The Feast of Unreason: Durrell in Cyprus, 1955

Perhaps the most famous book about Cyprus is Bitter Lemons, the memoir by English novelist and essayist Lawrence Durrell. The book recalls Durrell=s few years in Cyprus, where he worked on his masterpiece, The Alexandria Quartet, and briefly worked as an information officer for the British government in Cyprus. His recollections, which he wrote quickly and published in 1957, are typical of his work, beautifully composed with striking images and a zest for life. He had opinions about Cyprus, conservative in the British Tory tradition and quite obviously opposed to the political violence which the following excerpts describe. He had more sympathy for the status quo than for enosis, this much seems certain, but he had great friends among Greeks and Turks, and the charge that Bitter Lemons is pro-Turkish is insupportable. Whatever his views, he is unequaled in his ability to paint a picture of the island, even in its darkest hours. Below he recalls the beginning of EOKA=s campaign against the British.


Was the choice of the 1st of April fortuitous? I do not know. It was not inappropriate. We had spent the long tranquil evening walking upon the battlements of old Nicosia, watching the palms flicker in the twilight wind which the dusk brings across the bony Mesaoria. The ravens creaked home on weary wings to the tall trees by the Turkish Athletic Association, where nobody ever smiled.

My brother was due to leave, and as a tribute to him and the noisome menagerie he was taking back with him, we had friends in to drink his health, and to stare (holding their noses) into the crates and cardboard boxes which housed his catch, and which temporarily occupied my spare bedroom. Afterwards we dined by candlelight and talked, and were on the point of going to bed when the silence of the little town began to ripple and bulge all round us. Parcels of steel plates began dropping from heaven on to paving-stones, while pieces of solid air compressed themselves against the window frames making them jingle. Something appeared to walk up the garden path and lean against the front door, something of immense weight - - a mammoth perhaps. The door burst open to reveal the dark garden and the heads of flowers tossing in the idle night wind. Then something appeared to go off between our teeth. A I take it you are trying to say good-bye to me appropriately, said my brother. 'Believe me, I am honoured.'

A string of dull bumps now, from many different quarters at once -- as of small geological faults opening in the earth somewhere along the battlements of the fortress. We ran down the steps and along the unlit gravel road to where the main road joined it. A few bewildered-looking civilians stood dazed in the shadows of the trees. ' Over there/ said a man. He pointed in the direction of the Secretariat building which was about two hundred yards down the road. The street lamps were so few that we ran in and out of pools of darkness on the fringes of the unpavemented highway. We came round the last corner abreast and walked into a wall of solid yellow fog smelling strongly of something - - cordite? In the vagueness figures walked about, aimlessly, with detached curiosity, uncertain whether to go or stay. They did not seem to have any more business there than we did. There was a tidy rent in the wall of the Secretariat out of which smoke poured as if from a steam engine. >Dust,' said my brother grimly, >from under the administrators' chairs.' But there was no time for jests; some- where a siren began to wail in the direction of Wren's head- quarters. A lorry load of police materialized vaguely out of the yellow coils of fog. And then another series of isolated bangs and, after an interval, a deeper growl which was followed by a sudden small contortion of the still night air. ' The whole bloody issue is going up,' said my brother fretfully; he had been peevish all evening about the failure of his film which had run into difficulties, he said, due to a sudden wave of non-co-operation which followed hard upon a visit by the parish priest to his actors. ''Wherever I go there's a bloody revolution.' He had just come back from Paraguay where they had revolted under him, so to speak. A bang nearer at hand lent wings to our purpose. >I must get back to my animals,' he said. ' The owls have to be fed.'

But I felt the tug of other duties. I took the car, ignoring the fretful pealing of the telephone in that silent, book-lumbered hall with its dripping candles, and raced down to the Police Headquarters at Paphos Gate. It had a forlorn deserted air, and was, apart from one sleepy unarmed duty sergeant, unguarded as far as I could judge. In the operations room on the top floor the Colonial Secretary sat at a desk tapping a pencil against his teeth; he was wearing a college blazer and trousers over his pyjamas, and a silk scarf. Behind him the two clerks crouched in an alcove beside the receiving set which scratched out a string of crackling messages in Doric English. ' Famagusta . . . a bomb in the garden of. . . Larnaca an attack on . . . a bomb thrown at a house in Limassol. . . He glanced at the signal pads as they were hurriedly brought in and placed before him. He was composing a message to the Secretary of State. He looked up quietly and said: 'I suppose this is the sort of thing you meant? ' >Yes, sir.= >The worst thing so far is the radio station. Five masked men tied up the watchman and blew it up.

