Maltesers Crossing Borders
The air is hot and still, unusually so for Middlesbrough and I am at my laptop watching paleoanthropologist Ella Al-Shamahi give a TED talk while popping fast-melting Maltesers into my mouth. I know nothing about fossils but I like the fact this paleoanthropologist is British/Arab. I feel some affinity with her. I suck on another Malteser and then stop because she starts to talk about some of her family trapped in the Yemen and her voice breaks. I suddenly feel guilty over that last Malteser.
I adore Maltesers. I always have. Ever since I can remember they have been my favourite chocolate and for the longest time, for me, they were a rarity.
The Malteser was developed in 1936 in the UK by an American businessman called Forrest Mars and sold as a British product in 1937. It’s hard to believe that a product created by one of the most famous companies in the world, Mars Inc. only made it’s way to the US as late as 2017. I look down at the Malteser in my hand and ask it, “Are you British because you were born here or American because your dad was?” The Malteser doesn’t have time to answer.
Somalia-born Ilhan Omar is currently trending on Twitter as I research this article. The mob cries of “Send her back,” has sent a shiver down many spines. The civil war which forced Ilhan’s parents to move to the United States was a result of borders. Though there are many reasons that war began, a little research can immediately point to colonialism. Borders created that weren’t there before led to rifts, hate and division. (The Causes of Somalia’s Civil War, Historpedia, 2012)
Can I return to Maltesers for a moment?
I was born in Stockton-on-Tees but spent my childhood in Turkey, where you couldn’t find Maltesers for love nor money.
My father is Turkish Cypriot and my mother is British. Because my father wasn’t a mainland Turk, despite the fact that Northern Cyprus is only recognised by one country in the world and that is Turkey, we were not allowed to live permanently in Turkey. We later discovered legally we could have, but the authorities chose not to inform my father or give him permission to stay. So every few months we would have to make a trip out of the country to get our passports stamped. Our closest destination was Cyprus, a tranquil, beautiful burning hot island, which in case you don’t know is split in half by a border. A border that not too long ago didn’t exist.
My father, a tanned, broad shouldered Turkish-Cypriot with what I have always thought are extremely good looking legs, was actually born in 1940 on what is now the Southern side of the island of Cyprus, in a little town called Larnaca. Greeks and Turks lived side by side back then, squirrelled together between the peeling, cool stone houses. There was no border.
Then in 1974 came war and lives were switched over, as if someone was simply setting cutlery at a table. Houses were exchanged, entire communities divided. And nothing would ever be the same again.
I have always been fascinated with the concept of displacement. Perhaps because I have rolled through life with a constant current of identity crisis. Who am I? Why don’t I understand British pop references and when I do, why do I know the references from the wrong generation? Why don’t I have a Turkish name? Why do I keep time like a Brit but weep like a Turk? I am displaced, but I have never experienced war. What I still can’t quite believe about Cyprus was how families were simply plucked out of their homes and deposited in different locations. Greek Cypriot properties were given to Turkish Cypriots on the North side and Turkish Cypriot properties given to Greeks on the South. Imagine that. You come home one day and find that you no longer live in Middlesbrough, but have been given a replacement house in London and you are not allowed to go back. Do not pass go, do not collect your memories.
A large chunk of my father’s family were in London visiting his mother when the war broke out on the 20th July 1974. When they eventually returned they never went back to their homes or towns as they knew them. They had been relocated to new homes and new towns on a side of the new, man-made boundary that had been created.
Over 10 years before war broke out in Cyprus, in 1960 when Cyprus first gained independence from the United Kingdom, a British Base remained at Dhekelia. Dhekelia is on the Greek side of the island and about an hours drive from the minuscule village of Yeni Iskele, the place my father’s family house was traded with in 1974.
As a child I only knew it as the place to buy Maltesers.
In Turkey up until 2006 things like pork sausages and bacon were illegal to sell, so one of the attractions of Cyprus was having access to these products.
The British base at Dhekelia was like many military bases, a tiny world within itself, today boasting a population of just over 1,500. This meant that the base in the early days had shops and supermarkets that supplied British produce to its military and civilian community within its walls. Entering the Garrison itself would require a special pass, but British citizens were allowed in to the shops outside the Garrison.
