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‘Customary practices’: The impact of colonial law on Cypriot literature


Cyprus was part of the British Empire until 1960. Following years of intercommunal violence between its Greek-speaking and Turkish-speaking citizens, the island became conclusively partitioned by 1974. This resulted in the displacement of over 250,000 people – roughly a quarter of its population – and marked a catastrophic failure in the legal safeguards set up to foster an independent nation. Even in the decades leading up to 1974, hundreds of Cypriots were forced to leave the island, either because of the structures of British colonialism (including heavy taxes and restrictions on education and trade) or the burgeoning intercommunal conflict. Displacement continues to be a problem which impacts the two communities equally.

One of the ways in which Cypriots have attempted to grapple with these issues is through literary expression. The act of storytelling has served as a powerful tool for exiled peoples to express their selfhoods for millennia. Literature is also a way through which the law can be understood more informally and accessibly and, in the case of Cyprus, this involves a reckoning with the legal issues of empire and partition. The law and literature are two textual practices which have always sustained one another: laws are produced through acts of writing, and creative literary production often seeks to represent how the lives of people depend on, or challenge, the laws which govern them.


As Richard Posner observes, legal ‘techniques and imagery have permeated Western culture, popular as well as high, from its earliest days. Law has engaged the attention of imaginative writers as an object of fascination in its own right [and] as a dramatic and rhetorical mode’ [1]. Imagery concerning the law has long pervaded English literature and, around the turn of the twentieth century, it suffused works like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), with its superficial scrutinising of the abhorrent Kurtz (‘you can’t judge [him] as you would an ordinary man’ [2]), and the indefensibly jingoist verse of Rudyard Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden (1899). What is important about these two examples is how they showcase the connections between, not just literature and the law, but literature and the laws of imperialism. To complicate Posner’s analysis somewhat: it is not simply so-called ‘Western culture’ but specifically colonialist culture which has relied on this language of judgement and jurisdiction.

It is for this reason that many postcolonial writers of the succeeding century have been concerned with how to understand the impact of colonial laws on the colonised individual. As Homi Bhabha observes in his analysis of Conrad, imperialist writers ‘speak with a peculiarly English authority derived from the customary practice on which both English common law and the English national language rely for their effectivity and appeal’ [3]. Throughout history, these very laws – and others based on them – have created the circumstances from which people are rendered refugees or are forced to migrate away from their homes. Postcolonial writers from across the world negotiate this past by unpacking the very relationship between English law and language. The term Bhabha chooses, customary practice, emblematises this duality through the twofold legal and cultural connotations bound up in the maintenance of a given societal ‘custom’.

In the specific case of Cyprus, it is interesting to note that both the leading politicians and writers around the time of its independence studied law. This includes the first president of the Republic of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios, and the first president of the self-declared ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’, Rauf Denktaş. This was also the case for two of the most successful Cypriot writers of the period immediately before and after 1960: Taner Baybars and Costas Montis. The two emigrated to read law – the former to Athens, the latter to the United Kingdom – illustrating the important connections between literature, the law, and exile in the construction of Cypriot culture. Neither writer was ever able to practice law. Instead, they chose to creatively write alternative visions to those prescribed by legal codes. For each, then, the law failed them on an individual basis and as a force which governed their social and political circumstances. Law in colonial Cyprus was the English common law keeping Cypriots subjugated under its conventions – a fact Baybars knew well from studying in the UK and which Montis had to confront when returning to colonial Cyprus as he was stopped from becoming a lawyer precisely because his law degree was not British.


The two authors, living on an island made to feel unhomely because of the colonial laws introduced from thousands of miles away in London, turned to creative writing to reconsider their senses of self. Legal jargon, the authors discovered, was a mode of discourse unable to provide personal freedom; prose and poetry would offer this possibility instead. Baybars lived the majority of his professional life in the UK, remaining displaced from his birth home and from the career he once imagined for himself as a teenager.


Resisting colonial mistreatment, Baybars and Montis composed literature which subversively put the British Empire, its language, and its laws on trial. There is a slight undercurrent of rhetorical language in both their prose. Montis’ Closed Doors: An Answer to Bitter Lemons by Lawrence Durrell (1964) is unwavering in its judgement of the eponymous colonial writer and of his culpability in sustaining a system which imposed severe physical and epistemic violence on citizens. While Baybars’ Plucked in a Far-Off Land (1970), for instance, is slightly more restrained in its handling of empire, it similarly calls out the ways in which divide-and-rule sowed distrust between Cypriots as a way of keeping imperial authorities in power. Strikingly, while one writer spoke Cypriot Greek in his daily life (Montis), and the other was raised speaking Cypriot Turkish (Baybars), both are united in their shared decision to compose literature through which they contest the legality of Britain’s rule over the island home they had in common and were, at various times, forced to leave.


Notes and references


[1] Posner, Richard. 2009. Law and Literature. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 4.

[2] Conrad, Joseph. 1994. Selected Works. New York: Random House, 51.

[3] Bhabha, Homi. 1994. The Location of Culture. Oxford: Routledge, 152.


Daniele Nunziata

Dr Daniele Nunziata is a Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Oxford, where he teaches at St Anne’s College. After completing an MSt and DPhil at the same university, focusing on Cypriot and other Middle Eastern literatures of the past century, he has continued addressing postcolonial and refugee writing. His research has been published in PMLA, the Journal of Postcolonial Writing, and Columbia University Press’ Studies in World Literature book series. A monograph based on his doctoral research, Transportal Literatures, is forthcoming. He also writes for TORCH, Oxford and Empire, and Writers Make Worlds.

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