By now the press had begun to block the meagre lines and I diverted them to an outer office where I dealt with them as faithfully as I could; but police reports were very slow in coming in and in many cases the Agencies were hours ahead of us. (They were to remain so for many a long month to come.)

The radio station was indeed badly blitzed, but it was lucky in the possession of an engineering staff which had been eating its heart out for a chance like this; by two o'clock the engineers had crawled into the wreckage and produced a fairly detailed report on the damage and the welcome information that one of the transmitters had escaped, which would allow of some sort of programme going out next day, on reduced power.

By the time I got home again to the importunities of the telephone - - which thenceforward was to ring on an average every six minutes, night and day- - the picture was clearing and becoming coherent. The attacks had been island-wide and synchronized. Leaflets, scattered in the street of the capital, spoke of an organ- ization calling itself EOKA (ETHNIKI ORGANOSIS KYPRION AGONISTON), which had decided to begin the 'struggle for liberty . They were signed DIGHENIS, an ominous enough name which, to the Greek mind, rings the same sort of bell as Robin Hood does to our schoolboys. He is a hero who belongs to a cycle of medieval folk songs; his battles are famous and he fears no one, not even old Charon, Death. Did he not, in the course of one of them, leap across from Asia Minor and leave his fingerprints on Pentadactylos, in Cyprus, before recovering his balance and leaping back?

Next morning the swollen-eyed headlines covered the front pages of the world press and in fits and starts the power-lines grew heavy with questions and answers, with telegrams and messages, the idle flickerings of the world's frontal brain; and the press corps began to swell.

Yet the morning, like some perfect deception, dawned fine, and nobody walking about the calm streets of the town, watching the shopkeepers taking down their shutters and sipping their morning coffee, could have told that some decisive and irrevocable action had taken place in the night; a piece of the land had broken away, had slid noiselessly into the sea. In a sense now there was no more thinking to be done. We had reached a frontier. From now it would be a question of hanging on. Such solutions as those we had dreamed about were all thrown into relief by the ugly shadow of impending insurrection. And yet everywhere there were doubts. The ordinary people of Cyprus went about their work with the same friendly good-manners, many of them genuinely shocked by the work of ~hotheads' and genuinely grateful when the Governor described them as 'law-abiding . I concluded that EOKA must consist of a small body of revolutionaries, unknown to the general public. Wren did not share this view. ''What would you say,= he said dryly, > if every sixth- form boy in every public school in England had signed this oath? ' His agents had brought in a new document.

YOUTH ORGANIZATION OF EOKA

Oath I swear in the name of the Holy Trinity that:

(1) I shall work with all my power for the liberation of Cyprus from the British yoke, sacrificing for this even my life.

(2) I shall perform without question all the instructions of the organization which may be entrusted to me and I shall not bring any objection, however difficult and dangerous these may be.

(3) I shall not abandon the struggle unless I receive instructions from the leader of the organization and after our aim has been accomplished.

(4) I shall never reveal to anyone any secret of our organization neither the names of my chiefs nor those of the other members of the organization even if I am caught and tortured.

(5) I shall not reveal any of the instructions which may be given me even to my fellow combatants.

If I disobey my oath I shall be worthy of every punishment as a traitor and may eternal contempt cover me.

                                    Signed
                                     EOKA

'Moreover,' he went on, ' there appeared to be plenty of bombs to go round - - we're scooping the stuff up all over the island. They seem mostly home-made; the village smithies appear to have been working overtime. It rather makes nonsense of your theory about innocent old rustics with straw in their hair toasting the queen. You can't organize these things overnight, you know.' He was right, of course, and events bore him out. As the nights shook and rumbled to the crash of grenades it became clear that, despite the amateurishness of execution (there was more broken glass than anything at first), the whole thing was part of a design. Situated as we were at the frail centre of the cobweb, we held our breaths and praised heaven for the inefficiency of these mosquito raids. They succeeded overwhelmingly in one thing, however, and that was the undermining of public morale. Here and there, too, among a hundred incidents of juvenile futility there was one which bore the pug-marks of something uglier - - the trained hand. Evidence began to come in of Cypriots having received paramilitary instruction somewhere outside the island - - in Greece. Rumour spoke of 'phased' operations which would be directed against the police to begin with, and added under its breath the words 'like Palestine'.

