Notes from Lapta, Cyprus – Never Judge a Book by its Cover! by Ken Dunn

Asil Nadir has a large house in Lapta, he of the former Poly Peck Empire which collapsed some years ago. It’s not far away from our place and everyone knew when he was ‘at home’ by the presence of three large, black Mercs parked outside and the several ‘heavies’ who stood around, all dressed in black, wearing black ‘shades’ and checking every movement outside the substantial gates to his domain.

On one day in the late 80’s I drove down from our place, and took the route passing his house, for a few last minute bits of shopping in Girne before we were due to fly back to the UK the following day. Before I reached the main coast road, I spotted the same three black Mercs in the rear view mirror which gradually drew up behind me. He, Asil, was on the move but in which car!

I pulled out onto the main road and they followed but then deployed into an extraordinary driving mode. The lead car followed me at a sensible distance. The second car moved to the crown of the road. The third car moved and remained on the edge of the road. I realised, much later, that this was classic defensive driving, each driver having a clear view in front and behind of any potential threat. At the time it seemed weird, with me ‘pootelling’ along in front of this lot all the way into Girne!

No attempt was made to overtake me but, being in an elderly Renault 9, I was not feeling particularly happy. Eventually I turned down into town and they drove on, presumably on their way to Lefkoşa. That was one of my most nervous journeys!

The following morning we arrived at Ercan very early, and braced ourselves for the chore of getting into the departure lounge and then onto the plane. As usual it took just under two hours to enter the lounge, buy a couple of cups of coffee and sit down, ready and waiting for the maelstrom, oh, joy, of trying to get onto the aircraft.

It was a particularly busy morning. Several flights were due to leave within the next hour and the lounge was crammed full of folk, all of us resigned to the pushing and shoving to come before the exit doors opened. A short while later a tall individual materialised in front of us and asked if the unoccupied chair next to my wife was free. We both nodded in a mild state of shock.

He must have been well over six feet tall, dark complexion, dark, sleeked back hair, black patent leather shoes, immaculately cut black leather trousers and jacket with a black shirt, black tie and black, wrap-around sunglasses. He was just like a two legged, tall wallet! Undoubtedly a Turk, my thoughts raced back to the three Mercs which had followed me from Lapta the day before.

Forgive the language but my next thought was, ‘Oh, bugger! What now!’ He smiled, nodded to both us, dropped his matching black leather hand luggage and sat down, extracting a Turkish newspaper from within his jacket, opened it, crossed his leather clad legs and began to read. We exchanged glances and couldn’t help exhaling. So far, so good. Fifteen minutes later the gate opened for the flight to Heathrow and the standard scrum for the exit doors began. ‘Mr Black’ strode over to the gate behind us and, to our surprise, kept others at arms length to allow us through first. ‘Thank you,’ my wife smiled. He grinned, gave a short bow and said, ‘My pleasure.’

The whole point of relating this is how easy it is to get the wrong idea about someone. He was, in fact, a complete gentleman, continuing to follow us onto the plane and making sure we, apart from anyone else, were settled into seats we were happy with. He had nothing to do with old ‘Asil’, being an independent businessman who moved back and forth between the TRNC and Turkey. So, I move to my next example of the unexpected in the TRNC.

In the early 80’s we had never attempted the climb, or rather the drive, up to Buffavento (Wind Defying or Buffeted by the Winds), the central one of the three ‘crusader’ castles along the mountain range of the TRNC. Two good friends of ours, who had been living in Girne for some time, took us there on a bright Saturday morning. The drive was, and I think still is, quite ‘hairy’, the road being extremely narrow in places and often impossible for two cars to pass, a sheer drop beckoning on the left for most of the way up. But we arrived, parked below the Castle and began to make our way up the hundreds of very steep steps to the top.

There was some activity about half way up which turned out to be a squad of Turkish troops busily sweeping and cleaning the stepped access. We found out later that they had been there a day before, tidying up from the bottom and were now well on their way to the top, climbing the steep, concrete staircase, bagging and collecting the detritus left behind by numerous tourists. I did wonder why they hadn’t started at the top and worked their way down, that would have been easier, wouldn’t it? But being a mere Brit that was probably a stupid thought.

Now, these guys were quite fearsome, all in uniform and mostly of the huge variety. Yet they flattened themselves against the rocks to allow us to pass, asking, ‘Deutch?, Francais? Ingiliz?’ and several other singular terminologies for other nationalities. ‘English!’ we answered and broad grins swept over all their faces followed by ‘Tamam! Tamam!!’ Bizarre.

We arrived at the top a few minutes later and took in the view. It was quite spectacular. Kantara Castle could been seen in the far distance on the spine of the mountain range in the east and St. Hilarion Castle stood high to the west, looming above Girne. We savoured those few moments before the tramp of army boots grew closer, the squad had returned. They emerged from the stone steps and shuffled menacingly towards us, sweating profusely, it was very hot. They stood a few feet away, studying all of us carefully. The black plastic bags full of rubbish they carried fell to the ground in multiple thuds. The shovels and brushes they carried held horizontally in both hands. A tricky moment. What was going to happen next?

These guys were hardened soldiers, not to be messed about with. It didn’t look good. Then, from behind them, a figure emerged through this khaki clad gang. He was a Captain in the Turkish Army, a wide grin on his face and carrying a case of Cocoa Cola. ‘Please…, drink!’, he said, opening and holding out a few bottles towards us.

Well, the cola wasn’t cold but warm, but that didn’t matter. The rest of the squad helped themselves and then, for the next half hour or more we were implored to stand with them, to have our photographs taken by the Captain himself, the Med in the background, six or seven of them with us at a time and within a couple of feet of a sheer drop! No safety rails in those days! Cartoon language came to the fore as we didn’t have much Turkish and they, bless them, had no ‘Ingiliz’! But we communicated in the best way we could and consumed several bottles of cola. They then insisted on escorting us back down to the car, our hands being taken by these guys, for safety reasons, on the steep descent back down. Every single one of them waved and waved as we drove off. Magic!

Then and now, they are not the monsters suggested by a number of sad, disgruntled and misguided individuals, southerly based. They are human beings, maybe a little naïve about our ‘western’ way of life, but since they have been in the TRNC peace has reigned. Before 1974 it never did.

These days the visible military presence has reduced dramatically, not only in large numbers but in the way the Turkish Army have relaxed the need for their soldiers to wear their full uniform while off duty. Many of the soldiers based in the TRNC can be seen wandering around Girne and Lefkoşa in ‘mufti’ and in small groups, queuing up at cash dispensers, window shopping or ambling slowly around enjoying the sights, just as we do. I for one am glad they’re still here.

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