THERE is quite a long list of things that I find infuriating in my sui generis country and her inhabitants.
Foremost among them is our never-ending whining, and the word we love to utter most: victim. We love being portrayed as victims.
And our awareness campaigns. Lately, I suspect with the help of the EU funds, we seem to be awash with awareness campaigns. Typically they feature marches, parades, placards and slogans, but sometimes you struggle to figure out what it is exactly that you are supposed to be aware of. Most of the time they sink without trace; forgotten even before they are concluded.
One notable exception has been a play staged by a group of amateur actors at the Lefkoşa Municipality Theatre over the past couple of months.
Karatahta (Blackboard) deals with the obstacles that so-called “normal” people create for the handicapped. It is written by Orkun Bozkurt, himself a disabled person with a talent for words, and Aysan Özcezarlı, and the cast is made up of both disabled and able-bodied actors.
It is a masterpiece of awareness.
I was shellshocked when I first saw it at a gala performance. I had not been expecting anything of its kind, and for the 55 minutes it lasted I laughed a lot and cried a lot. And it made me think a lot.
That night I was there as a guest of one of the cast: İlgen Bağcıer, a true beauty who is one of my best friends and one of the most impressive persons that I have ever met.
İlgen, whose family own the Erdener supermarket, was just 14 when she was taken to a string of doctors here because she was in great pain. They failed to find out what was wrong with her, so her parents rushed her to London where she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. She had chemotherapy for a couple of months and then underwent surgery.
When she came round, she realised that one of her legs had been amputated above the knee.
She tells how refused to look at it for about a week, and just lay in bed staring at the ceiling. Then she called the nurses, saying, “I'm bored -- take me out please”, and they were very happy to oblige. She donned a wig, hopped into a wheelchair and they went on a merry tour around the St John’s Wood area near the hospital.
She was a strong girl then, who has since grown into one hell of a strong woman.
After an absence of about 18 months, she went back to school wearing a prosthetic leg. I once asked what it had been like going back there now that she was “different from the rest”. “Difficult,” was her response. At the time she did not elaborate and I did not dare inquire further.
At the beginning of our friendship, more than a decade ago, her being disabled was rarely talked about. In fact, I was unaware of it to start with. She asked me once why I never brought it up and my response was: “I don't perceive you as a handicapped person.” I did not and I still do not. She is the most active, mobile person I have ever come across.
She is forever zooming all over the place. One minute she is here, the next minute she is in Bremen, or London or Moscow; you simply cannot keep track of her.
A media studies graduate from Eastern Mediterranean University who lives in Çatalköy, she has had senior roles at the President's Office and Tourism Ministry, and currently works at Parliament. A former Tourism Ministry colleague tells how, on working trips overseas, even snow in Moscow and sand storms in Dubai could not stop her.
Moreover, she is a stunning looking woman; a real head-turner as she walks into any place in her impossibly high heels.
An amputee, she was told she would never be able to wear high heels, but she proved them wrong. Since then, she has inspired many – must recently an Irishwoman who had a leg amputated two years ago following an accident.
Alison Richards, 48, came across a photograph of İlgen among promotional literature for a prosthetics firm. At first she thought wearing high heels was an impossible dream and even wondered whether the photo was just a set-up to sell dreams to women who felt “damaged and incomplete”. Having contacted İlgen, she now feels differently, and now has a dream.
She told me: “[İlgen] seems so at ease with herself and her leg -- I hope to be [like that] some day.
“Simply to see the photo of her standing in her prosthesis and heels brought a tear to my eye as it showed me that it was possible to try and get back some of the life I used to have . . .
“It is difficult to accept as a woman that your leg has been taken and society puts pressure on us to look and dress a certain way which I had believed was simply impossible with an ugly prosthesis or, worse, if you can't wear a prosthesis.
“There is nothing feminine about a single leg below a skirt -- although with her confidence she could probably make it look fabulous!”
Over the years İlgen’s own attitude to her artifical leg has altered dramatically. At first, she explains, she wanted to prove she was just like everyone else.
“I wanted to look whole -- more to myself than to others,” she says.
