Gambler’s Paradise

Since the division of Cyprus in 1974, one of the few arenas for social contact between the Greek and the Turkish has been the casinos of the island nation.

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This is according to research done by the social anthropologist Julie Scott, Senior Research Fellow at the London Metropolitan Business School. She presented her findings about gambling in Cyprus in the lecture “Gambling spaces and the rebuilding of cultural intimacy in Cyprus” when she visited the Bergen Summer Research School (BSRS) this week.

– Gambling is a significant part of Cyprean life and self-image, Scott told the audience and went on to consider gambling’s relevance to post-conflict normalisation. – This relates to a sense of masculinity that there’s a sneaking admiration for in Cyprean society. But the backside is a culture of abuse and financial desperation that is a black spot in Cyprean society.

Her research shows that the vast majority of public spaces – including most coffee shops and restaurants – have been strictly divided into Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot arenas, where extreme national sentiment is often allowed to flourish.

Crossing the border

Gambling is different, even though a lot of people from both sides of the divide would deny that they ever play poker or blackjack with anyone from the other side of the ethnic divide.

One of the reasons for this is that whereas gambling is prohibited in the Greek south of the island – according to Scott this is mainly due to the combined efforts of the Greek-Orthodox church and left-wing unions – it has been flourishing in the Turkish north since the island’s division.

– There were a lot of people who had run underground clubs in London’s Soho and Mayfair. When new gambling laws were introduced in the UK in the 60s, they moved to Cyprus and opened casinos there, Scott told.

Whereas the island’s south is officially recognised by the outside world, and even joined the EU in 2004, the north has been economically and diplomatically isolated. The authorities in the north have embraced the gambling industry to create revenue. This has not only attracted travellers from countries in the region where gambling is illegal – e.g. Turkey, Israel, and Iran – but has also drawn a steady flow of Greek-Cypriotic visitors.

– By 2007 over 1,000 Greek-Cypriots were crossing the border every day to gamble. When this was exposed, it was roundly condemned in the media in the south, she explained.

Suspicious Minds

Many in the south consider it to be tantamount to treason to contribute in any way financially to the north. The church even suggesting that if people from the south go to the north that they bring their own drinking water rather than spend money there.

Scott suggested that the gambling community is the closest one gets to “cultural intimacy” between the two sides in the Cyprus conflict, reminding the audience that nationalism in Cyprus hardly is a new phenomena but rather that there have been forces plotting Greek and Turkish against each other for more than a century.

– The state of peace is not simply about the absence of conflict, but arises out of everyday social situations, she argued. – The history of colonisation and nationalism has also fed into what would have been a routine conflict that you find in families, in villages, between neighbours, etc.

– Turkish-Cypriots and Greek-Cypriots have cohabited for centuries without killing each other. Many accounts of how neighbours of different ethnicity would protect each other against nationalists from other villages. But since the entry of the Republic of Cyprus into the EU in 2004 most people have not taken part in any cross-cultural activities.

Bicommunal spaces

According to Scott there was a general sense of pessimism about the UN brokered talks between the sides.

– Gambling spaces form a kind of bicommunal space. They bring together people who have no other bicommunal spaces. In the casinos they have negotiated a shared space, she argued.

But the shady world of gambling also has its issues. There are the connections with organised crime, prostitution and money laundering. The absence of a shared authority between the north and the south also means that gambling addicts are left to their own devices.

– The atmosphere in the casinos can also be very volatile. There is generally a good mood as long as everybody is winning. But it can quickly become hostile, she pointed out.

She concluded that whereas the casinos do represent a rare bicommunal space in divided Cyprus, there is an ambiguity towards the features of the casino space. The equivocal attitudes towards the state also complicate matters, as does the variety of gamblers.

– Intimate spaces are not conflict-free, she stressed in her closing speech. – There are difficult issues and ambiguity around the casinos place in Cyprean society. This ambiguity is used by some to feed into the idea about the other.

Undermining stereotypes

Whereas the casinos in and of themselves do not represent a solution to the problems in divided Cyprus, Julie Scott still found features worth cherishing.

– You do get conflict, but at the same time stereotypes are also undermined. I’m not suggesting that this is a good idea for policy. It’s the normalisation of it all that I’m questioning here: What is “normal”?