To the disorder and alarm of the night-hours were added further demonstrations and riots organized by the schools which were dealt with crisply enough - - but it was obvious that the police could not work right round the clock, chasing bombardiers all night and louts all day. The field of operations, too, lent itself to these harrowing tactics, for the labyrinth of warrens in the old town could hide a veritable army of bomb-throwers- - even military estimates indicated that it would take practically a Brigade to search it thoroughly in one operation. When it was cordoned off, piece by piece, malefactors could easily slip over from the Famagusta Gate to the Turkish Konak in a matter of minutes.

The public, too, always timorous and in this case deliberately sympathetic to the trouble-makers, became deaf and blind, prejudicing the course of justice by its silence - - which in the end could only lead to sterner measures by which the public itself would suffer. The perversion of justice was perhaps the most serious factor from the point of view of administration; Wren found it impossible to secure convictions against people unless caught in flagrante delicto. And then, the age groups to which these youthful terrorists belonged struck us as alarming. Moreover the moral pressure exercised by Athens radio, which went into raptures at every evidence of what it described as an open insurrection, was backed up by the local clergy whose public utterances reached new heights of bloodcurdling ferocity. The legal apparatus found itself grappling with new and disturbing formulations. Repressive measures would have to be taken; in what light would they be regarded by a world press already critical of our attitude to the question?

And then the police - - always the police; Wren's calm and measured assessments had been committed to paper and sent on their way; but how could they be 'implemented --with the best will in the world? And if things got worse would they not fall short of the requirements he now thought necessary?

The nights became stretched and tense, punctuated by the sullen crack of grenades and the roar of police traffic as Wren's forces raced to the incident in the vain hope of a capture. To the customary home-made grenades and Molotov cocktails was now added a new unpleasantness- - a bomb fitted with a time-pencil: a soul-destroying weapon in its effects on the morale of peaceful civilians. These at least were not home-made.

>Freedom is acquired only by blood," shrilled Athens radio. But whose blood? A bomb placed in a letter-box at the entrance to Nicosia Central Police Station went off while the street was still crowded with market-visitors and killed a Greek outright; sprawling among the wreckage on the sidewalk were thirteen injured Turks and Armenians. The shadow of communal reprisals grew bigger as the leader of the Turkish National Party warned the Greek community against any further outrage in the Turkish quarter. Bars, private houses, restaurants, graveyards - - a bewildering succession of pointless targets came up. The military sent in supporting patrols by night now to help Wren; road- blocks and searches began to mark off familiar thoroughfares. The patient taciturn soldiery now began to stop cars and lorries on the main roads to hunt for arms. . ..

And as if to echo the disorders of the towns the sleeping countryside now began to wake sporadically with intimations of more serious, more considered, operations conducted by bands which were both more informed and more resolute than the juveniles. It became clear that there were two sorts of enemy, a vast amorphous mass of secondary schoolboys whose task was bombing and pamphleteering and supporting public disorder - - and a group of mountain bandits whose task was to raid police stations, organize ambushes, and operate against the net of roads and telegraph wires which constituted the nervous system of the administration. They were dryly classified by Wren as the ' Junior and Senior Leagues=. To these he was later to add a third and final category - - >The Killers=, which could not have numbered above twenty or thirty, to judge by the later ballistics evidence which could point to one gun, say, as having been responsible for upwards often street killings. But all this was buried in futurity, still covered by the deceptive mask of a perfect spring, smothered in wild flowers and rejoicing in those long hours of perfect calm which persuaded all but the satraps that the nightmare had faded. The shopping centres would be deserted for half a day after an incident; and then people would slowly creep out again, wistfully breathing in the silent air, like animals snuffing the wind; and reassured, they would start to go about the hundred trivial tasks of the day which the automatism of ordinary life had made endearing, comprehensible - - containing no element of prediction. So they would open shutters, set out chairs, dust, combine and recombine their wares in familiar patterns, or simply sighing, bend vulpine features to the loved and familiar Turkish coffee which came swinging towards them on the little pendulum-trays of the waiters. And in these same daylight hours blond and brown soldiers walked the streets, chaffing their acquaintances among the townsmen and being chaffed in return - - and their wives rolled perambulators full of rosy children, about the market greeted everywhere by smiles and customary attentions. It was unreal. One has seen rabbits scatter like this at the report of a gun, only to re-emerge after half an hour and timidly come out to grass again - - unaware that the hunter is still there, still watching. Civilians have no memory. Each new event comes to them on a fresh wave of time, pristine and newly delivered, with all its wonder and horror brimming with novelty. Only in dull offices with electric light burning by day the seekers sat, doggedly listing events in order to study their pattern, to relate past and present, so that like stargazers they might peer a little way into the darkening future.

