Breaking down national narratives

The research project ‘Songs of My Neighbours’ came to an end last month; the collaborative initiative aspired to facilitate dialogue and social justice among communities living in conflict zones through the arts and theatre.

The process involved two years of research into stripping national narratives to their core through a collaborative initiative carried out in Cyprus, Italy and Poland.

On the surface, the EU-funded project consisted of listening and singing songs of the “other” and attempted to answer a single question:

“If I sing the songs of my neighbour, who lives in my country and with whom I am in conflict; will there be a change in our relationship?’”

Though ostensibly a mere collection of traditional songs, Diomedes Koufteros, one of the project co-ordinators, explains that the melodies reinforce tradition and hold a substantial amount of information about communities’ wishes, history and culture.

Through this discovery, the initiative gradually took a wider scope.

Having exchanged songs and stories during the process of artistic research, the material which the groups gathered led to an array of activities in the form of theatrical productions, workshops, screenings, symposia and the creation of a platform for arts performances across the three countries.

Cultural activities developed simultaneously in the other two partner countries of the project, which Cyprus led and coordinated. The narratives predominantly focus on the following identities: Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots, Polish and Jewish people and Italians and Roma.

Having spoken to Koufteros at the beginning of the project two years ago, the multicultural aspect was clear from the beginning.

“It’s not only Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots, there are people from other communities in Cyprus sharing songs, like Armenian Cypriots, Maronite Cypriots and refugees from other countries; songs from the region such as Persia, Egypt, Greece and so on,” Koufteros said at the time.

Anyone who has attended any of the ‘Songs of my Neighbours’ events, or has come into contact with the vision of the project can respect their attempt to break national narratives, another driving force behind the initiative.

Looking back on Koufteros’ words in 2013, the acknowledgement and thus the projection of simple, everyday stories, whether told through songs or rhetoric was sought for.

“On each side, I think that what happens is that we talk about our own pain and not about the other side’s pain. The official histories of Cyprus and the nation are very different [on both sides]… but also, often, they don’t include the history and experience of the normal people, the everyday people. [Authorities] want to create a single narrative and both sides have stuck to that. One thing that this project is doing is breaking this single story,” Koufteros had said. Today, the team behind the project can attest to having succeeded this.

The beginning of the end

The closing of the project took place in Limassol, in an event purposely tagged as a symposium, where the underlying meanings and the coming together of at least two years of work took form in a performance, plus video projections and tours of the old city.

In a festive atmosphere, the closing ‘lunch’ purveyed the essence of the project, that of bringing people together on a humanistic level and sharing what we all know in a projection towards peace.

“We thought about a symposium in both senses of the word. The actual sitting down and talking, the conference-style symposium, but also the syn-posio, drinking and eating together, the actual original definition of the word,” explained Koufteros. “As a way to say ‘it’s over and then what?’” he admits.

The stories conveyed through the nal performance indeed gave notions of what actually happened in each participating country, but admittedly, being a project funded by the European

Union, looking into the European added value was also present: What do projects like this mean for Europe and for European citizenship?

Here, notions of how we are reaching closer to calling ourselves Europeans rather than let’s say

Cyprus nationals or Italians or any nationality came into being.

In retrospect, and from a personal point of view perhaps, Koufteros reveals that besides the initial aims of the project, the initial design that was followed, identity was most probably one of the strongest underlying matters which was manifested, and in a way, deconstructed.

“One of the things that came out of this project which was new to me was that I don’t like identity anymore… I don’t like identity as a discussion, as a limitation, because identity tells you that you cannot be a glass and a cup; it tells you that you have to choose what you are and I think that throughout the whole project this kept nagging at me…

“Finally I figured out that it’s not either or, and so I started seeing the term identity as being oppressive; having to be one word, one term,” he reflects.

“And if this project has taught me anything it’s that I (and all of us) can be many things. I can be Cypriot, I can be Nicosian, I can be Greek-speaking,

I can also perceive myself as being from a Hellenic descent as many people in Cyprus do, but at the same time I can say that I’m a Turkish Cypriot, I can say that I’m a Turkish speaker, I can say that my mother tongue is Armenian and

I can still be a number of these things without having to exclude the other.

“I don’t have to be a Greek Cypriot to be speaking Greek. I don’t have to be a Greek Cypriot to be Cypriot,” he adds.

What comes next

In a nutshell, stripping oneself from tagging their being as a specific identity is what Koufteros believes is the ‘European identity’.

“That’s how I imagine it and how I want to be; this may be too romantic or naive to some, but I’ve come a full circle from where I was ready to defend my identity and my right to say ‘I am this’, to say, ‘hold on, there is the issue of subjectivity’, how do I define myself in terms of others, in terms of relations, and how can this change, and it’s fine to change,” says Koufteros.

What now remains of this project – besides the books, the documentaries, the symposia, performances and people’s feedback – is, in Koufteros’ eyes, the small live moments shared between people.

“In terms of the core of the project itself, in our case, what remains is speaking to the other, or approaching the other, finding out things about yourself in terms of approaching the other,” says Koufteros. “It wasn’t only about going to talk to people and seeing what happened, there was also this internal process of what our practices are, what we want from these, who gives us the right to call them our ‘other’ and define them?” he adds.

“Where we succeeded, I think and that’s what remains is creating relationships, is having contact with people, it wasn’t only this highbrow discussions on peace and the arts or even the lowbrow, it was the actual act of sitting down together at a table and having coffee or being offered food, or being offered a dessert, or sharing a song…

“Sharing a song was a pretext really, in many cases there was not even a song shared, but it was a good excuse to come and say ‘hey, we have this project and we’re collecting these songs’ … and then all of a sudden you have a story of someone you didn’t know before. It was down to the cellular level of things, beyond ideology, outside politics,” concludes Koufteros.

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About Melissa Hekkers

I am freelance journalist and author, who has frequently been featured in mainstream news outlets and other publications in Cyprus. Recently, I've been focusing on developing my writing, promoting my own books and teaching creative writing to children and adults. My most recent publication (2020) - Amir's Blue Elephant- pushes the boundaries of creative non-fiction, and recreates the moments that marked me the most, whilst volunteering in refugee camps in Lesvos, Greece, and during her ongoing involvement with the refugee community in Cyprus. In 2018 I published My Capre Greco Mandala which is the third in a series, an interactive colouring book about the biodiversity of the Cape Greco peninsula in Cyprus. My Akamas Mandala, the second in the series, is a colouring book inspired by the variety of endemic plants found on the Akamas Peninsula. In 2016, I published My Nicosia Mandala, the first of the above series, an innovative, interactive colouring book about the historic fortifications of the old town of Nicosia. I also focuses on silenced communities in Cyprus: I writes about migrants and refugees, both as a reporter and a features writer; I profile them and teach them creative writing skills. In 2007, soon after graduating with a Communications degree, I published my first children’s book in both English and Greek entitled Crocodile, which won the Cyprus State Illustration Award. In 2012, I launched my second children’s book Flying across Red Skies (in English and Greek), using an experimental approach to literature, for which I was nominated for the Cyprus State Literary award. My third, similarly well-received children’s book was Pupa (Greek and English), published in 2014. In between the last two books, I published my first free-verse poetry book entitled Come-forth. In 2019 she was contributing author to the anthology Nicosia Beyond Barriers: Voices from a Divided City, published by Saqi Books, London