Georgios, Ali, and Tribal Conflict

Haim Watzman

Gershom’s meditation on how tribal conflicts impinged on his family trip to Crete reminded me of Georgios, one of my college roommates.

Duke University had put me in the most boring dorm on campus at the beginning of freshman year, back in 1974. During my first semester, I made some friends in a dorm called Maxwell House, where the social and intellectual life was livelier. I waited around for a space to open up there–the only way I could get in was for someone there to request me as a roommate. At the beginning of the second semester–January 1975–the opportunity came. The obliging Maxwell Houser was Georgios, a Greek Cypriot from Famagusta. Georgios’s family had become refugees the previous summer when the Turks invaded, in response to a clumsy attempt by the junta that ruled Greece to annex the island.

Until that January, Georgios had shared his room with his best friend–Ali, a Turkish exchange student. I supposed that the roommates had broken up over tribal grievances.

Georgios and I quickly settled into a comfortable arrangement. We didn’t hang out together much, but we were respectful of each other’s needs. Our oddly-shaped garret room gave us a modicum of semi-privacy in separate corners. I tolerated his smoking; he tolerated my attempts to get him to appreciate bagels and lox.

I quickly learned that he was both a fierce nationalist and a dedicated internationalist. He felt intensely the injustice that had been done to his family, and insisted that the Turkish army should withdraw immediately. But he was an officer at the university’s International House, planning activities to bring students from different countries together. His dedication to such togetherness extended to our room, which I occasionally barged into when Georgios was doing unity with an international woman.

One day Ali barged in. I expected fireworks. Georgios got up in delight and embraced his old friend. Cyprus remained divided. Georgios’s family remained refugees. Ali remained a Turk. But friends remained friends.

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