The village [Bellapais] was no less deceptive in its complete smiling calm - - the flowering cyclamen and the rows of glorious roses which Kollis tended so carefully; once more, as the engine died and the silence swelled up round me, my friends detached themselves one by one from the knots of coffee-drinkers under the great tree, to bring me messages whose familiarity restored in a moment the pattern in things which already Nicosia was slowly breaking down and dispersing; talk of carob-wood, lemon-trees, silk- worms, a new wine. Of the crisis hardly a word was said, save by the muktar whose responsibilities weighed so heavily upon him that he felt permitted to ignore the laws of tact. 'Aren't you afraid to come up here?' he said. 'Why should I be?" >Are you armed?' >No.' He sighed. >I will lend you a gun.' 'Against who - - Andreas or Mr. Honey?' He laughed heartily at this. >No. None of us would harm you. But people come here sometimes from outside, at night, in cars. Look!' On the wall under the Tree of Idleness' was written in blue paint: SLAVES BREAK YOUR CHAINS: LIBERTY OR DEATH. It seemed a poor place to choose for a recruiting centre, to judge by the statuesque devotees of indolence who sat there quietly enjoying a professional idleness.......

The days passed in purposeless riots and the screaming of demagogues and commentators; and the nights were busy with the crash of broken glass and the spiteful detonation of small grenades. The Turks began to get restive. Sabri's eyes darkened and flashed as he spoke of the situation. I had driven over on Sunday to collect some wood for the house. >How much longer are they going to tolerate these Greeks?' he demanded. The day before there had been a serious riot and he himself had turned back a mob of Turks bent upon setting fire to the Bishopric. (Sabri was a very gallant man: I once saw him dive fully clothed into Kyrenia harbour to rescue a Greek fisherman's child in difficulties.) 'The Turks would not tolerate it,' he said as he sat, unmoving among his perambulators. 'You must take sterner measures. Fines. Severe sentences. I know these people. I was born here. They will come to heel. We Turks know the way.' But of course the methods of 1821 were hardly possible to con- template today, and the Greeks knew it. If we had been Russians or Germans the Enosis problem would have been solved in half an hour - - by a series of mass murders and deportations. No democracy could think along these lines.

And then, how recognizable were the Cypriots of today from those of yesterday? That evening a Dutch journalist repeated to me a conversation he had had with a Greek consular official in which the latter said: 'To be honest we never thought the bastards would show fight. We never dreamed all this trouble would come about. We backed them up morally because we think their claim was just; but never materially, It's entirely a Cypriot show, and it has astonished us. Cyprus is like a man who has been told he is impotent for generations; suddenly he finds himself in bed with a lovely girl and discovers that he isn't - - he can actually make love! We thought it would be all over in a month, but now we think it will really go on.= He had forgotten, he said, that the quality of obstinacy was something which the Cypriots did not share with metropolitan Greeks. . . . And so on. True or false?

From all these fragmented pieces of the original life of Cyprus - - the quietness and certainty of ordered ways and familiar rhythms - - it was impossible now to assemble a coherent picture, even up at the Abbey where the coffee drinkers still sat, drenched in the Gothic silence and coolness of those idle afternoons, against a wall with its livid cartoons which urged them to throw off their imprisoning web of sleep and act.

