Where Are You From?

A grainy old photograph of myself, I’m fifteen, black skinny jeans, the ones back in the days before stretch denim, when you had to shrink or stitch yourself into them to get them that tight. Black T-shirt, black tasselled suede jacket, black pixie boots, and an abundance of crucifixes and earrings.  Another photograph, now on a beach, balancing on a stone. After two weeks in the sun, I’m eschewing my usual garb. Bored with the sideways looks, bored with being boiled, I gave in, bought a pair of shorts, whipped off my top, and took to the beach.

My first experiment in Top of the Pops inspired bleached-blonde hair. Eye catching hair gets a lot of attention, directs scrutiny away from the face. The not quite white face, the not quite good enough face. This was the first time in years that I had taken off the uniform and allowed the kiss of the sun to touch my skin. I had stayed out of its browning forces diligently, forcing a pale proximity to whiteness. With blonde hair, I fancied I could visually pass as a white person, at least until they heard my surname.

I wore sunglasses on the beach, I wore sunglasses on the street. No one can accuse you of looking at them funny on the tube, and bonus, you can eye up the hot guys on the way to work and still make it there alive. Taking a leaf out of the Quentin Crisp survival handbook; “Never looking at anyone unless they demand I look. Never speaking to anyone unless spoken to.”

It sets up a curious internal dynamic best described by David Bowie’s lyric.

“Look at me, don’t look at me. Talk to me, don’t talk to me.

 Dance with me, don’t dance with me.”

 

“Where are you from?” Barnet

“But where did you grow up?” St Albans.

“But before that?” Harrow.

“But where were you born?” Islington

“But where are you from originally, really?” Silence.  My Mum’s vagina?

“But where are you parents from?” Cyprus.

“Aha.” Gotcha!

Every immigrant knows you can keep this game going until you give them what they really want, confess that you’re a foreigner.

Cyprus was proclaimed a British Crown colony in 1925 which lasted until 1960. Which meant my parents were born British. But you’re never quite British enough, never quite white enough. There is always someone who wants to shoehorn in a reminder that you are other’. When you get to Greek speaking places, you’re met with mirror conversations that pronounce you a ‘Charlie’, an anglicised Greek, an English person. You don’t belong here. You don’t belong there. You don’t belong anywhere. It is the curse of the colonised, of the second and third generations.

Quis hic locus?  Quae regio?  Quae mundi plaga?

What place is this?  What kingdom? What shores of what world?

 Pericles- Shakespeare

 

My parents wanted us to fully assimilate, not arrive at school with a Greek accent and be ever the outsider, so unlike some of my cousins English was my mother tongue. There’s a cultural separation from my own family, I don’t speak the language well at all. I’m told that I speak Greek like a mountain peasant, with an English accent. I was always destined to be an outsider, but for different reasons, neurodivergence, the promise of queerness, take your pick. Ever restless, challenging authority, unaware of my ADHD but knowing I was not like the others. I went undiagnosed for many decades, never able to understand how everyone around me just got on with life when I was so highly attuned and allergic to injustice.

I was always too loud for them, or not studious enough, the list is exhaustive. I never quite managed to be the child they wanted, at once I felt too much, and not enough. This persisted in my experiences at school, with peers, with authority figures.

Speaking to my older Sister, I’d ponder. “Sometimes I think I’m adopted; I can’t have come from these people.”

“You used to ask me if you were adopted all the time when you were little.” My sister reveals. At times she acted as a maternal stand-in for the absent workaholic mother, I remember that, keeping it saved somewhere deep in the jumble of memories.

 

Having psychotherapy made me interrogate my dubious connection to whiteness, having my immigrant experience mirrored back at me, in the room, on a couch, invited to further examine my past. I realised that my teen years, baby punk out of the sun, had been an attempt at conferring whiteness upon myself.

We, the colonised, who are educated to think like the coloniser, discover on closer inspection that they have tampered with our history, for generations. Once out of the grasp of the system I became an avid reader. When subjects actually interest me, I have no problem with learning. It turns out I wasn’t wilfully disruptive at school, just bored, with occasional flashes of brilliance when hyper focus allowed me to dive into a project. “Could do better if he would apply himself, easily distracted.” Was a recurring theme on my report card.

“The whole educational and professional training system is a very elaborate filter, which just weeds out people who are too independent, and who think for themselves, and who don’t know how to be submissive, and so on — because they’re dysfunctional to the institutions.” 

Noam Chomsky

My readings of books about the birthplace of my ancestors came much later and raised the question; Who am I, if I free myself of their teachings and re-educate myself on my ancestral history?

I feel that I have been lied to for my entire life, about everything. I had to liberate my mind.

I learned that we have to do our own research, read different perspectives to the narrative we’ve been taught, on class, racism, military adventures, to name a few.

Only then are we equipped to make up our own minds. For a long time, I wanted to believe that I was fully British, and I was. Until I was not.

Growing up in an Anglican Christian country, I understood from attending the harvest festival with school, that ours was of a slightly different flavour. I enjoyed the campiness of the Greek orthodox church, the rose and olive leaf scented incense, and the gaudy icons illuminated by huge chandeliers suspended from vaulted ceilings. Religion was just another big head fuck for me, being culturally Greek Orthodox, yet intrinsically atheist, by dint of being an abomination in the eyes of the lord. I needed to investigate the God concept further.

I became fascinated with theology, reading Karen Armstrong’s, A History of, & the Battle for God. Then I tackled Buddhism, the Tibetan book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche. Then a bunch of books on Gnostic Christianity – The way, Sufism in Islam -The Enneagram, Mystical Judaism – Kabbalah. Hinduism – Mahabharata, The Shamanic Way of the Bee. Jung, Freud, Nietzsche, Gay Witchcraft. And on I went. Looking for a kinder deity that didn’t hate queers. I am self-professedly spiritually promiscuous, a metaphysical slut, who will not be shamed.

Vive la Différence.

“Journeys, like artists, are born and not made. A thousand differing circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will – whatever we may think. They flower spontaneously out of the demands of our natures – and the best of them lead us not only outwards in space, but inwards as well…” 

Lawrence Durrell, Bitter Lemons of Cyprus

The idea of being British Cypriot as a part of my identity came to me much later, though I’m still partial to playfully subverting nature with my outward appearance. Bleached blonde hair gets you through an airport much faster than dark curly hair and stubble.

“Rebellion is when you look society in the face and say I understand who you want me to be, but I’m going to show you who I actually am.”
Anthony Anaxagorou

My current hyper focus is with geopolitical systems of oppression, supremacy, and historical events and how they shape us. What a time to be alive. When thinking particularly about Cyprus and the states neighbouring it in the Middle East, my mind turns to nationalism, power asymmetry and the dangers and pitfalls it presents.

Like many people I am greatly troubled about the situation in Israel/Palestine, and where it may lead. With my next piece, in writing about it, I’ll be taking a metaphorical hop across the waters, and hopefully not landing myself in hot water for going there.

 

Further reading.

The Broken Olive Branch (The Impasse of Ethnonationalism) by Harry Anastasiou

Manufacturing Consent by Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky

Natives by Akala

After The Formalities by Anthony Anaxagorou

Bitter Lemons Of Cyprus by Lawrence Durrell

 

Edited by Ennis Welbourne