Our first foray to Cyprus brought us 24 hours of firsts – the first time we have gotten lost as a couple, the first time eating deliciously crunchy fried haloumi cheese (yum) – and the first time in what can only be described as a colonial-style British hotel (despite the fact that the Brits have (officially) been out for decades). But it was also the first time, but not likely the last, that our hearts broke a bit for someone we met…and in this case, the heartbreak was as a result of meeting a fine and friendly young gentleman named Ali.
Now, Turkey is full of men named Ali, but this Ali – the lone man on the farthest tip of the Karpaz peninsula in off-season November – is not a Turk. This 24-year-old Ali, he is from Islamabad, Pakistan. Fluent in Urdu and English as well as Turkish, he has been here at Burhan’s Golden beach for four years – and plans to stay one more year.
In exchange for a lump sum seasonal fee as well as room (very basic) and board, he works 24 hours a day if need be – of course, he sends his income home to his family in Islamabad. His parents are, he explained, too old and sick to work, and he gave up his studies at Near East University to come here so that his sisters and brother could have a chance at making it through college. He is likely the eldest son. Hacivad bey the learned Sufi elder puppet nods his silent agreement that this indeed must be so.
Clearly starved for human interaction, his bright smile and open friendly face took a bit of time to open – it’s been a while since he saw people. His closest friend, a Turkish man who watches the other simple hotel on the beach about 1/4 mile away, is visiting his family on the mainland. Kind and attentive to a fault, Ali apologized that the cook was off and that all he could offer was fried food. We placed our bets on köfte (a spiced meat patty) and French fries and he seemed relieved. He did manage to find the makings of a tomato and cabbage salad (delicious), more fried haloumi cheese, cacık (cucumber-yoğurt) and olives. Even Kenne, queen of manners and all things proper, was pretty impressed.
I almost asked M. whether we should ask Ali to join us – but before I could eke out the words, Mercan Bey the Arabian spice trader puppet quietly stepped forth onto the plasticated tablecloth in his mustard yellow robe and pronounced “M’lady, I have, as you know, travelled far and wide in these parts. I can tell you with an ancient certitude that this gentleman will never sit down with you both, it just is not done. Don’t put him in that position, please, and please take no offense at my bold words.” I immediately saw his logic and blushed. My Americanisms are hard to shake at times.
So there Ali sits, ending his day with a few hours of Turkish television after digging new ditches for the spring rains and scrubbing the kitchen back into a fierce shine. It is a typical story of migrant labor, nothing new or special about it – although I would like to think that all individuals are special. At least he isn’t in the migrant labor horror camp that is found in places such as Abu Dhabi or Dubai – Cyprus alone on a beach may be bad, but must beat mass exploitation, I surmised.
The next morning, Ali served up a perfect Turk kahvaltı (breakfast) and we spoke a bit more. “Will you return to college when you go home next year?” I asked, hopefully. “No, college, it is too late for me – my life is work now, I must support my family now.” Nodding our heads in understanding, I pressed him just a bit further (Kenne says: “like a nosy auntie, shame!”). “Do you think you will have a family of your own?” I queried. “Oh yes. I have a fiancé, she is a dentist in Pakistan – her father and brother live in the U.S. to support the family, but I will remain in Islamabad…she’s my cousin, I guess people look badly on that, marrying your cousin, but we think it works well, to keep the family bond strong – I think the Turkish people don’t do that, though.”
Moving to safer conversational territory, M. asked how on earth he avoided the Emirates or Saudi Arabia, for example, for work – how did he end up at a hippie beach camp on the far eastern tip of Cyprus? “I didn’t go through a broker – my friends were here – they said it is a good country that is not bad to live in and that I could work in restaurants or a chips factory – and that’s what I did. When the restaurant in Girne/Kyrenia closed, the owner there sent me to his friend, Burhan, who runs this place. And I’ve been here ever since. I make a lump sum for 7 months ($5,250 U.S. plus $500 in tips) and then work elsewhere on the island for 5 months – I’m leaving on Monday for my winter job.” Hopping up to clear our plates, he left us with a gracious but sad-eyed “enjoy your day” and bustled off to the kitchen, leaving us with much to ponder. “He has a job, Liz,” M. reminded me, “it’s exploitation but it could be much worse.”
Trite as it may sound, meeting Ali and spending some time with him was bittersweet and in the end made us actively value our freedom and privilege more acutely. Sitting here in our comfy warm bed by the sea at 7 pm, we are bathed in fluorescent light that is but a pinprick in the pitch dark that descended 2 hours ago. The Mediterranean wind blows a fierce swath through the pines and juniper trees. The waves are crashing 200 meters from our cabin. It is a spotless, clean and sparse place – our kind of place way out in the middle of nowhere. But it is tinged with a bit of melancholy for me. And this is just what I love about travel, days like today help me to, as my students say, “keep it real.”