But the shots which rang out on the afternoon before the London Conference opened should have dispelled any hopes I entertained of a dramatic and satisfactory solution to our troubles. The death of P.C. Poullis in the open street after a Communist rally, not only virtually put Wren's Special Branch out of commission, but later provided the Greeks with the first of the Enosis martyrs in the person of Karaolis, a mild well-mannered youth in the Income Tax department of the Government. The grotesque, the unreal, was rapidly becoming the normal. The hush of Cyprus, which had, for so many generations, been the calm unemphatic hush of an island living outside time but within the on boundaries of a cherished order, had changed: the hush of a new fear had gripped it, and the air was darkened with the vague shapes and phantoms of a terror which the Government could no longer dispel or hold at bay. The political liberty of the subject was a secondary consideration where one could not offer bare security of person in the open street. We were penetrated at every point; Security in the professional police sense had become as vague a term as the personal security of the subject. The six thousand civil servants themselves now began to feel the squeeze of the terror; an invisible pistol dogged them. There was no question of loyalties - - for everyone was loyal. But no informer could pass the barrier without being discovered and that meant death; conversely not to obey a terrorist command might also mean death. What was the position of a secondary schoolboy who had signed the EOKA oath and who one day found himself in a small room with three masked men who ordered him to place a time-bomb or commit a murder - - or else pay the priced The police depended upon Cypriots for intelligence; they were penetrated. In the administration it was the same. The Colonial Secretary himself had a Cypriot secretary - - devoted and loyal as she was. Secure confidence was everywhere prejudiced, and everywhere there grew the sensation of the walls closing in upon us.

But the key was finally turned upon Cyprus by the London Conference, where the Turkish attitude, which had now become as hard as a rock, could not be shifted by a degree; nor was anyone disposed to imitate Hannibal and try a little vinegar. My worst fears were realized, though here again I was guilty of misjudgement, for the Turkish case was not merely politically expedient to follow; it linked itself in other ways to pacts and agreements outside Cyprus, affecting the Arab world. Could one afford to cross Turkey? Either way we were confronted by a hedge of thorns. We had undermined the stability of Athens and indeed our whole Balkan position by an earlier refusal to take the Greek case on Cyprus seriously; we might, in any late attempt to unwind the spools of policy back to that point, unsettle the Turkish alliance, and prejudice the whole complex of Middle Eastern affairs in which this great Moslem power played such an important part . . .

September was another milestone on the road. >Since UNO has excluded any other means to regain our liberty,= read an EOKA pamphlet, distributed in Larnaca, >we have nothing else to do but to shed blood, and this will be the blood of English and Americans." The attacks on police stations sharpened. Rioting and the hoisting of Greek flags everywhere kept the police busy. The first terrorist murderer (Karaolis) was arrested and charged. The Executive Council sustained an irreplaceable loss in the resignation of Sir Paul Pavlides, whose good offices and un-self-seeking counsel had been invaluable up to now. He too could see no way forward. Achilles was nearly murdered by two armed men one morning as he drove to work; they opened up on him from either side of the car at a range of three feet, while he was stuck in the driving-seat unable to draw his Browning. It was a lucky escape. Renos Wideson's father, a magnificent and uncompromising old man who alone dared to say publicly what so many people thought - - that Enosis was all very well but could wait - - was nearly murdered by a gunman. (In all, three attacks were made on him to which he responded with great spirit. The fourth time he was shot dead at point-blank range.) To the alarms of the night were added the daylight terrors of the open street, where small groups of students patrolled on bicycles, suddenly opening fire with pistols. And yet between these incidents the calm, the good nature, of everyday life was restored as if from some fathomless source of goodwill, banishing the fear these incidents had created. The sun still shone; and in perfect September sunshine the yachts fluttered across the harbour-bar at Kyrenia, the groups of drinkers sat around the cafes in idle conversation. The whole thing had the air of some breathtaking deception. There was no way of matching the newspaper pictures of bodies lying in their own blood upon pavements crowded with shattered chairs and glass, with the serene blue of the Levant sky, the friendly sea rubbing its head upon the beaches like a sheep-dog. The casual visitor was always surprised to see men bathing now under the protection of rifles. Autres temps autres moeurs. I could not help reflecting wryly that had we been honest enough to admit the Greek nature of Cyprus at the beginning, it might never have been necessary to abandon the island or to fight for it. Now, it was too late!


From Bitter Lemons, by Lawrence Durrell (Marlowe & Co., 1996), pp. 180-188, 201-203, 207-208.