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Eleni Theocharous: Trying to change the world
Ημερομηνία: 21-03-2013

Συνέντευξη στην εφημερίδα Cyprus Mail

MEP Eleni Theocharous has led life as if it was a series of battles, although THEO PANAYIDES finds she has now mellowed a bit


Eleni Theocharous sits on the edge of her living-room couch, focused, unsmiling. She has an appointment in half an hour, wall-to-wall engagements this weekend, and flies back to Brussels on Monday. “I was always a gifted child,” she says, speaking of her early years in the mining village of Amiantos.

This is said without vanity – in the same way she might tell me, for instance, that she’s run field hospitals in heavily-bombarded war zones from Iraq to Gaza to Nagorno-Karabakh, or planted trees in deforested areas all over the world, or published three award-winning volumes of poetry, or saved the lives of hundreds, maybe thousands of people as a paediatric surgeon. In middle age (she’ll be 60 in June), a respected politician and one of six Cypriot MEPs, this is a woman who’s long since learned to list her accomplishments without self-consciousness. As for modesty, she makes a pun in Greek: “modesty (metriofrosyni) is for the mediocre (metrious)”.

She was never mediocre. She was always a gifted child, albeit from a very poor family (her dad was a miner); from primary school through university, “I always got top marks and finished first in my class”. She was a creative child too, forever winning prizes for her poems and stories; she read constantly, voraciously – a bone of contention with her father, who was both proud of his oldest daughter and annoyed by her precocity. But she was also an unruly child, forever getting into fights and flying in with her fists. She had no time for religion and Sunday School – all those “easy solutions, [saying] ‘do this, do that’” – but became enthralled, in her reading, by the exploits of missionary doctors like Albert Schweitzer, the German theologian and medic who became her childhood hero. It wasn’t the religious side that gripped her; it was “the adventure, going to people who didn’t have a doctor and helping them”. Despite her literary prowess, she won a scholarship in Medicine and became a doctor herself, coming back to Cyprus in 1991 for a 10-year stint as Director of Paediatric Surgery at the Makarios Hospital in Nicosia.

The politics came later (she was first elected as an MP in 2001), though it fits with her medical and humanitarian work – all facets, in their different ways, of trying to change the world – and of course she was always political, having been refused entry to South Africa in the days of apartheid due to her political views. I assume she was on the Left in those days, then? She shrugs: “What young person isn’t?” Labels are unhelpful, she adds (for the record, she’s now a member of right-wing party DISY) – those who want to damage you will stick a label on you, but what does it mean at the end of the day? “‘You were Left’, ‘you were Right’. No! You were yourself, and you believed in certain things. And I believed in them passionately”.

The key word is ‘passionately’. “I used to live everything to the extreme,” says Eleni, adding that she’s mellowed with age and experience. In a way, she’s still that gifted child from the mining village – smart and bossy and defiant, ready to fight her corner and get her way. If she were less smart, she might be a zealot (many of her views align with those of the far-right ultra-nationalists) – but instead she’s something rarer, a free thinker in the blandly conformist world of politics.

One example, which she offers herself: her eco-credentials are well-known (she’s planted trees against desertification all over the world, from Argentina and Inner Mongolia to her own home village of Amiantos) – yet she voted against the resolution condemning the British Bases for destroying the wetlands of Akrotiri with communications aerials. She’s under no illusions about the British, says Eleni bluntly (“They are our enemies”) – yet she wouldn’t vote for such a resolution when Cypriots were causing even greater damage to wetlands with the new Larnaca Airport, wrecking the habitat of rare birds for no reason at all. It was the hypocrisy that got to her, the essential dishonesty – and she said as much, and got in a fight with a Larnaca MP as a result. You could say she has too much respect for ideas to believe in tossing them around for political point-scoring.

Ideas float in and out of her conversation – the idea of Greek-ness, for instance, a core belief since childhood when her whole family joined EOKA and the fight for enosis, i.e. union with Greece: “I remember growing up with these things, the Greek flag and Greek national anthem, and the funerals of [EOKA fighters] who’d been killed in the early years”. She’s not religious, but her living-room walls are adorned with religious icons – symbols of Greek Orthodox culture, what she calls “the weight of all the wisdom and knowledge” imbued into Hellenism. “Being a good Greek isn’t about being a nationalist and yelling ‘Give us back the statues of the Acropolis’ or ‘We’re gonna kill the Turks’,” she explains. It’s about culture, education, a love of beauty. “Being Greek isn’t something you’re born into. It’s something you become.”

Also on the walls are examples of African art and assorted landscapes in pastel colours, matching the pair of sofas in olive-green, light brown and orange. A balloon reading ‘Happy birthday’ is still on the ceiling, where it floated up during a birthday party – actually the 26th birthday of her daughter Julia (Eleni has been married to psychiatrist Louis Kariolou since 1978). A couple of dogs yap in the backyard. The whole room exudes a soft, soothing vibe – a necessary counterweight, perhaps, to Eleni’s frantic life (the first thing she does is switch off both her mobiles, which she says have been ringing off the hook) and her personality, which is clearly assertive and sometimes prickly.

