She is standing a hundred feet from the Mediterranean. Her back is to the tender waves and her front is to the fierce main road. In front of her is a long table covered in a threadbare cloth, and on top of that are small hills of freshly picked figs—some purple, some green, all of them ripe enough to eat. Beside the fighills are two paper plates, held in place by peeled and halved samples of the fruit for her customers to try.
Today, like most August days, the temperature has gone beyond the 100-degree mark.
For thirty Augusts, this fig seller has stood here, selling her fruit. Despite her exposure to the relentlessness of the sun, she has aged gradually, as if the star cannot distinguish the tenderness of her skin from the ripening of a fig. After all this time, she has become as sweet as her fruit.
A fast car comes to a halt in the small space to the left of her tables, kicking up dust. Its registration plate announces that the driver is a tourist. Out of this rental comes a young couple, recently arrived, tan marks on their pale skin barely visible. At first, they are distracted by the ancient palms and the azure of the sea. Then they eye the figs with an urban suspicion—Is this a deal? Will I be cheated?
The young man wipes the sweat from his forehead and from the back of his pink neck with a beach towel. The young woman is picking up figs, wondering what the difference is between purple and green, feeling too insecure to ask.
The fig seller lifts two fig-halves close to the couples’ mouths. Both tourists are slightly taken aback by the intimacy of this gesture, but they do not recoil, chalking up this immediate intimacy to cultural difference. The young woman puts the fruit in her tentative mouth and nods her head to show her approval. Her partner follows her lead.
The fig seller asks, “You want a kilo? Two?”
The couple is not sure of what a kilo looks like. They come from a land where food is measured in pounds. To be cautious, the young woman says, “One. Please.”
Both the fig seller and the tourists conduct this exchange in English, though this for none of them is their mother tongue.
The seller hands them a plastic bag, already filled with the purple fruit.
The young man says to her, “You’re so lucky to work in this paradise.” His eyes scan the Mediterranean’s horizon.
The seller smiles, barely nods her head. She does not want to contradict her customers, or argue, or spoil their view. What they don’t know is that when the sea’s breeze dries her sweat it makes her back stiff; and the sun’s heat makes it hard for her to stand on her feet; and the gleaming black braid running down her spine demarks the length of the backache that increases with each hour that she spends on her feet. She doesn’t say to this young tourist, Paradise? You do what I do for thirty years, and then tell me if this is paradise.
The fig seller’s name is Elbeetha. She tries to live up to this name, not just because it was given to her in memory of her grandmother, but (mostly) because she believes that to live without hope is to live without a future. Elbeetha hopes for customers and she hopes for a good fig harvest. Elbeetha hopes for the day when the occupied land, from which she was forced to flee, will be returned to her family. Since the invasion, she has been a refugee from her home in the north, now Turkish-occupied Cyprus. She is in her forty-fourth refugee year. And even though her name means hope, the length of the wait to return to where she was born makes it difficult not to sink into despair.
The next car to stop edges carefully beside the rental. Despite pulling in slowly, the dirt is so dry the tires still kick up dust. An elderly Cypriot man slowly straightens his back as he exits the car. He speaks to Elbeetha in her own language, and in her own dialect. Their words are exchanged like kin.
When one Cypriot who was alive before the invasion meets another Cypriot who was alive before the invasion, the first question is: “Where are you from?” They don’t ask if the other is a refugee from the north, since naming the place of their birth will make this implicit.
“Varosi,” he responds. And in that one word, for the fig seller a whole world is conjured—her home.
Varosi is the only town in the occupied territory that remains uninhabited. Sectioned off by barbed wire and Keep Out signs, it is a town that has existed for more than four decades without a human presence. Instead, nature has taken over: split homes in two; smashed showroom windows, where 1970s mannequins still stand in flared jeans that have been shredded by the elements; covering cars in a carpet made from decades of middle-eastern dust.
In their shared dialect, which fewer and fewer younger Cypriots are speaking, Elbeetha asks, “What do you think? Will they ever give back our home?”
The elderly Cypriot man has been asked this question a thousand times. He has also asked this question a thousand times. It is a question that survives because the refugees keep asking it—asking it brings the stolen land back from a distant memory; asking it works like a spell to conjure hope.
“I’ve been offered money for my home, for the land,” she says. “Sometimes half the value. Sometimes less. Hotel developers. But I can’t do it. Not yet. I still have one more sliver of hope. Six more months, I tell myself. Six more months.”
He agrees, “Six more months.” He hands her the money for three bags of figs. Then his eyes cover in a watery veil of grief. “Maybe,” he says, “I don’t know. Why six? What difference does more time make? The governments are corrupt. The Americans won’t help us. The British are the British—as long as they have land for their military bases, they will keep their mouths shut. But what do I know? I’m just an old man. I didn’t go to their universities. All I know is that they took everything from me—my home, my mother’s home, both my sisters’ homes. The homes of everyone I know. And for what? So that the only things that can live there are the ghosts of those killed by the Turks? It feels like I have lost a child.”
Then, right there, by the dry roadside, where cars pass at dangerous speeds, kicking up more and more dust, the elderly man begins to cry. He presses the bags of figs against his chest like he is holding a baby.
Elbeetha hands him a paper napkin, puts her hand on his shoulder. “Don’t lose hope,” she says. “Just six more months. You’ll see.”
The tourist couple cannot make sense of the scene in front of them—the crying customer, the figs held tightly against his chest, the seller offering him a napkin. They are trying to fathom how purchasing figs can make a customer cry.
“Can we help?” asks the young woman. She makes her offer in earnest; something about the elderly man’s curved back reminds her of her father.
