Differences that bind us together

  • #Abidinideas
  • Friday, 18 Oct 2019

CYPRUS was not on my list of countries to visit, but a beautiful destination wedding enabled the enjoyment of its rehabilitative waters, sublime pink sunsets, unfailingly fresh seafood and surprisingly unique history.

As a bonus, there were gorgeous cats lazing about everywhere, expecting (and succeeding) to be fed by tourists.

Most people know that the island is politically split into two parts: the northern part (recognised only by Turkey since their invasion in 1974) and the southern part (which is where the entity recognised by the rest of the world is in control). Nicosia remains the world’s last divided capital.

But there is another sovereign power on the island – the United Kingdom, which maintains two Sovereign Base Areas retained after its decolonisation of Cyprus in 1960 after 82 years as a protectorate (like the Federated Malay States) and crown colony (like Penang and Singapore).

From the long waterfront in Paphos, one can occasionally see military aircraft from the Royal Air Force based in Akrotiri punctuating the tourist-packed commercial jets.

Although the dominant cultural influence is Greek – at least in Paphos – there is a clear British presence.

Vehicles are driven on the left side of the road (instead of on the right as in the rest of Europe) and the vast majority of tourists are from the UK, a fact that contributes to the continued presence of British retail brands on the island.

The one obvious visual deviation was the display of signs written in Chinese outside some residential developments offering permanent residency for investment.

The island was part of the Ottoman Empire for 300 years but in this southwestern corner of the country, evidence was limited, with some ruins of baths and accounts of how the Turks used the pre-existing castle and lighthouse.

I did discover, however, that on the other side of the island in Famagusta, there is a truly unique building – the Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque, originally a Gothic cathedral built by the French House of Lusignan, who reigned as kings of Cyprus (and claimed the kingship

of Jerusalem too) in the 14th century.

The Ottomans turned it into a mosque, adding a minaret to the original structure which results in a weird juxtaposition between the visual and the theological. (I suspect it would send some religious conservatives in Malaysia into apoplexy.)

The more famous example of a cathedral that became a mosque is in Andalusia, of course, and from Europe’s easternmost country I flew to Portugal, its westernmost country, where Moorish influences can still be found.

I wrote about my first trip to Lisbon in 2016, featuring a visit to the Central Mosque, where the marble floor is a gift from Turkey and the mihrab announces its Iranian origins – a marriage of Sunni and Syiah traditions in the first mosque built in Portugal since 1492.

Then there are the Portuguese translations of Quranic verses including the Latinate Deus – another potential source of rage for people who routinely use Malay words of Portuguese origin like garpu, mentega, keju, bendera, sekolah and minggu.

But on this trip, I learnt from an enterprising and articulate tour guide on a tuk-tuk that the old Moorish quarter Alfama, from which Muslims were expelled during the Reconquista, is now home

to many Muslim migrants from African countries (even if Portugal’s former African colonies do not have large Muslim populations).

He was also particularly excited to show and describe the ruins of the Roman theatre, descended in style and purpose from the Greek odeon I saw in the Unesco heritage site at Paphos.

Here, the relevance of the Greco-Roman heritage shared by Cyprus and Portugal on the opposite sides of the continent came into focus,

for it is one of the ingredients that enabled the creation of the European Union, apart from the desire to prevent another catastrophic war.

Portugal, then ruled by a fascist government, was neutral during the Second World War, even though my tour guide pointed out that the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance is the oldest surviving alliance in the world (though this is disputed by those who argue that the Auld Alliance between France and Scotland is still in force).

On my last day in the town where the treaty to constitutionally create the European Union was signed, I visited a temporary Banksy exhibition.

One prominent work was a mural that originally appeared in Dover after the UK voted to leave the EU. It shows one of the stars depicted on the EU flag being smashed and as I rounded off this trip to the UK, Cyprus and Portugal, I wondered how local and foreign influences would shape Malaysia and Asean in centuries to come.

Tunku Zain Al-’Abidin is founding president of Ideas. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.
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Tunku Zain , Cyprus , Portugal


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