Fighting Floods And Dust In A Land of Drought

Madeline Blount
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“I see you are not from Cyprus.”

This is never posed as a question; my blonde hair and blues eyes announce my foreignness here like a flare. “America, the States, Oregon,” I say.

“Oh,” Muslem says, surprised. I have not met many other Americans in Cyprus. “Oh. You guess where I am from.”

I have no idea where Muslem is from—a new wave of immigration since the island joined Europe in 2004 has made Nicosia more diverse than many cities in the United States. I have met waiters from Bulgaria, students from Nigeria, and store clerks from Sri Lanka, all within a two-block radius of my apartment. There is a Filipino karaoke joint in the building next to mine, where domestic workers end their days belting Britney Spears in thick accents and enjoy spiced rice dishes that must remind them of home.

Muslem looks like he could be from somewhere in the Middle East.

“Syria,” I guess. Syria is very close to Cyprus.

“No,” Muslem says, “I came here in 2001. Another guess?”

“I really don’t know,” I say. I don’t want to offend with a bad guess, but I don’t want to seem disinterested either. “Egypt?”

“No, not Egypt,” he laughs. “No American girl, I am from Iraq. That is why I move here in 2001.”

My stomach falls. “That was a good time to move,” I say quietly.

I am suddenly mortified that this man is fixing my brand new washing machine. But Muslem is smiling, and he continues to talk. “Bush, he is not good for my people.” No kidding, I want to say. Absurdly, at this moment I also want to pull out one of my dozens of Obama pins I have left over from working the campaign. Instead I nod. “So, yes,” he says, “I come with my family in 2001. You do what you must do. You come with family here?”

No, I tell him, I came alone for a job, for research. “Who would come all this way alone?!” he responds. I don’t know. “Well, I would be honored if you consider me your family while you are here.” He turns on the washing machine, but the water seeps. I rush to turn it off.

Today has been a day full of water. Earlier in the afternoon, I got caught in a storm as I darted through old Nicosia’s labyrinth of alleyways toward my apartment. The lightning flashed, as though capturing my image, and as the rain fell, the perpetual layer of Cyprus dust that lines the cars, the sidewalks, the cats turned to mud.

Huddled by my windows, I planned to spend the afternoon watching the drama of the deluge, but the storm was as fleeting as its first flashes. I was almost disappointed.

I stepped out onto my balcony-turned-lake, spending a few minutes pushing the stagnant water around with a broom, absently staring at the clouds hugging the mountains beyond the city. Soon enough, the sun reemerged from behind those clouds to bake away the water. My balcony would become a desert of dust once again.

Water and dust: Cyprus itself is like this muddled confluence of opposites. It’s a parched spot of land in the middle of the Mediterranean sea—both an island surrounded by water and a desert in near-perpetual drought. Greece recently dispatched an oil tanker full of drinking water across the Mediterranean. They sent water over water. It’s a perfectly absurd image for this sometimes baffling place, where you can buy the most extravagant designer clothes but your showers are limited by government water rationing.

From my balcony, I watched the flow of people on the street below. I live just a few blocks from the UN checkpoint, which divides the Greek side of the country from the Turkish side. It is marked not by a wall, but by a barrier of sandbags.

In some ways, Nicosia embodies that good old idea of the melting pot, where disparate people arrive and blend in unexpected ways. But it’s also a city divided, cut in half by a decades-old military buffer zone. Most of the immigrants live on the Greek side, where I live, in the crumbling, walled-in, ancient center of the city. We Old City dwellers are exempt from water restrictions—leave those to the growing suburban sprawl beyond the walls.

I didn’t think twice, then, as I left my balcony and turned to my washing machine to do a load of laundry. My apartment building is newly renovated, a drop of Ikea-furniture-buying, electric-stove-using young people in a sea of decaying terra cotta roofs. Because I’d never used my washing machine it meant that no one else had either. The maiden voyage. I read the instructions in Greek, I threw in my jeans and T-shirts, I flipped the switch. Suddenly, water rushed out from behind the machine, leaking out all over the tile floor, taking with it that layer of dust that I can never seem to get rid of. For the second time today I cursed myself for not having a mop.  

I called my landlord, who told me that a plumber would come “maybe today.” This was on Cyprus time, which meant maybe next week. With a flooded balcony, a flooded washing machine, and no mop, I sat frustrated just beyond the dirty water’s edge. I waited. I watched the water fuse with the dust until Muslem knocked at my door.

Muslem continues tinkering with pipes behind the machine. He turns to me and says, “A friend of mine who is very clever, working at Iraqi bank, this friend tells me 10 years ago that Americans will come take Iraq for oil, but it will be a big mistake, that many people will suffer, and that people will get tired of paying for it.”

“Your friend is prophetic,” I say. He doesn’t understand. “Prophet? Elijah? Muhammad?

“Are you religious?” Muslem asks.

“No,” I say.

“How?” Not why, but how?

“I don’t know, my parents are not, I didn’t really grow up with it,” I say.

“Ah.” He pauses, and gestures to my refrigerator. “Do not think that the food comes from this refrigerator, and that this refrigerator came from man’s hands. This comes from God. Do you know Adam, the first man? Adam, he had to be given food from God and we are all related to him.”

I try to explain that I do know something about religion. I went to a Catholic high school, attended Seders as a kid, and took religion classes in college where we read passages from the Bible and Koran, “but I don’t practice it, you see?”

He doesn’t. But he smiles, and he turns on the washing machine. I brace myself for another leak, but the water never comes. He smiles and I thank him profusely, trying to thank him both for the plumbing and for the conversation. I don't know if he understands. He shakes my hand before closing the door.

I go out onto my balcony, where the sun has baked away the water, and I watch Muslem join the stream of people on the main street. Ledra Street, named after the ancient kingdom—neither Greek nor Turkish, American nor Iraqi—that held this island thousands of years ago, is now clogged by the UN checkpoint, the sandbags that divide the Greek and Turkish sides of the city like a river dam.

And I begin to imagine Nicosia as a city of pipes, where water flows uninterrupted—despite the dust, drought, and division—from one side to the Other.


Posted on 6/30/2009 by

Emily Strasser

Emily Strasser

Beautifully written story. I love how you use your own, rather mundane problem of a flooding washing machine to illustrate some of the contradictions and absurdities of Cyprus.

Posted on 10/20/2009 by

Alaina Rose

Alaina Rose

Great story! I liked that it flowed without having to be chronological.

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