Cyprus and the European Union: A Savior and its Double

This post is part of a series on the Cypriot financial crisis.

Cyprus parliament’s vote wasn’t the end of the Cypriot financial adventure. In order to understand the dynamics of Europe and Cyprus in regards to the bail out plan, let’s turn back to another story of the Decameron, that of Alatiel and Cypriot Antigonos.

This story portrays the Cypriot as the savior of the beautiful Alatiel, wandering in the Mediterranean, sexually violated by a number of men. Alatiel, the daughter of the sultan of Babylon (Cairo), dispatched from Alexandria to be wed to the Muslim king of Algrave (Portugal), is shipwrecked on the island of Majorca. There she is rescued by a nobleman, Pericone of Visalgo, who seduces her. After his death, Alatiel passes from one man to another – including two Genoese ship owners, the prince of Achaea, the duke of Athens, the prince of Constantinople, the Turkish emir of Smyrna and a Cypriot merchant. Eventually, in Famagusta of Cyprus, she is recognized by one of her father’s former retainers, Antigonos, who is ready to return her to her father (Kinoshita & Jacobs 163). But Alatiel tells Antigonos that, “I would have preferred for my life to have ended that way [at sea] rather than to have led the life I have lived. And I think my father would wish the same thing if he ever found out about it” (Kinoshita & Jacobs 184).  She expresses the wish that she had never been saved from the shipwreck. Antigonos, in spite of Alatiel’s acknowledgement of her altered status as a woman, decides to save her. He provides her with a fictional cover story to explain away her long absence: that all this time she lived with the nuns of the convent of San Cresci in Valcava. Antigonos himself supplements the story by saying that she lived a virtuous life with the nuns and she displayed a praiseworthy behavior. Thus, Alatiel is restored and returned to her origins due to Antigonos’ good will. The sultan, who is very pleased, rewards Antigonos and sends him back to Cyprus (Kinoshita & Jacobs 185).  Despite being violated by many men throughout her travels, Alatiel now appears as a virgin. The Cypriot Antigonos restored her fictional virginity and modest behavior. In this Boccaccian story the Cypriot does not denounce or punish the evils of the sea, the pirates, the princes and dukes, Alatiel’s violators. Instead, he maintains the status quo and restores the lie of her virginity.

By reading the story of Alatiel and Antigonos, with the Cypriot financial crisis in mind, one might tend to think of Cyprus, the one currently in need of financial aid, as Alatiel. The story, however, presents a different angle. The Cypriot is not the victim but the savior. Though it may seem paradoxical, Alatiel – the tortured and violated woman who realizes her self-canceling existence, cannot be other than Europe, suffering manifold financial crises, popular protests, divisions amongst its members and violations by its authorities. The European project that had to do with the eradication of injustice and conflict within the European continent, and the establishment of an environment of solidarity among its nations was the lie that the Cypriot parliament came to restore. Like Antigonos, the parliament supplemented the fictional cover story of Europe as a multicultural community that treats all nations equally and respects their democratic parliamentary decisions.

The contemporary Cypriot “No” to European authoritarianism carries the burden of Boccaccio’s soteriology with the Cypriot as the protagonist in the preservation of the status-quo, even-though Europe/Alatiel ask for the cancelation of their existence.

The instinctive “No” of the Cypriot parliament had more to do with Cypriots’ deep historical consciousness of incessant colonization and subordination, more recently to the British and the Ottomans, rather than with their material existence as an economic entity in the neoliberal world. Like Antigonos, Cyprus – which accounts for two tenths of a percent of the European GDP – takes on the symbolic burden of the lie to save Alatiel’s life (i.e. E.U). The tragedy of Antigonos is to be found in the minute detail of the sultan’s gifts: in the harsh Mediterranean world of competitive trade and piracy, Antigonos returns Alatiel to the sultan, not so that he can receive gifts but so he can be the heroic savior [σωσίας], meaning both “savior” and “double.”

Cyprus is both the EU’s savior and counterpart. While the E.U. offered a form of financial salvation to Cyprus through the bail out plan, Cyprus offered a more meaningful ideological salvation to the European Union through its rejection of the bail out.  Cyprus’ “No” had more to do with what was a righteous decision not only for the Cypriots but for the idea of the E.U. Immediately after the parliament’s meeting on March 19, its president, Yiannakis Omerou, said that the parliament’s decision would, in a way, protect the other countries of the E.U. from the implementation of a similar haircut policy of bank accounts with less than 100.00 euros. In rejecting the plan, despite of the destructive economic consequences that followed, Cyprus helped to preserve the European project’s most important value, solidarity.

Perhaps, what remains to be saved now are the remnants of the European Union project. The Cypriot “No” was a voice crying for such a saving.

Listen more on NPR : The Cypriots’ New World Marred with Uncertainty

Works Cited

Blumenfeld-Kosinski, R. & Petkov, K. (ed.) (2012). “Noi Siamo Mercatanti Cipriani. How to do things in the Medieval Mediterranean.” Philippe de Mezieres and His Age. Piety and Politics in the Fourteenth Century. Brill: Leiden – Boston.

Kinoshita, S. & Jacobs, J. (2007). “Ports of Call: Boccaccio’s Alatiel in the Medieval Mediterranean.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 37:1.

 

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About Maria Hadjipolycarpou

Columbia University, Lecturer, Program in Hellenic Studies, Classics Department. Primary Blog: http://cypriotinwonderland.wordpress.com/
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