She seems to have an excellent memory for slights and insults – recalling, for instance, the first time she took volunteers on a war mission to Nagorno-Karabakh. This was in the mid-90s; she’d been doing such work since 1981, when she lived in Greece and flew to besieged Beirut with two other doctors to help the Palestinians – but reactions in safe, complacent Cyprus ranged “from sarcastic to mocking to negative, let me tell you. ‘They’re nuts’,” she recalls people saying, “‘They’re going into war zones, what do we care what happens there, crazy Arabs killing each other’ – for everyone it was ‘crazy Arabs’, the whole world except ourselves were ‘crazy Arabs’”. More recently, she was on the Gaza flotilla that was raided by Israeli soldiers in 2010 – and was furious when some in the Cypriot media claimed she only did it to get re-elected. It was a symbolic action, she says angrily: “We weren’t going to save the Palestinians with two or three or 10 tons of medicines, we weren’t going to stop the attacks by the Jews [sic], we weren’t going to break the isolation of Gaza. It was a symbolic message – that Gaza isn’t alone, and the Jews need to know there are people who won’t take their bullshit, and Europe has obligations towards Gaza, towards the oppressed!” She did it because she believed in it. Besides, she could’ve died.

Then again, she could’ve died so many other times too. She’s been bombed by NATO in the former Yugoslavia, bombed by Israel in Gaza, forced to flee by helicopter in Nagorno-Karabakh. She was once in a hospital in Southern Lebanon that was caught in a three-way crossfire, Hezbollah fanatics being bombed from both land and sea and retaliating with Katyusha rockets. She’s seen so much death in her work with humanitarian organisation ‘Medecins du Monde’ – not just wars but also natural disasters (she led the first team to arrive in Sri Lanka, 48 hours after the 2004 tsunami). “Do you believe in life after death?” I ask, with a nod to the icons on the walls.

Only because it makes her feel better, she replies wryly. “I can’t support it, either scientifically or dogmatically”.

But does witnessing so much death – immeasurably more than most of us will ever see – make the afterlife seem more likely, or less likely?

She pauses: “I think it makes it less likely.”

In the end, says Eleni Theocharous, harking back to her other life as a woman of letters, it all comes down to “the basic question of Mr. Keuner in Brecht – ‘Is there or is there not a God?’. And Brecht said, ‘If you need a God to make you a better person, then yes, there is a God’”. Eleni herself has never needed God for that. She’s always been a person of intense self-assurance, refusing to be told what to do or fall in with “easy solutions”, always ready to fight for her beliefs or take offence where offence was intended. Her life’s been a series of battles – against poverty (her own and other people’s), against disease, against discrimination and vested interests. She recalls fighting trade unions – unsuccessfully, it turned out – to try and change things during her time at the Makarios Hospital (even simple things, like coordinating timetables to avoid the absurd situation where nurses went home at 1 o’clock and doctors at 3). She talks of life as an MEP, and instantly mentions her “conflicts” with the EU Commission. It’s fair to say she’s never been the easy-going type.

Yet she’s also mellowed, partly because of all those war zones. “They’ve made me extremely tolerant,” she notes of the troubles she’s seen. “I try to justify even the most aggressive and hostile behaviour by people now, in the sense that the person must’ve been hurt to become so aggressive”. Besides, she adds with a shrug, “at some point I realised that I couldn’t change the world. But I could change myself”.

Isn’t she still trying to change the world, though? As a doctor? As a politician?

“The politician tries to improve people’s living conditions. The doctor tries to postpone death for a little while”. But death must come eventually – and the world, in the end, remains imperfect. “What a politician does is make good people’s lives a little bit easier, and bad people’s lives a little bit more difficult.”

I start to ask something else – then get a tickle in my throat (lots of dust in the air these days) and give in to a coughing fit. “Is my perfume bothering you?” asks Eleni in a new, solicitous voice. There’s a lot of warmth in her makeup, despite – or because of – her tendency to righteous anger; she’s much-loved (she says), both in Cyprus and abroad, and loves the world in return. Nowadays she’ll even accept the possibility of being wrong, which didn’t always happen in her young, ‘gifted’ days. “It took me half a century to accept that other people have their own truth,” she smiles, but adds in the next breath that “I no longer insist on absolute positions as regards political solutions – just as long as you’re telling people the truth”. A bizonal, bicommunal federation, for instance, can never solve the Cyprus problem; it’s a synonym for partition – but she’ll support it if voters vote for it, just as long as it’s not being sold under the guise of ‘reunified Cyprus’.

Three months before the start of her seventh decade, Eleni Theocharous has a lot to look back on. She can even allow herself a brief philosophical pause, sitting on the couch in between her many engagements. “I’ve had many joys in my life,” she muses. “I’ve felt many moments of immense happiness – happiness is always momentary, it never lasts – I’ve lived many moments of joy and exhilaration, as well as moments of great pain and grief and separation, and loss and death. All this I’ve tried to live to the limit, and to express it. I’ve never wanted to hide what I feel”. Then she turns the phones back on, rises from the couch, and gets back to work.