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The wheels of change
Being approached to sell stolen art back to Cyprus, one woman realised it was time to galvanise action on cultural heritage. ZOE CHRISTODOULIDES meets her
Tasoula Hadjitofi really likes to the walk the walk and talk the talk. But she certainly isn’t trying to show off. Her walk - she insists - is one of truth, speaking out about the destruction of cultural heritage with every step that she takes. The Greek Cypriot recently returned to her homeland for a quick visit from the Hague to promote the launch of an NGO that’s set to really put the wheels of change in motion.
As an independent, non-profit organisation, the so-called Walk of Truth aims to protect cultural heritage and provide an independent platform for dialogue between people living in areas of conflict. Wherever they might be, whatever problems they’re facing, Tasoula is passionate about their cause as she speaks out about crimes against humanity.
“In my own search for a solution to the problem of peaceful co-existence in this world, I came to the conclusion that we often fool ourselves. Often we pretend that we are all the same, and that we can sweep our differences under the carpet,” insists Tasoula. “That’s because making the necessary effort to understand our differences and then respect them is too difficult. It requires each one of us to embark on our own walk of truth. Words like control and ownership are intimately bound up with the destruction of cultural heritage worldwide.”
Sitting in the lobby of the Hilton hotel in Nicosia, Tasoula’s persona is in itself is larger than life. On the one hand, she can’t stop talking about human rights and what needs to be done to change certain injustices in the world we live in. On the other hand, she also stands as a successful business woman and instantly commands respect. And on a far more humble note, she speaks of the love for her children and husband, having made a cosy a life for herself in the Netherlands while raising a family of three. Then there’s her external appearance: everything about Tasoula is absolutely immaculate. Her dress is streamlined yet bold, her red tinged bobbed hair is perfectly straightened, while her brightly manicured nails shout out for attention.
Getting to the core of who Tasoula really is requires a little trip down memory lane. And like so many other Cypriots, the trauma of past conflict has affected her in many ways. “I was 15 when the war broke out and my family fled from Famagusta to Limassol,” she explains. But it was only when she eventually set up to study and work in Holland later on in life that she began to look at how living on a war torn island had really affected her.
The day that she was approached by art smugglers in Holland to sell stolen artefacts back to Cyprus for large sums of money was when the sense of injustice really hit a hard note. “How could people have the right to hang on to items that are not their own?” she probes. “Most of all I realised there was so little known about the Cyprus Problem out there that I became an activist. I had to do something.”
Her passionate commitment to secure the repatriation of stolen artefacts from Cyprus and her appointment in 1987 as an honorary consul for Cyprus in the Netherlands, strengthened her quest to explore the world of art trafficking. Since 1988, Tasoula has traced and retrieved 60 pieces of stolen artefacts of significant historical and cultural value to Cyprus. Most notably she managed to collect icons, frescos and mosaics and repatriate them in cooperation with the Orthodox Church.
Haunted by her past, she decided to delve deeper into her feelings of unresolved anguish and her antipathy towards the invaders of her homeland. She began by learning Turkish and thereafter, went on her first trip to the country. Eventually, she developed the habit of taking walks with her Turkish teacher, Erhan Gurer.
“I have invested time in studying Turkish culture, people and rituals. I also met many people who share my thinking and values,” she explains. “That is when the penny dropped for me and I thought: these are the people we should be working with to bring change within the countries in conflict. The ultimate aim is to create societies which are, in the deepest sense, cultured: societies in which people have respect for symbols and rituals which are different from their own. And you know what? People who speak of culture and human rights essentially speak the same language no matter where they come from.”
But how exactly does she feel about Cyprus’ loss of cultural heritage following the invasion? “Well, we’ve definitely all suffered. Of course, there has been destruction of cemeteries, churches and archaeological sites in the north. And the same thing happens in all conflict zones.” While Tasoula feels passionately for her own country’s cause, her point is that what has happened to Cyprus happens constantly around the world.
To this aid, Walk of Truth aims to organise conferences with world experts to debate ways in which legislation and institutional arrangements can be improved so the destruction of cultural heritage can be prevented. The first conference of this kind is set to take place next October at the Peace Palace in the Hague. “Whenever a piece of cultural heritage is disputed, and claimed by more than one party, the courts can take years and years reaching a decision as to who the rightful owner is and who should have control of them. In the meantime, the works of art are homeless and they stay in bank safes, or in the hands of a curator who is wondering where their new or old home will be,” she says. “Walk of Truth will lobby and mobilise anyone interested to create a safe transient home for these disputed works in the Hague.”
Tasoula also intends to organise walks around cultural heritage sites and area of conflict. The aim will be to encourage people to work together for the preservation of important sites, and to promote a better understanding of what these sites mean to every group. When it comes to locals here in Cyprus, Tasoula likes to think of the Walk of Truth as an empowerment platform - a chance to feel a positive change while waiting for solution. “Cultural heritage belongs to everybody who venerates and appreciates it, even if it is legally owned by specific individuals or political authorities. In this spirit, we will work for the benefit of everybody who loves and feels deeply for cultural heritage, regardless of who has the title deeds. I look forward to many interesting walks of truth with you!”
For more information about Walk of Truth and upcoming events visit: www.walkoftruth.org. Anyone who wishes to volunteer or help with the cause can email:email@example.com. Follow on Twitter: @WalkofTruth