony between two opposing sides. But it is not an easy task.
The new Goethe-Institut is located in no-man's land
It is an idyllic part of Cypriot capital, Nicosia: a garden with palms and fragrant oleanders nestled against a group of luxurious villas. One of them is the pastel-colored villa housing the newly-opened branch of the Goethe-Institut - a non-profit institution promoting German language and culture abroad.
It looks peaceful, but the surrounding area is dotted with fortifications watched over by UN troops. This is because the institute lies in the buffer zone between the northern, Turkish-speaking half of the island and the southern, Greek-speaking half. Northern Cyprus, also known as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, is only recognized as an independent state by Turkey.
The Goethe-Institut building is accessible from both sides, but getting there is not straightforward. On the Turkish side, border guards check the documents of every person who wants to cross the demarcation line - and this procedure is becoming increasingly frequent on the Greek side. A traveler with knowledge of local history will no doubt think back to the 1996 shooting of two Greek Cypriots who protested against the Turkish occupation.
Being here can also trigger memories of the Berlin Wall - a comparison further strengthened by a local kebab kiosk that humorously calls itself Berlin Wall No 2. The high barriers and barbwire surrounding many of the streets only add to this image. Tourists are often keen to cross the border to the north, but Greek Cypriots tend to avoid it. Meanwhile, many Turkish Cypriots travel to the southern half to shop and work, taking advantage of the south's stronger economy.
Working 'bit by bit'
Comparisons have been drawn to formerly divided Berlin
All this has been possible since 2003, when the border was opened. However, the overall situation remains tense. Working here as a cultural representative requires great political sensitivity, though it sometimes resembles a "suicide mission," says Björn Luley, head of the newly opened Goethe-Institut in Nicosia.
However, Luley did not have to start here from scratch. After the closure of the former Goethe-Institut in Cyprus in 1999, one of its staff members, Ute Wörmann-Stylianou, founded a private association that continued cultural and linguistic education under difficult conditions on the same premises. She called it Goethe Center and ran it together with two colleagues for 12 years, supported by the Goethe-Institut headquarters in Munich and the Department of Foreign Affairs.
One of her greatest goals is to contribute to the reconciliation between Northern and Southern Cyprus. It can be done "bit by bit," she believes, but a "very modest" approach is required and "you shouldn't assume that you're solving something here."
Hope for a better future
Despite this, voices of appreciation for her work can be heard on both sides of the buffer zone. One of them is Nicholas Panayi's, an artist from southern Nicosia, who in the past felt like he was missing something in his life - "the other side of my existence," as he puts it. When the border opened, Panayi went to the north to search for this other part of himself.
"There I found a fertile ground that was just waiting to bear fruit: the fruit of friendship, kindness, cooperation and purity," he said.
Panayi's words shed light on how emotionally charged the topic is for today's Cypriots. Many of them still remember the Turkish military invasion of the north in 1974 and the civil war of the 1960s. Nearly every family was touched by the events in some way, and the wounds have not yet healed.
Nicosia has been a divided city since 1964
Panayi received support from Wörmann-Stylianou, who organized a joint exhibition for Turkish and Greek Cypriot artists at the Goethe Center. The buffer-zone location was ideal for this purpose: Nobody needed to cross over to "the other" side. According to Panayi, this was an opportunity for discussions, and both parties listened to what the other had to say.
Successful initiatives such as these encouraged the Goethe-Institut to provide further support for the cause. The Goethe Center was limited by its modest budget and small staff, prompting Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, president of the Goethe-Institut since 2008, to take action. He saw the center of "the last divided city in Europe" as a unique location for the 150th Goethe-Institut, assisting cultural work in both halves of the island.
Inspiration from Germany
The expectations are high, especially in Northern Cyprus. There, too, many people are strongly in favor of reconciliation. Writer Gürgenc Korkmazel, for example, is involved numerous workshops at the center and believes that in a situation where politics fail, culture is the only solution. And while he ultimately sees the responsibility for reconciliation with the Cypriots themselves, he is hopeful about Germany's role in the process.
"The Goethe-Institut knows how walls can come down," said Korkmazel. "I discuss this with many German friends. It was miraculous how the Germans managed it! We need to do this too - everyone who wants to live in harmony again."
Luley and Wörmann-Stylianou believe in the influence of cultural work in Cyprus
At the same time, all parties acknowledge that the situation in a divided Germany was very different from that in Cyprus. According to Luley, it's not the fall of the Berlin Wall that sets the best example in this case, but the reconciliatory process that Germans started after World War II.
"Now we have a good relationship with our neighbors in both the West and the East," said Luley. "I believe that this fact can maybe inspire people to think about the situation and to say 'Why do we have to divide such a wonderful city like Nicosia with barbwire and a no-man's zone?'"
Author: Aya Bach / ew
Editor: Kate Bowen