Konuk Yazar, 28 Nisan 2004

Marina Parisinou


On The Way To Our Ithaca

On The Way To Our Ithaca
April 13, 2004
Oakland, California

The looming decision is weighing heavy on every Cypriot mind the world over. It's a difficult decision, possibly the hardest one most of us have ever had to make. And the accompanying emotions are for the most part not easy to deal with: anxiety, frustration, uncertainty, disappointment, insecurity, anger, dismay, fear, hesitation...

I will not be able to come home to vote but I felt that the honest and responsible thing to do, at least towards myself, was to take a stand, to decide what I would have done had I been in Cyprus. What would I have voted?

I've been sitting on the fence for a long time pondering, agonizing, wrestling with the issues. As I started climbing off it, I found it hard to lay my feet on comfortable ground. The lines were being drawn, people were split into two distinct "camps": the Yes camp, the No camp. Are you a Yes or a No, a friend asked. Being a Maybe-for-the-time-being didn't seem like an option.

I have watched this process take hold in my host country, the US, since Sep 11, 2001, and it's not a pretty sight. As the words "You're either with us or with the terrorists" were uttered, polarisation set in. You had to choose sides. Maybe's, in-between or third opinions, shades of grey could not be accommodated.

Polarisation is divisive and unproductive. It turns dialogue into confrontation, it breeds mistrust and animosity, it replaces meaningful arguments with barbs, sound bites and slogans, it converts interlocutors into enemies. Communication breaks down and people retreat into their corners; the gap between them becomes inhibiting and swallows up anything constructive.

One of the most precious gems of Greek poetry, Cavafy's Ithaca exhorts us as follows:

When you set out for Ithaca,
ask that the journey be long,
full of adventures, full of things to learn...
Have Ithaca always in your mind.
Your destination is to arrive there;
but do not hurry your journey in the least.
Better that it may last for many years,
that you cast anchor at that island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will give you wealth;

Ithaca gave you the splendid journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing more to offer.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
You have acquired such wisdom, so much experience,
that you will have already realized what these Ithacas mean.

(Translation from The Penguin Book of Greek Verse, edited by Constantine A Trypanis)

April 24 is our Ithaca. We will have arrived there after a long journey fraught with traps and doubts.

What the Annan plan prescribes is in black-and-white (literally!). The decision on that part, if not easy, is relatively straightforward. The implications of the plan are not as hard-and-fast. The consequences of our actual vote are even more ambiguous. Definitive answers can only be provided by crystal balls or hindsight neither of which are available to us at this moment in time.

Through these murky, rough waters we have to navigate to a decision: a Yes or a No.

Ultimately that doesn't matter; it's the journey that counts.

The road will have been long and full of knowledge. We will have learnt much about the finer points of federal laws and constitutions; we will have enriched our vocabulary with such words as "derogations" and discovered hitherto little-discussed parts of our country's history.

But by far the most valuable knowledge we will have acquired is about our own selves. Through our struggle to get to a decision we will have discovered what we really value in life, what the limits of our comfort zone are, how we react when we are pushed beyond them, how we tolerate uncertainty, how we deal with adversity.

Or will we?

Who will we be on Apr 24? What will our Ithaca look like?

Ithaca will not be a utopia. Whether the Yes's or the No's win the day, we are all aware that the solution will be far from ideal.

How we got to that final verdict will be just as important as the word that we write on our ballot on April 24. The end result will be just as much a function of the process we've chosen to get there as of the actual word.

There's a whole host of factors that are out of our control. Foreign powers, for whom we, the common folks, are no match have designs over our country that are not necessarily aligned with our own best interests. Unless their needs are served to an extent, we cannot move forward. It's not fair but so many things in life are not fair, they just are the way they are and there is so much we can do about it.

So, we have to struggle between principles and pragmatism to find an acceptable compromise.

However, one thing we have total control over is our own conduct. We can choose how to handle the journey!

Will we form our opinions by following blindly the call of others - our party leaders, our friends - unwilling to abandon the herd? Will we submit to every rumour out there and the abundant scare-mongering? Will we close our ears to opposing views and call the supporters of the opposite camp names - traitors or extremists? Will our decision be based on our own personal interest (what's in it for me)? Will we arrive at Ithaca polarised, with entrenched, individualistic ideas, resentful, jaded, feeling victimised?

If we do, our worst fears will most likely come true. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the No's will find that a Yes vote is disastrous as our "defeat" will lay heavy on our minds preventing us from working through the difficult parts of implementation, resenting those that sold out our country. The Yes's will resent the victory of a No vote and will give up trying to take another step forward but will quickly remind the No's that the foreigners who warned us of the consequences were right.

And even if our side has "won", we'll revel in our "victory" not realising how much we've lost on the journey.... Regardless of the outcome, our country will be divided because we will be divided as people.

But what if we choose a different path?

What if we make our decision with an open mind, what if we consider different points of view, try to understand them and respect them even if in the end we still don't agree with them? What if we admit that nobody can know for sure the implications of a Yes or No vote and acknowledge that we're just following our best guess? What if our disagreements are gracious, our discussions and arguments passionate but civilised? What if we choose to listen to other people but also check the facts for ourselves? What if we think of the common good even if it means sacrificing some of our individual advantages? What if we make our decision using the best part of our head while staying true to our hearts and accept that those with opposing views may be doing the same?

We will not find Ithaca poor.

Whether our vote is that of the majority or not, whether it's a Yes or a No, whether the plan is adopted with all its shortcomings or whether no solution is reached, we will have gained something big.

We will have grown into responsible citizens and have developed community spirit. We will have taken a step closer to becoming a mature democratic society that commands respect in the world and can better handle the implications of its decisions however adverse. We will be able to join hands with those who disagreed with us, and accepting the democratic will of the majority, work together for the common goal: the betterment of our country, making the most of whatever situation we find ourselves in.

Who will we be on Apr 24? What will our Ithaca look like? What will our Cyprus be like? What will we have taught our children during the journey? It's for us to choose.

Note: This article was published in Cyprus Weekly, reproduced here by the author's permission/request.

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