Every Wednesday and Saturday, cars crawl bumper to bumper along the narrow street leading to the farmer’s market in Ochi Square, under the Constanza bastion, within the 16th-century walls of Old Nicosia.
To woo customers, enterprising farmers from the Nicosia district and beyond fill boxes with succulent apricots, peaches, apples, cherries and watermelons. The magnificent range is accompanied by banal carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, garlic braids, bunches of herbs, bread, cheese, yogurt and sausages.
Ochi, however, is not just a car park but a site rich in the island’s history, both modern and medieval. “Ochi” means “no” in Greek and celebrates Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas’ World War II rejection of an Italian ultimatum to surrender.
The Greeks gathered their forces and routed the Italians but were soon overwhelmed by a vengeful Germany.
Ochi not only commemorates the heroic Greek resistance in 1940, but also commemorates the blood and tears of the unfortunate Greek Cypriots crushed in the war between the rival empires of the Middle Ages.
Above one corner of the square on the bastion is the small, 19th century, golden stone Ottoman Bayraktar Mosque commemorating the spot where the Ottoman banner was raised when Nicosia was captured from the repressive Venetians in September 1570.
After a 45-day siege, the assailants killed both the Venetian defenders and most of the town’s 20,000 inhabitants. Although taught in Greek Cypriot schools, the brutal conquest does not cast a shadow over Ochi on merry market days.
On a recent Saturday, July 9, the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice marking the sacrifice of a lamb by the Prophet Abraham rather than that of his son, Ochi was swarmed by dozens of celebrating African, Asian and Arab men.
They came from services at the Baraktar Mosque and the Omariyeh Grand Mosque, a converted 14th century Gothic church which is the main place of worship for Muslims on this side of Nicosia, a city divided since 1963 when clashes broke out between Cypriots Greeks and Turks during a constitutional crisis.
Some of the men wore national dress, others jeans and t-shirts. A few carried rolled up prayer rugs. A tall African man in an elegant long gray silk shirt and slacks was most striking. Wearing and giving new clothes is traditional during this holiday. The rare multinational visits reflected gatherings in a Damascene souk or on the streets of Makkah during the annual Hajj.
After entering Ochi, my friend and neighbor Xanthi parked her car in a vacant spot, sending a bulky, bearded and puzzled Greek Cypriot away. Grabbing our bags and adjusting our Covid masks, we entered the fray.
In a sprawling stall, an Arab father and two nine- or 10-year-old boys hovered over a box of zucchini as he taught them the art of picking zucchini. A bulky African woman with her head covered and dressed in black tried to squeeze her child’s stroller down the narrow aisle between the stalls, but gave up and left him outside the stall playing with a bag tiny oval tomatoes while she paid for her purchases.
Xanthi and I inspected the fruits and vegetables on offer and filled our bags with produce. We stopped to see what the woman from the mountain village of Agros had to offer and to greet the cheeky seller from Paphos and examine his lawyers. We have become Saturday regulars, arriving at 7am to escape the summer heat.
The dozens of white, brown, and black men in the mosques shopped purposefully, addressing vendors in fluent or hesitant Greek. It was a farmers market like no other we had attended.
Cyprus has become a rainbow country since the Jansens fled to the island along with thousands of Lebanese neighbors fleeing their country’s civil war. Most of the Lebanese left and those who remained merged with the local population.
The transformation began with an influx of temporary domestic and agricultural workers from Sri Lanka and the Philippines after the island recovered economically from the Turkish occupation of the north in 1974, which divided the island into the Greek Cypriot south and the northern Turkish Cypriot.
Colleges and universities on both sides have attracted African and Asian students who want to stay. Boat people and overland migrants fleeing wars in Syria, Eritrea, Iraq, Somalia and Congo passed through Turkey to the north and illegally crossed the buffer zone to the south.
They aim to travel to Western Europe and settle. Unfortunately, Cyprus and Greece have become Eastern Mediterranean dead-ends for these people due to the rule that they must seek asylum in the EU country where they first arrive.
Cyprus is the bloc member with the highest number of refugees and migrants per capita.
The government is struggling to separate genuine refugees from economic migrants and to deal with the backlog of 24,000 asylum applications and 7,300 cases before the International Court of Protection.
In the first half of 2022, there were 12,000 arrivals, the total for the whole of 2021. Cyprus also hosts 25,000 Ukrainian refugees, most of whom wish to return home.