Björn Luley - Goethe-Institut Cyprus

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Björn Luley

A sign with the logo and the opening times of the Goethe-Institut Cyprus hanging on a wall. Next to it is a man with gray hair and a mustache. He is wearing a suit and tie and smiles while gazing to the left.
Photo: Goethe-Institut

Mr. Luley, in 2011 you were transferred from Damascus, where the Goethe-Institut had to close due to the civil war in Syria, to Nicosia, in order to reopen the Goethe-Institut there, which was closed in 1999. The two institutes are only 326 km apart. How close or far did you find the two places?

It was very difficult for me to say goodbye to Syria and my application for the newly established director position in Nicosia was based not least on the hope of being able to make the short flight from Larnaca to Damascus several times a year to meet friends there and to be able to enjoy the unique atmosphere of this city. Unfortunately, this hope was suddenly destroyed by the war in Syria. Nicosia was in a different world. There was no censorship where you had to get your program-planning approved, and – what initially confused me the most – practically nowhere were there large photos of the president hanging in the public buildings. In Syria, cultural work with local partners has practically always endeavoured to expand the scope for local artists within the Assad dictatorship. In Cyprus this freedom was unlimited and our goal was to use this freedom to tackle other issues, e.g. that of the possible reunification of the divided island.

After 10 years of closure or rather continuation as the Goethe Zentrum, you were the first director of the institute. What challenges did you face when you took over the center and rebuilt it into an institute?

Since the closure of the Goethe-Institut Nicosia in 1999, the work of the Goethe-Institut had changed fundamentally worldwide, not only in terms of content, but above all in terms of administration. Many of these changes passed by the Goethe Zentrum in Nicosia. It was therefore necessary to adjust the Goethe-Institut – which reopened in mid-June 2011 with a large party and (for the first time!) a regional conference of all institute directors in the Southeastern Europe region – to the  current working and financing foundations for planning and programming. That was quite a mammoth task, which could hardly have been mastered without the new administrative manager, who was sent as support for three years. Just creating a salary scheme and a position plan was sometimes a frustrating battle with the regional institute. But after just under a year, the changes had been made and the Goethe-Institut in Nicosia had become a recognized link in the chain of institutes around the world.

In 2013 Cyprus entered a serious banking crisis, which ended with the so-called "hair cut" of accounts in excess of € 100,000. You found this EU decision outrageous and demonstrated against it in public. What made you take to the streets back then?

What I found particularly outrageous during the so-called banking crisis in Cyprus in 2013 was the behaviour of the international media. They literally waited for the Cypriots to tear each other apart when the banks were reopened and for public order to collapse after the banks had been closed for several weeks. The opposite was the case: on the day the banks reopened, people were very disciplined, allowing old and infirm people to go first, adhering to the rules of conduct and demonstrating to the international press present at the time, how civilized they are. The result was that all (!) International television teams left the next day. That was the motivation for me to publicly (and anonymously as a citizen, not as an institute director!) criticize the media and ask for solidarity with the Cypriots, NOT with the banks, which had previously confused the monetary system with a casino and caused the whole problem.

How did this crisis develop / make itself felt in culture and language work?

While before you could bring unlimited amounts of money (e.g. income from enrollment) to the bank without anyone asking where the money came from (!), it was completely different after the crisis: you had to document everything and sign a lot of forms. This new procedure was intended to combat money laundering, which had previously been endemic to Cyprus and had contributed to the crisis. Otherwise we were able to continue to pay our employees on time, which was very important to me.

Every institute director has personal priorities and areas of interest. What were your priorities in Nicosia? What was important to you in your work here?

As the political scientist and historian that I am or was, I wanted to use the geographic location of the Goethe-Institut in Nicosia to contribute something to the rapprochement between the two communities on the island and, if possible, also to reunification or federation. We therefore held several events in 2013 and 2014 with the negotiating delegations of both communities at the Goethe-Institut, to which we invited experts from Germany who reported on the problems and procedures involved in the German reunification. They dealt mainly with tax issues, administrative reform, land law, land issues and much more. In other words, practical things that need to be considered when two state systems aim at rapprochement or reunification. We deliberately held these events in camera, excluding also the media, and it was very satisfying for me to see how the Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot experts discussed the issues informally with one another.

But in addition to these political activities, we also intensified the film and music work, as well as exchange with writers. To this end it was necessary to convert the library of the former Goethe Zentrum into a modern multi-purpose room and to provide it with the appropriate technical equipment. This was managed in a relatively short period and allowed us to hold a number of important exhibitions and to make the event location in the "buffer zone" known throughout the city. The establishment of our open-air cinema in the summer months attracted many visitors and made new friends for us.

The Goethe-Institut Cyprus was your last place of work. But you return to Cyprus every year in October to spend your holidays here. What is it about Cypriot culture that fascinates you?

It's less the fascination of Cypriot culture than the joy of seeing old friends and acquaintances again and – at a time when it is already cold and rainy in Germany – to eat and drink outdoors on warm evenings and to enjoy the beauties of nature on the island. I also like to return to the house in the old town of Nicosia, where I lived for four years and where my landlord always gives me a room so that I can "come home".

What do you wish the Goethe-Institut Cyprus for the next 60 years?

That it will remain a meeting place for people who care about cultural exchange with Germany, where they can get to know new things and also learn and speak the German language. And, of course, that it will not be closed again.