‘Uncharted’: how white narratives distort and orientalise Cypriot history and identity

‘Uncharted’: how white narratives distort and orientalise Cypriot history and identity

CN: trauma

OPINION

‘Uncharted’ is a four-part vlog-style Youtube series on the Cyprus conflict by YouTuber, Johnny Harris. I have watched the entirety of this insensitive, offensive series, so that you don’t have to. I will delve into my thoughts below, so you know exactly the reasons why you shouldn’t waste your precious energy on it. And if you do decide to watch it, out of academic curiosity, at least you can psychologically prepare yourself for what you are about to see.

Binary labels and misleading statements

One of the most pressing issues with the series is that Harris from the outset consistently refers to the people of Cyprus as ‘Greek’ or ‘Turk’, whether through his own voice-overs, or through the uncritical inclusion of old documentary snippets and news footage.

This is especially bizarre given that Harris claims to have been interested in Cyprus and its history for a decade. Surely such a long-standing interest should translate into careful use of nomenclature? If he had spoken to our peace activist scene or engaged in any substantive listening, he would surely have known that referral to Cypriots as ‘Greek’ or ‘Turk’ should be avoided.

Harris frequently makes use of colour-coding in his graphics, for instance when illustrating a map of the island: the Republic of Cyprus (RoC) is always blue, and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) is always red. This is no neutral or coincidental act, since red has historically represented Turkishness and blue Hellenism. Harris cannot purport or claim to want to ‘understand’ Cypriot history whilst uncritically repeating that same binaric rhetoric, imported by our British colonisers, that catalysed fragmentation in the first place.

In his inability to critique the psychological hold of this rhetoric, he ends up propagating it, and collapsing our beautifully unique Cypriot identity into reductive labels.  In one particular moment, Harris describes how the donkey becomes a symbol of a time before suffering, and a representation of the shared past between all Cypriots, ‘whether Greek or Turk’. What could have been a really nice homage to Cypriot unity in effect gets cancelled out by Harris’ use of the very labels that divided Cypriots in the first place.

Harris briefly distinguishes between the Turkish-speaking Cypriots displaced to the North (both during the ’60s and ’70s) versus the Turkish settlers who came to the North following consistent and concerted efforts by Turkey to change the demographics of the TRNC. Again, this important distinction is eroded through his colour coding of the RoC and TRNC, and in doing so, he conflates Turkish-speaking Cypriots with Turkey: the country that is colonising their identity.

He understands that many Turkish-speaking Cypriots feel like they are being held hostage by Turkey, however he does not call these demographic changes what they are: settler colonialism. Without an understanding that Turkey’s actions are part of a wider process of settler colonialism and cultural genocide against the people of Cyprus, he once again does our story injustice.

‘It was the UN that helped hastily draw these lines to stop the fighting between the Greek and Turkish sides’, Harris muses. Perhaps this statement is indicative of two things: firstly, that Harris refuses to understand the damage that these binaric labels cause, and secondly, that he really believes the UN to be a force for good, even though we know that the UN is a deeply colonial institution, effectively run by Western colonisers with nefarious aims.

Hearing Harris praise the UN for ‘helping’ or ‘saving’ the Cypriots, when it was two powerful UN nations – the UK and USA – who caused the fragmentation of Cyprus and the plight of its people, is ignorant and insulting. The fact that his documentary-making falls so exceptionally below expected standards leads me to believe that his interest in Cyprus is not altruistic, respectful or one of good faith. Rather, he is interested in Cyprus because it tickles the orientalist antennas of his white western manhood.

The role of the ‘Other’ in the orientalist imaginary

The entirety of Harris’ series is littered with discourse and imagery that takes us back to imperialist expeditions. From the name of the series – ‘Uncharted’- to the fact that Harris insists that his documentary is an attempt to solve the Cypriot ‘puzzle’, to the fact that Harris actually manages to secure permission to travel into and record within the UN-administered Buffer Zone as well as the TRNC-controlled Varosha because he wants to ‘see’ what it ‘feels like’.

Implicit in his words and actions is the positionality of white entitlement. Harris views himself as a discoverer, as someone who will lead the expedition into the so-called unsurveyed, unexplored and unfamiliar Cypriot land. According to his own logic, he is the one who will discover Cyprus and translate her suffering into Western legibility. In doing so, he will solve the ‘puzzle’ of how Cyprus came to be fragmented.