My dad never came with us. I never questioned this as a child. I didn't have any concept of politics, although I had an awareness of a border. All I knew was that, “Daddy can’t come with us to the British base because he’s Turkish Cypriot.”
Until I started researching this article, I still thought the British military didn’t want to let him or his handsome legs in, despite his British passport. I never really thought deeply about the fact that he couldn’t come with us, perhaps because any excuse to avoid a shopping trip was a joy to my introverted computer engineer father, who would happily spend days in his office if he could.
The reason my father couldn’t come with us was because the base was on the Southern side of Cyprus and he wasn’t legally allowed to cross.
I would accompany my mum by car to the border where we would park and then hop on a bus with our British privilege in the form of two passports and cross to the other side. My mum would buy pork sausages and I would be allowed a packet of my treasured Maltesers.
Then we would go home and I would sit in front of our tiny telly and watch Morcambe & Wise betamax videos, gleefully popping the delicious balls of malt and chocolate into my mouth, while the smell of bacon sandwiches wafted gently into every room in the house. Why we still had a betamax player in our house in Cyprus I will never know. It was 1991.
Borders and identity have always been present in my life as long as I can remember. I have always lived with the knowledge that life isn’t simple. That because I am from two cultures, I am somehow intangibly in danger of being separated from someone I love because of nationality.
We always came back from the base to my father, but subconsciously I often wonder what a life of passports and unsure ground did for my sense of security.
Borders and laws can change in a day. As simply and as quickly as the border opened on that beautiful day in April 2003, so a border can close again, swallowing peace into its hollow cavity and ripping into the fabric of societies and minds in one swoop.
Until April 2003 the border between the North and South of Cyprus meant that Turkish Cypriots were not allowed to cross to the Greek side and vice versa. Within 3 days of the border opening, the numbers of people crossing went from around 5000 to 45,000. A few years after the opening, my parents while holidaying in North Cyprus were visited by a Greek family wishing to see inside what was their old family house. My parents happily invited them in and the wife stood in the house I had spent many childhood summers in, that had once been their home and she wept and said, “There’s just no memories. Nothing is left.”
All eyes seem to be on the borders these days. Borders that took sweat and blood and years and years to break down are, to mine and others despair, being erected again. There has been talk of a hard border in Ireland due to the impending advance of Brexit. Earlier this year Irish minister Heather Humphreys recalled “how crossing the border in her childhood meant visiting relatives and getting treats like Milky Bars and Maltesers that couldn't be bought in the Republic.” (Belfast Telegraph, online, 2019) Then during the Northern Ireland conflict, the border became a greater burden, disrupting family life and business and creating a sense of fear.
Look around the globe today and see an overwhelming sense of division. Division between generations, between countries that have peacefully sat side by side, between race, between Playstation and X-Box gamers.
In 1910 Forrest Mars, the creator of the Malteser, was just 6 years old. His parents had divorced and he was sent to live with his maternal grandparents in Canada. It might not have been a displacement he understood or thought about, but I wonder if the creator of my favourite treat had some sense of the border. Did he feel at all torn between America and Canada?
Anti-Americanism reached a shrill peak in 1911 in Canada. The Conservative slogan around that time was "No truck or trade with the Yankees,” as they appealed to Canadian nationalism. I find it interesting, regardless of what he knew or believed, that an 8 year old Forrest growing up amidst animosity between countries would go onto to create a product that would cross borders and unite people in their love of it.
I hear you can find and buy Maltesers in select shops in Turkey these days. Perhaps that’s a great analogy for borders. One day we’ll break through. Learn from the Malteser, the light little delights who have so much to say.
Back in 2016 they even got a special mention in the Turkey EU debate. Ilnur Cevik told BBC 2’s Newsnight - “Why should we be flooding Britain? There’s no reason. Whatever exists in Britain also exists in Turkey. We are not going to go over there just because you produce Cadbury chocolates and Maltesers.” (BT News, online, 2016)
Well, I don’t know about you Ilnur abi, but I’ll follow a packet of Maltesers to the ends of the earth.