Multiple views on the past, brighter prospects for the future: How AHDR’s work on teaching history helps to bridge divides among communities in Cyprus
“Schools were presenting the other communities of Cyprus as aliens from another planet,” says Alev Tuğberk, a Turkish Cypriot teacher and school director. “Seeing kids being educated this way felt so wrong. As a teacher, I felt personally responsible for that and I guessed that there must be people in the Greek Cypriot community who felt the same.” Tuğberk is the co-president and one of the driving forces behind the Association for Historical Dialogue & Research (AHDR), winner of the Max van der Stoel Award 2016.
The bi-communal association, founded in 2003, develops research-based supplementary teaching material allowing multiple perspectives on history. Teachers from both sides of the divided island and from all communities are brought together to engage in dialogue and be trained on how to teach the history of Cyprus to new generations.
Tuğberk was right; on the other side of the UN buffer zone dividing the island, there were indeed Greek Cypriot teachers who also felt history was being taught too much from one perspective.
The other co-president of AHDR, Greek Cypriot teacher Kyriakos Pachoulides, was one of them. “With a group of Greek Cypriot teachers who had studied together, we decided that we needed to initiate an alternative approach to teaching,” he explains. “As soon as the first crossing points opened, we reached out to Turkish Cypriot colleagues, because we wanted it to be a joint endeavour. At the time, this was not well received by our respective communities. Often, we were called traitors.”
Emerging out of a century marred by exclusion, intolerance, and the fear of 'otherness', it should be clear to all of us that integrating diversity is a major imperative of our times. Education, because of its role in socializing and teaching the sense of common culture, has a leading role to play.
Max van der Stoel, first High Commissioner on National Minorities The Association for Historical Dialogue and Research (AHDR) is awarded the 2016 Max van der Stoel Award.
‘The Home for Cooperation’
However, since then, these enthusiastic inter-communal pioneers have managed to convince many more colleagues of the benefits of teaching multiperspectivity, not only because it helps to improve understanding of other communities, but because it also allows for different perspectives from within one’s community.
After a challenging period during which meetings had to take place in improvised venues, AHDR founded the Home for Cooperation (H4C). “The baby was born,” Chara Makriyianni, AHDR founding member and former president recalls.
Ever since, teachers, students and any other community members can meet in the H4C. It is a stylishly decorated coffee bar with its own library, offices and meeting rooms, overlooking a neutral zone between the two ceasefire lines, also referred to as the ‘dead zone’. However, since H4C’s opening, the zone is far from dead. It is thriving with life with a multilingual buzz and Mediterranean scents, especially on Thursday Lives evenings when live music is played. Students from all communities chat and sip ice coffee, while teachers meet underneath the parasols outside the H4C that shelter them from the warm Cyprus sun. If it were not for the blue beret UN soldiers having a halloumi pita at the next table, overlooking their barb-wired bullet-marked office enshrined in what used to be the luxurious Ledra Hotel in Nicosia, the H4C would be nothing more than a relaxed inner-city café.
History shapes the future
Because history shapes the future, teaching history is at the core of all of AHDR’s projects. These projects include training teachers in the methodology on multiperspectivity, the production of teaching materials on missing persons and the creation of the Cyprus Critical History Archive; a project that provides a factual basis for discussion about the conflict and the division of Cyprus. “By reading newspapers and reports of events from the past, from both sides, people see that there are several narratives about what happened,” says Mete Hatay, of the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), who supported the AHDR in creating the archive. “It gives them access to these different perspectives."
The importance of education and history in conflict resolution is underscored by Charis Psaltis, a university teacher and another founding member of AHDR. “Because of the diverse backgrounds of the people who started AHDR, the method is based on an inter-play between social psychology, education and history. Social psychology provides tools for conflict transformation and prejudice reduction, while education brings a methodology-focused approach blended with the multiperspectivity approach of history. Teaching history is problematic; therefore, we focus on a critical approach to challenge master narratives. We support teachers in thinking critically and teachers are often thrilled to do this.”
When it comes to different perspectives on history, openness is key for the communities to come closer together. This is also required by the parents whose children are taught a more allowing view of history. As Agathi Savva, Greek Cypriot deputy headmaster, explains: “Teaching was very consciously one-sided. Now, I teach peace. I try to implement in the classroom what I learn at AHDR. Students are generally positive, but their parents need some time to be convinced of such an approach.”
Hale Silifkeli, a Turkish Cypriot teacher, agrees. “Teaching history often involves stories about the men who died in the conflict, which of course only separates people further. It is important to speak and listen to each other.”
History teaching as key to reconciliation
Some students coming to the H4C have strong views on teaching history. “History lessons are racist at my school,” states one 14-year-old Turkish-speaking student. “I do not want to hear that, I want to hear the real story.” A 14-year-old Turkish Cypriot student agrees: “It is important to remember the past, and also what communities did to each other”.
The problem is the same in the areas where the Republic of Cyprus exercises effective control, according to one 17-year-old Greek-speaking Cypriot student. “When teachers want to motivate us to work hard, they tell us this is important because we have to do better than the Turkish Cypriots. History teaching is very war-based. It is all about who died and who killed whom. Teaching history is key to the resolution of the Cyprus question. Now, the youth does not know critical thinking. Sure, it hurts in the beginning, but in the end this is the way to go.”
The expertise of AHDR, a member of the European Association of History Educators (EUROCLIO), is increasingly recognized in Cyprus and beyond. Leaders from both communities have visited the H4C, and members of the association are increasingly involved in advising the decision-makers on education. This includes the technical committee on education, which regularly meets within the framework of the negotiations aiming at finding a just, viable and comprehensive solution to the Cyprus issue.
Being a part of the technical committee is a sign of AHDR’s impact, and possibly the most important one. “So far the Association has had mostly an indirect impact on the education system, but we can be sure it will have further influence in the future”, states Yiannis Papadakis, member of the committee.
Psaltis agrees: “AHDR is slowly having a direct impact. The next steps are mainstreaming our material and increasing the number of activities outside of the buffer zone. For that we need teachers who are risk takers.” In Papadakis’ view, AHDR is functioning as an example: “It is a model for how Cyprus can be; a small microcosm that is inspirational for the whole island.”