“No, no. He is okay. Long story,” says Elbeetha. She walks the old man the few steps to his car. She places his figs on his backseat, then takes his hand to help him back inside. He has stopped crying, but still she says to him, “Ade, ade, men marazonis.” (“Come, come, don’t worry.”)
Marazonis is a heavy word; just hearing it makes his body fill with its weight. It is a word that younger Cypriots no longer use; it is from a dated vocabulary—a pre-invasion word—that is dying with the dialect of the past. The present-day word for worry is anisihas; but this modern word does not carry the sound of grief and the burden of loss.
The old man sinks into the driver’s seat; the wheel is enormous in his hands. He waits a long time for a gap to appear in the traffic, and though he pulls out even slower than when he pulled into the tiny parking spot, his tires still kick up clouds of dust.
“Is he going to be okay?” asks the female tourist. She has covered her head in a large straw hat, and her eyes are now hidden behind pink-tinted sunglasses.
“Yes. He will be okay. He is refugee. Like me. We talked. About the past.”
The young woman had read something about the divided island when she flicked through holiday brochures, before deciding which half to book for her vacation. Now she cannot remember any details, only that the money and religion belonged to two different halves—Muslim in the north, Christian in the south. When she thinks of refugees she sees people loaded into dinghies, washing up on cruel shorelines, not a fig seller on a paradisiacal island. She had talked her husband into visiting the Christian half (though it was more expensive) because she thought that it might offer her the freedom to walk through streets without a man.
After witnessing this scene, and seeing how quickly the old man went from purchasing figs to tears, her ignorance fills her with guilt. She wants to ask the fig seller more, but she does not want to risk the possibility of her questions leading to more upset.
Because Elbeetha never requires prompting to talk about the occupation, and because she feels that every conversation might bring a new insight or hope, she takes the young woman’s hand and leans closer, as if she is about to impart to this stranger a closely-guarded secret. “My family’s home has been empty for forty-four years. Since 1974, my city—Varosi—is cut off by a fence, barbed wire, and armed guards.”
She stops to point in the direction of the north, though the only thing that either of them can see is the endless main road and the cars zooming past. She pulls the tourist closer and continues, “The fence and wire keep everyone out. Except the animals, the nature, and the dust. When Turkey invaded, all of my people were gone—in forty-eight hours. We left our breakfasts, our photograph albums, our washing on the lines. . .”
Elbeetha lets go of the young woman’s hand to bury her face in her smock.
The young woman does the same for the fig seller as Elbeetha did for the old man—she hands the weeping woman a napkin.
Her partner stands frozen, completely caught off guard by the ability of Cypriots to cry in front of strangers. The brochure that had beckoned him to spend his vacation in a glossy condo, lining an upscale boulevard fades from his memory; instead, Larnaca, the southern half’s third largest town, stands before him as an aggressively marketed lie.
In the short time that they have been standing at this fruit stall, a thin greyish/reddish film of dust has begun to cover everything. This is not from passing cars, but the beginning of a sandstorm.
No matter how tightly the couple tries to keep their lips shut, particles of dust slip into their mouths and form a film at the back of their throats. The young man begins to cough. They want to get away from the wind and the sand, the tears and the dust, but the fig seller is still sobbing and they feel awkward about leaving her in distress.
The wind is getting stronger; it begins to whip.
The sand stings as it hits their sunburnt skin.
The young woman asks the seller, “Can we help you to pack away?”
Elbeetha still has her head in her smock.
The couple puts all the unpackaged figs into the largest plastic bags they can find and then they fill the three plastic buckets under the table. They carefully fold the cloth, trying not to tear it, and trying not to get sand and dust in their eyes.
Elbeetha stops crying. She looks at the couple blankly, as though her sobbing has wiped her memory clean. The intimacy of their previous interactions has disappeared, until she looks down to see her buckets full of figs and her cloth carefully folded.
“Thank you,” she says. “Selling these figs is all I have.”
A tear slides heavily along the side of her nose.
By nightfall, the storm has left its dust over everything in the beach town; parasols and lounge chairs are covered; even the lived-in houses look like they’ve been uninhabited for years.
In their oceanside condo, the young woman turns on the TV to see if the sandstorm will stop them from going to the beach tomorrow. She stares at the weatherman through the dust-covered screen. He reports that the sandstorm will last two more days, but he also admits that he cannot be sure when the wind will die down, and when things will return to normal.
She powers off the TV, thinking back to the taste of that peeled fig, and that sweet fleeting moment when she was standing in paradise. Before the tears. Before the storm. When the screen fades to black, she draws a peace sign in the dust.
Elena Georgiou is the author of the short-story collection The Immigrant’s Refrigerator (GenPop Books, 2018)—read an excerpt from the collection published here on Cagibi, “The Evolution of Beauty (book excerpt).” She is also author of the poetry collections Rhapsody of the Naked Immigrants (Harbor Mountain Press) and mercy mercy me (University of Wisconsin), which won a Lambda Literary Award and was a finalist for the Publishing Triangle Award. She is also co-editor (with Michael Lassell) of the poetry anthology, The World In Us (St. Martin’s Press). Georgiou has won an Astraea Emerging Writers Award, a New York Foundation of the Arts Fellowship, and was a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She is an editor at Tarpaulin Sky Press and the Director of the MFA in Creative Writing program at Goddard College. Georgiou is an English-Cypriot originally from London, where she spent the first twenty-seven years of her life. Since then, she has lived in the US—first in New York, now in Vermont.
Cagibi Issue 5