Though we often think of food as merely a necessity or a pleasure, it can serve loftier goals. There’s even a term for the use of food to bridge cultural differences: gastrodiplomacy. Through cuisine, people can learn about countries or cultures about which they may have skewed or narrow views. Pittsburgh’s Conflict Kitchen and Detroit’s Peace Meal Kitchen, for instance, educate their clientele about locales such as Palestine, North Korea, and Iran through dishes and events that delve into the places’ people and history.
Cyprus’s Home Café, which sits in the middle of a conflict that’s been going on for more than 40 years, may be the world’s best-placed eatery for gastrodiplomacy. It not only educates its customers about each other—it literally brings them together in the no man’s land that separates them.
The café, located in the capital, Nicosia, is one of few establishments operating in the country’s largely deserted, UN-controlled buffer zone. That area stretches 112 miles—most of the length of the island—and is 4.6 miles at its widest and 11 feet at its narrowest. It has been dividing Nicosia, and the entire country, into a Turkish north and a Greek south since 1974.
That year, after more than a decade of tension and fighting between Turkish and Greek Cypriots, the Greek military junta ousted the Greek Cypriot president. This sparked Turkish fears of Cyprus unifying with Greece, and prompted Turkey to stage a military intervention. After a ceasefire subdued the fighting, the country was split into the Republic of Cyprus—the internationally recognized southern two thirds of the island—and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is recognized only by Turkey.
Until 2003, Cypriots could not travel easily from one side to the other. Since the easing of travel restrictions that year, thousands have passed through the buffer zone, simply showing their IDs, passports, or visas at checkpoints on each side to gain exit and entry. Today, some who live on the Turkish side may work on the Greek side, and vice versa. Nefeli Kokkinidou, the Home Café’s customer relations manager, who hails from Greece, witnesses a daily stream of people making their way back and forth—some of whom stop in for a snack or meal.
The café is part of a larger organization, Home for Cooperation, a community center founded in 2011 that works to bring the Turkish and Greek Cypriot communities together through cultural activities such as language training—Greek and Turkish, as well as other tongues—and through salsa, tango, and tai chi lessons. The café serves as a caterer for the organization, but also as a gathering place.
“Sometimes we’re the only place people can meet,” says Kokkinidou. “Not everyone is allowed to cross to the other side because of visa or other issues, so they come to the Home Café.” The café serves up sandwiches, salads, and soups with ingredients such as halloumi cheese, popular in Cyprus as well as Greece and Turkey. The food is geared for both Turkish and Greek Cypriot palates—but that’s not hard to do, because the cuisine is pretty much the same. “This is even true in Turkey and Greece,” says Kokkinidou, “but it’s more true in Cyprus.”
The café also brings the two sides together through music. On Thursday nights it hosts two bands—one from the north, and one from the south—that play sets one after the other. “This is spilling over the buffer zone,” says Hayriye Ruzgar, the communications manager for Home for Cooperation, who lives in the north. “The bands we’ve hosted are now playing together in other cafés and places in the north and the south.” Ruzgar has noticed that such collaboration is beginning to occur in other sectors, too, such as business, with panels about how startups in a federal Cyprus might operate.
Ruzgar attributes this trend to the recent peace talks between the two sides, whose goal is reunification. Though the talks stalled last month due to such issues as Turkey’s refusal to withdraw its troops, Cypriot leaders have scheduled new talks for next month. Meanwhile, Ruzgar says there’s a general increase in people’s desire to work together. “We see that at the café and organization, too,” she says. “There’s an urgency to get to know ‘the other.’”