Maria (Chapter 9)
Posted by: Maria Atalanti
Published on: 31/10/2021Back to Blog
(This story is the product of fiction, and all characters are fictional; the historical elements included are real)
Nicosia 1888 – 1895
Antonios, apart from teaching at school, began to take part in the cultural life that appeared slowly – slowly in the city of Nicosia.
After the arrival of the British, the first newspapers began to be published, leading thus to the creation of the first printing press in Nicosia. This was founded by Pericles Michael ides in 1880. Specifically, Mr. Michael ides transferred the printing press he had in Larnaca, to Nicosia.
One of the first newspapers published in 1882 was the “Voice of Cyprus”. Antonios Philippou wrote frequently and tried to inform his compatriots on various issues, and mainly on the international currents and the position of Cyprus on the chessboard of the region.
Readers, who for centuries could not have any information and had lived far from the political and cultural developments of Europe, sucked every word, and tried to learn. The few educated people took on the role of the spiritual mentor for the inhabitants of Nicosia.
In 1891 the reading room “The Love of the People” was founded, which succeeded the reading room “Love” that had been founded in 1888 in the parish of Agios (Saint) Antonios. About the same period, “The Cyprus Association” was established. Here, the educated inhabitants of Nicosia gave lectures on various topics, such as “The results of the colonization of the Greeks in Asia”, “On Education”, “On Commercial Law”, “On Hygiene” and many more. The audience listened with admiration, and everything they heard had its weight and interest.
Antonios Philippou was an active member of these clubs and often made speeches trying to inform his fellow citizens. He saw that they were more enthusiastic about national issues and liked national paeans. They wanted to see Cyprus united with Greece, soon. He himself, who knew the facts and the forces that were pulling the strings, was trying to bring them down to earth and make them understand that Britain with the interests it had in the region was not going to consent and give self-determination to the Cypriots.
People often talk about the philhellenist of the many times Prime Minister of Britain, William Ewart Gladstone, especially after his support for the concession of the Ionian Islands to Greece in 1862 and his decision to allow the children in Cyprus to be taught in Greek. In other colonies, the children were taught in English. Antonios tried to explain to them that even this philhellenist would not go against the interests of his country and cede Cyprus to Greece. The concession of the Ionian islands was actually made because Britain no longer had any interests in the region, unlike Cyprus, for which British interests still existed.
Antonios saw that although the British had made many developing projects in the cities compared to the Ottomans and the place had begun to have the elementary for a country, nevertheless in the countryside the situation was still miserable. There were no roads, there was generally no infrastructure, and the farmers were still paying the tithe (one-tenth of their production in the State). Usury was spreading and only a tiny percentage of Cypriot farmers were not indebted to usurers. The guarantee they put in to get the loan was their own fields, and so those who could not pay, lost their properties. The same tragic conditions were for the workers, who worked from sunrise to sunset and were paid very little.
Antonios exhortation was to demand more justice and deeds for the place from the British and not to provoke them, for the time being, by asking for the union with Greece. In any case, the historical period of the colonies was nearing to its end and in one way or another, the British would leave Cyprus. But this scenario was not popular among his fellow citizens. However, Antonios was still saying his opinion, because he believed that this was the best for his country, under the prevailing conditions.
Among all these activities, Antonios did not forget Maria and the promise he had given her. He knew it was not easy to approach Mother Ayşe, especially because a man was not used to visiting a Muslim woman in private.
He had noticed that Master Suleiman had brought a second wife home, but they did not appear to have had any children. Furthermore, he also knew that the two women often quarrelled, mostly because of Fatma. He could hear them shouting to each other. Mother Ayşe sat almost daily in the garden and Antonios saw her from the hole of the fence, which had never been fixed. She had aged and looked overwhelmed.
One day, around 1895, he accidentally saw Evelyn McCain at an event at the school, to which the military commander of Nicosia and his wife had been invited. Seeing him after so many years, Mrs. McCain felt nervous. She knew he would ask her about Maria, and she took her most imperial style to answer him.
-Mary is very well, she told him. She had finished her studies at the University of London, and she is preparing to get married to a Lord. She is very happy, and her life is like a fairytale. Not only that, but she doesn’t even remember Cyprus. Soon we will leave with my husband for London to attend their wedding.
With the effort made by Mrs. McCain to embellish the situation, Antonios realized that something was wrong. To get more information, he asked her again.
-Will they live in London or in any other city in England?
Here he realized that it was the thorn that pierced Mrs. McCain’s heart.
-You know, she replied, her husband is a military man and will most likely live in the colonies. Probably in India.
-Could I give you a gift from me, for her wedding?
-But my dear Antonios, what gift could you send from here to a Lady? You don’t need to get anything. I will tell her that I have seen you and that you are sending your wishes.
And she moved away before Antonios could ask or suggest anything else.
After this meeting and the way Mrs. McCain treated him – he himself believed nothing about Maria’s alleged indifference – he decided that he had to step up his efforts to find out about her past.
The next day, he collected some figs and gave them to the maid of the next-door house to give to Mother Ayşe. The maid was surprised by this gesture, since almost no one spoke to them in the neighbourhood, let alone a Christian man.
Mother Ayşe responded positively and in turn sent him some oriental sweets. This exchange of gifts between them was repeated several times. In the end, Antonios asked the maid to forward to her lady his request to visit her, whenever she deemed it appropriate. The maid saw him with her mouth open, who dared to utter such a thing.
