Home & Apart: Spatial Justice in ‘Women of Cyprus’

Originally published at Critical Legal Thinking June 22, 2011

By 

On the 16th of June 2011, the Westminster International Law & Theory Centre hosted the London premiere of Women of Cyprus, a documentary directed by Vassiliki Katrivanou and Bushra Azzouz, followed by a discussion with the first director. The film tries to capture the voices and feelings of women both sides of the 1974 Cypriot partition, namely the North (Turkish) side and the South (Greek) side. The main focus of this moving film turned out to be the home and its conceptualisations both as a nationalist strategy and a personal feeling, namely as a geopolitical line and a corporeal affect.

The film and the ensuing discussion amply show that the two conceptualisations of home cannot easily be told apart. We witness for example how, in the 2004 UN referendum on the proposed reunification of the island, the Greek side government used the concept of home as the main symbol of safety for the (Greek) land posed against the potential threat of a Turkish invasion. The material aspect of home, its walls and fences, becomes a hardened geopolitical line that speaks directly to the bodies of the Greeks: indeed, the argument against the reunification was a feeling, namely fear of the other side. Likewise, when the referendum results of the Greek side were revealed to be overwhelmingly against reunification, the Northern Cypriot Turkish women interviewed in the film would not hide the fact that they took it not so much as a national but as a personal wound: a body branding as it were, with a thickset OXI (“no”) that perpetuated their exclusion from a land which, at least for some, used to be and still is thought of as home. Bodies here, homes there, thrown apart by a barbed wire that keeps on prickling skins and walls.

One can cross the wire, provided that two conditions are satisfied: the first, strictly geopolitical and seemingly innocuous, is to show one’s passport at the border control. The second, directly linked to the first, necessitates a great deal of defiance: the one that crosses even for a brief visit risks being called a traitor by one’s peers. The film begins with a Greek woman crossing over in order to “return” briefly to her “home” namely the place she grew up and from where she was exiled after the partition. When faced with the Turkish residents now living there, her body is defensive to the point of aggression, her face full of claiming emotion, her language bitter. When, however, interviewed later while sitting on an armchair presumably in her present home, she assumes a correct discourse of spatial and emotional balance: it is no one’s fault. She is a well-educated woman and the discourse is academic. Once again, an affect and a strategic discourse (this time sympathetically used) that co-exist without annulling each other. The film records her moment of affective transgression, when she caresses the face of a young Turkish settler (settlers came from Turkey and are in some ways the underclass of both native Turkish and Greek Cypriots). This gesture bravely legitimises the settler and crosses a taboo line that later caused her considerable opprobrium, as the director put it during the discussion.

Later on, we are presented with another kind of home: not just the place where one is born and takes one’s first steps, as one woman in the film says, but home as a utopian ideal. Also perpetuated by nationalist tendencies, this longing for home looks out, onto the other side, to a place beyond reach and therefore already lost. Home is a place of no return, which for some women represented the paradise on earth – especially the North side which is still unspoiled and whose natural beauty surpasses that of the South side. Once again, however, a woman immersed in nostalgia, talked about a feeling: nowhere else does she feel calmer than “there”, namely the other side. Yet, her body remains firmly situated on the South side, vociferously voting “no” at the reunification referendum.

We know of course that this is the essence of biopolitics: the use of the body and its affects in order to cement political sovereignty. But this film points to something else which I think is more important and which comes out so clearly because this is a film on thewomen of Cyprus. Every conceptualisation of home, however felt, lived, remembered, reminded, related, constructed, instrumentalised, is a direct connection between the body and the law. The body desires, and the law channels such a desire. The women were claiming the law as a way to come out of their nostalgia, either in order to move beyond the traditional notions of what home is, or to return to what they always thought as their home. The women in the film embrace the law as a corporeal right just as they embrace each other tightly; they chop the law to pieces and serve it at lunch with people from the other side; they step on it to cut lemons from what used to be their own garden; they ask the law for a pardon, a gesture of reconciliation. The law is not simply the law of property that distributes or the right to vote at the referendum, but an embodied affect, a feeling formed in the space between the caressing hand and the stones around it: I belong here. For the woman in the film, the law is luminous and bituminous at once, less a tool for power as it would perhaps be in a male version of the film, and more an affect.

The law is used by both sides in order to deal with the impossible: that both you and I want to be at the same place at the same time. Our body contours want to occupy precisely the same space, whether this is material or constructed: your home is my home. This is the gash of spatial justice: wanting to be at the same place, the same time. Home is where desire is, not just walls and rooms but the movement of a body and the space around it. The body is formed by the space, the space is formed by the body. Home is made of skin and tar.

There was a moment in the film where spatial justice seemed within reach – a justice not to come but right here, populating and opening up the space. A Turkish Cypriot woman crosses over to the South side and is welcomed by a Greek family now living in her previous home, physically hugging her and making her feel “at home”. They were both making somewhat grandiloquent claims, conceding at least emotional property of the home to each other: it is your home, no it is your home. Both parties were retreating from the here of the home. Yet at the same time, they were rather amusingly suggesting that they could essentially occupy the empty house next door, and make it her new/old home. A little gesture of withdrawal from the law, a going-against the law and an opening up of a space of justice right here, next to the lawful property. In withdrawing from the given law, spatial justice claims a space that transgresses the barbed wire and brings together bodies, spaces, discourses. In a subsequent scene, the two women are bent over a coffee cup reading their future – a universal act of divination in Turkey and Greece and one of the most gender-characteristic moments of the film. The coffee cup contains their gazes, both focused on a space of justice rooted in the here, the coffee marks and the interlocking hands; yet at the same time looking out, towards the other side that has already crossed the wire and has moved here, right where they were sitting.

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