This blog begins in Rwanda.
But this blog also began in Nicosia, Cyprus somewhere along the United Nations designated Green Line, as I crossed from the Greek to Turkish side and watched decades fall off of cliffs.
The blog began in Pittsburgh when I crossed the river for the first time and saw brown, rusted bridges, the yellow paint flaking into the Ohio River, where the Allegheny meets the Monongahela.
The blog began in Istanbul, Turkey, when I learned the meaning behind the word hüzün, the Turkish word for melancholy.
This blog began in the absence of things. Because this blog is about cities that have lost things, and cities trying to find things.
This blog is about cities with literal divides—the green pen that divided Nicosia, the Bosporus Straight that divides Europe from Asia, the three rivers of Pittsburgh—and cities with the other kinds of divisions—how socioeconomic divisions permeate development and create infrastructure problems; how women’s health policy changes the dynamics of a city; how the architecture of a city can pay tribute to memory.
This blog is about Rwanda.
This blog is about all of my cities.
This blog is about divisions, absences, spaces.
This blog is about post-memory and identity, post-conflict and reconstruction, and the poetry of the city.
WHAT IS AN ELEPHANT?
This blog derived its name from the saying ‘an elephant never forgets.’ There are several reasons for this. The first is because of the statues of elephants that guard the fountain of life and death at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center. I found the representation of this old proverb to be sensationally literal, and yet beautifully figurative. The elephants are made from the red clay that exemplifies the landscape of Rwanda as much as the rolling green hills. They are almost juvenile looking, as though they are characters in a child’s book. They are not abstract sculptures, and don’t use very advanced technique. They are a survivor’s attempt at an elephant. They don’t need to look anything like elephants. Really, their purpose is literal. It is simply to say—elephants don’t forget. We can never forget this. These elephants watch the fountain of life and death, and will remember forever. Let us be like these elephants.
After sitting in front of this fountain and thinking about these elephants, I realized that every city has its elephants. There are both things to guard within cities, things that should be kept as testimony to the past for the sake of the future, and there are things that are representations of memory, fleshed out versions of these internal truths we hold.
In Nicosia, Cyprus, the elephant in the room is the Green Line, a massive, barbed-wired barrier that divides the Greek side, a member of the European Union, from the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), a country only recognized by Turkey. In 1974, the Turks invaded the island, killing many and forcing people from their homes. There are entire towns, like Famagusta, that remain ghost towns. No one lives there. There are newspapers still on the kitchen tables of houses, left in the chaos of escape. The line, patrolled by UN Peacekeepers, is an elephant.
Studying abroad in Nicosia in 2010, I went on a tour of the Old City, on the border of the Line. Our tour guide, a Greek Cypriot, after telling the story of the invasion, spit on the Green Line. That is an elephant.
The Turkish side is not self-sufficient and looks like 1974. Vehicles are outdated, fashion has not progressed, largely, and the buildings are crumbling into the sea. To cross the border, only allowed beginning in 2004, you must fill out a piece of paper that the TRNC calls a visa. It’s not a visa, really. It’s not even a legal piece of paperwork. It’s a scrap that they stamp with the TRNC seal. It does nothing, has no significance or validity anywhere. They don’t have real passports there, just Turkish ones. Our study abroad providers, the University of Nicosia, told us, cross at your own risk. It’s another world over there.
We crossed at our own risk. I bought blankets and scarves. We got caught in the rain in an antique store and looked through buckets of Soviet war medals. We ate kebab, which tasted strangely similar to the kebabs from the other side of the line. We crossed back over. The rain had washed away her spit. But I was pretty sure I could still see the mark she had left on the line.
That is an elephant.