That has changed, and these days she is far more comfortable in her own skin. In fact, you may come across her with her false leg missing all the silicone coverings intended to make it look almost lifelike.
When I asked why, her response was: “If people are not going to accept me the way that I am, that's their problem.”
Hence her very active role in all matters to do with the disabled, and her role in the play, Karatahta.
Being also a bit of a primadona, she never does things by halves and her birthday parties get bigger every year.
“It is going to be just a few of us, darling,” she used to say when asked who was going to be at her party.
Last year, for her 40th, the “few of us” turned out to be more than 50.
This year she upped the ante, and on Tuesday there was “100-plus of us, darling” at the party. It was at the Lefkoşa Municipal Theatre and we were all there to watch the play -- but there was a twist.
Tickets were 15TL a pop and İlgen had got her brother, Aytekin, to purchase them all. She then handed out invitations explaining that guests were expected to pay for them -- more than 15 TL -- with the proceeds going to a good cause.
True to form I was late and the play had already started by the time I arrived, so having already seen it, I waited outside with one of the theatre volunteers until the end.
When we heard the final applause, the volunteer said: “Who is going to take the birthday cake in?” I volunteered; the last time I was on stage was in a school play when I was 10 and I loved it -- now was my new opportunity and I grabbed it.
The house was a riot as I ventured on stage. Everyone was clapping wildly but all looked devastated; their red-rimmed eyes showed they had been crying. This play does that to you.
Then İlgen explained that they had raised 12,000TL, which would be used to buy a custom-built wheelchair for a physically and mentally handicapped 17-year-old and an adjustable articial foot for a 17-year-old girl, Hediye Komeli.
At that point, young Hediye, who had been struggling to contain herself in her front-row seat, ran on to the stage and hugged İlgen, sobbing and crying: “I love you.” It was her dream, too, to wear high heels, she explained later, and now this had become a possibility.
The auditorium just went wild; the floodgates opened and there wasn't a dry eye in the house.
From my vantage-point, I looked out for İlgen's mother. She, too, had tears in her eyes -- but they were also sparkling with joy and pride.
It was a beautiful party.
PLAY REFLECTS REAL LIFE EXPERIENCES
PERFORMANCES of Karatahta offered the first occasion for members of the Cyprus Turkish Orthopaedic Disabled Association to take centre stage as amateur actors.
Last year, Wheel Traces, a show about disability penned by the same duo – former association president Orkun Bozkurt, Aysan Özcezarlı and director Cem Aykut – allowed association members to join actors on stage at the end, but this year's event went a step further.
Günay Kibrit, head of the association, spoke of his pride at the “amazing performances”, and explained: “The new play aimed to make the audience to think, to question, 'what are the problems that constitute obstacles in [disabled people's] lives?' It talked about real life, and what we experience in our interaction in the community, and one hand got the audience rolling in the aisles for an hour, and on the other made them cry.
“I think we succeeded in touching people a little.”
Mr Kibrit said they had been delighted to play to full houses, and added that, in addition to Tuesday's fundraising show, the premiere of Karatahta on February 26 -- the birthday of the association’s late head, Mustafa Çelik – had generated proceeds for the Lefkoşa Turkish Municipality women's refuge.
Mr Bozkurt thanked the municipality Theatre for making it possible to stage the play, and told how he had invited ideas for it from association members.
“Aysan and I wrote it up after brainstorming and exchanging views and experiences,” he said, adding: “I think the play held up a mirror for the audience, and they realised what and who creates obstacles in front of disabled people, and how easy it is to overcome those obstacles by small actions.”
Lefkoşa Turkish Municipality Theatre actor Mr Aykut, making his directorial debut, said the cast included 38 amateurs alongside the professional actors.
“Some of the amateur actors are members of the association and they took the stage for the first time in their lives, with crutches and in their wheelchairs, after some seven months of workshop training.”
So far the Turkish-language play has been staged 11 times, and will be performed next on June 10 at the Mesarya Municipality premises as part of the 3rd Mesarya Theatre Festival before forming part of the new Lefkoşa theatre season starting in September, when it will be performed at 8pm on Wednesdays.
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