The answer did not come immediately, and Antonios was beginning to worry. He patiently waited ten days and one afternoon he saw the maid coming and knocking on his door.
-Mother Ayşe can see you now, she told him. Would you come?
-Immediately, Antonios replied.
Antonios would enter the Turkish house for the first time. It was obvious that master Suleiman and his wives were missing. That was why Mother Ayşe had called him today.
-She knows what she’s doing, he thought.
Despite her old age, mother Ayşe sat straight on the oriental sofa of the living room, and with one hand she held her walking stick.
-She is like a queen, thought Anthony, unlike her daughters-in-law.
Antonios bowed before her as a sign of respect. Mother Ayşe invited him to sit down and asked him directly in Turkish.
-Would you like to speak in Greek or Turkish?
-I didn’t know you can speak Greek, Antonios replied. We can speak in any language you wish. I speak fluent Turkish, if this makes it easier for you.
-I grew up in Paphos, she told him, and there everyone speaks Greek.
She immediately beat her hands and the maid appeared.
-Eminé, she told her, prepare coffees and sweets. And fast.
Eminé did not take long to return with the treats. She placed them on the low oriental table and left.
-Better to speak in Greek, said Mother Ayşe. That’s how Eminé, who is definitely overheating behind the door, will not understand.
Antonios was surprised by her comfort in the Greek language. She made no mistakes, like most Turkish Cypriots.
-I invited you to come today because my son and daughters-in-law are away. Except the fact it is terribly unusual for a Christian to visit a Muslim woman, even if she is an old woman like me, I am sure that what you want to ask me will be confidential. And to get you out of the inconvenience, I’m sure you want to know about Maria.
Antonios looked at her very surprised. This woman did not mince her words!
-You have really surprised me with your directness and insight, he told her. How did you know I would ask you about Maria?
-But Mr. Antonios, she said to him, did you ever believe that I had never understood what happened to the girl? – I prefer not to mention names because the maid will understand. – The girl was sleeping in my room and often spoke in her sleep, and her words were in Greek. This child did not know Greek. Someone should have taught her. And then I noticed the hole in the wall. I knew that next door a teacher was staying. It wasn’t hard to understand what was happening! Then her disappearance did not happen without anyone taking notice, as my son believed. I knew she was picked up by the English woman, who supposedly came to see the house.
-And why didn’t you speak? Antonios asked her, surprised.
-Because that’s what should be done, she replied. That was the right thing to do. But tell me, how is the girl? Is she well?
-She is fine, replied Antonios. As we speak, she is probably getting married to a Lord in London. A few days ago, I saw her English mother, who informed me about it. She is also very rich and an aristocrat.
-Ish Allah, Mother Ayşe invoked God with relief. That’s what she deserved.
Antonios was very confused with the turn of the conversation (he had come to ask questions himself and found himself answering questions). He did not even know to what extent he should inform Mother Ayşe about Maria. But then he thought, that where Maria was, she was not in danger from anyone.
At that moment they heard a noise and realized that Eminé was moving away from the door, she was hiding, listening, since she could not understand what they were talking about.
Mother Ayşe smiled.
-What I have told you, she continued. But she may come back. Let us be careful. Unfortunately, we don’t have much time because my son will return. I do not think that we will have time to say everything, we need to say, today. We will have to meet again. But today I would like you to talk to me about the girl and tell me what happened when she left our house.
Antonios began to tell her how the McCains adopted Maria, how they raised her as their daughter, how much she was educated, how she went to London and continued her studies, and now she is getting married to a Lord. He had to explain what Lord meant because it was the first-time mother Ayşe had heard this title.
While Antonios was speaking, Mother Ayşe’s eyes were running non-stop, and she was constantly whispering:
-Ish Allah (God is great)
Concluding his narration, Antonios added:
-And now, Mother Ayşe, I’d like you to answer a few questions for me. I had promised to the girl, when she was leaving Cyprus, that I would learn the story of her life and find a way to inform her about it. Why she had been called with a Christian name, in your house, and why she wore a cross. Everything indicates that she was a Christian. How did she find herself in your home? The questions are too many.
-I’m an old lady, and I’m tired, she replied. My son will come soon, and he shouldn’t find you here. We will meet again, and I will answer your questions. Now you must leave.
After this statement, Mother Ayşe stood up and called Eminé to help her return to her room.
Antonios left very disappointed. Not only, he did learn nothing, but he also gave all the information he knew about Maria.
The old lady is cunning, he thought. She has deceived me. She got all the information she wanted, without giving any. Now, how can I find a way to meet her again? She is also old, no one knows how long she will live. It was obvious that she wanted to hide something. Maybe she was not ready yet to reveal the secret. Would she reveal it before she leaves this life, would she?
That night, Anthony did not sleep. He was angry at himself for not negotiating the information he gave, with the those he wanted to get. On the other hand, Mother Ayşe seemed to love Mary and rejoice for the life she earned when she left their home.
The next day, in the morning, he got up before the sunrise and sat in his yard. He was looking at the flickering stars in the dark sky, and he was trying to see the message they were embroidering on the firmament. Slowly, the light began to be etched on the horizon of the east. Then he felt the hope in his heart arise.
-Nothing is finished, he thought. The dawn hasn’t come yet. But every day the sun rises from the beginning of the world and will rise until its end. I will learn the truth and bequeath it to my Maria!
Agnes Michaelides: “Chora”, the old Nicosia
Great Cyprus Encyclopedia
Photo: From the Internet, Collection of Nicosia Municiipality ( a road in the old town of Nicosia)