He cannot begin to fathom or accept that Cypriots have been discussing their own postcolonial condition for decades. We do not need him to provide us with the answers that we already know for ourselves, on a deeply visceral and ancestrally-informed level.

Cypriot voices are not a monolith, and Harris refuses to listen to and respect them. Many Greek-speaking Cypriots reject the term ‘border’ when referring to the Buffer Zone/Green Line, instead focusing on the fact that this line is a result of the Turkish occupation. In his voice-overs however, Harris insists that the Buffer Zone is a border in the physical and psychological partition it creates. In doing so, he presents himself as the ‘enlightened’ white ‘expert’, in juxtaposition with the ‘ignorant’ natives who he tries to expose for their lack of understanding.

This moment creates an orientalist power dynamic, a power dynamic of the white man ‘educating’ and ‘civilising’ the local Cypriot, without an understanding of the deeply embedded colonial reasons as to why many local Cypriots will view situations differently to how he does.

In fact, many leftist Cypriots have been speaking about the psychological and territorial effects of the Buffer Zone, and the bordering that this line creates. As a Westerner, this is not Harris’ place to try to ‘educate’, especially when so much of mainstream Cypriot rhetoric is the direct legacy of Western imperialism and colonisation. Cypriots are perfectly capable of having dialogues amongst themselves. Harris can never be a part of this dialogue, simply because of his positionality and privilege.

Harris clearly aims to target non-Cypriots with his documentary series. But his problematic narrations clearly perpetuate more harm than good. Instead of centring himself, he could have easily chosen to amplify existing Cypriot voices. This would have been solidarity.

The white obsession with trauma porn

Trauma porn is violent and parasitic, and devours Cypriot stories, turning them into digestible distortions for Western consumption.

Cypriot pain only becomes legible, or important enough, when presented by and for white people. And this will always serve as an injustice to our stories, re-traumatizing us in the process. Along with the monetisation of Cypriot suffering and displacement through sponsored content and adverts, Harris also partakes in blatant self-aggrandisement. He positions himself as and plays the role of the white saviour, ‘helping’ local displaced Cypriots to visit their old homes.

In one instance, Harris takes Mr Takis, a displaced Greek-speaking Cypriot, to Varosha, then takes him to see his old house without his consent.

Harris contemplates the following: ‘I was subjecting this man to a traumatic reopening of his old wounds, all so I could make my video about the conflict. It started to not feel right’. This is indicative of the fact that Cypriot wounds are merely trauma porn for white people like Harris. Mr Takis should have been asked if he wanted to see his old house, so that he could emotionally prepare himself in anticipation of visiting it. Instead, Harris deliberately exploits Mr Takis’ pain, preferring to subject him to a non-consensual, deeply traumatic experience, for the purpose of drama, entertainment and YouTube views.

It seems that these white Youtubers do not actually care about Cypriot pain: they only purport to care so that they can justify exploiting it for their own monetary agendas.

Invasion is not a joke

Episode 3 of Uncharted takes the aforementioned insults to new levels. Harris begins the episode by stating that in 2021, ‘the island is experiencing a second invasion’; these so-called invaders are donkeys, which he then describes as an ‘invasive species’. Using the language of invasion as the butt of a joke in a context where invasion has not only left deep-seated trauma, but also caused the deaths of thousands of people, is beyond disrespectful.

Harris even tries to make comedy out of suffering and displacement by calling the situation the ‘revenge of the donkeys’. ‘You left us … we are coming back for revenge’ is, Harris says, what the donkeys are thinking. Except the donkeys’ owners didn’t ‘leave’ them, they were forcibly displaced.

Fatigue

It saddens me to see Harris’ videos garner so many views. It saddens me that so many people will see these videos and uncritically internalise its neoliberal, paternalist and orientalist narratives of white saviourism.

It saddens me that people will view these videos, and not stop to even consider the immense legacy that British colonialism inflicted upon the Cypriot people.

It saddens me that some will think this exposure is the answer, even though this exposure will perpetuate far more harm than good. It is not that we don’t have a voice: it’s that our voices are ignored, disrespected, or distorted into neoliberal legibility by people and institutions that have never cared about us, and never will.


All views expressed are the writer’s own.

Article Image Source: Flickr



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