Karin Varga in conversation with Joachim Sartorius
Mr. Sartorius, before your time as Secretary General of the Goethe-Institut and as Artistic Director of the Berliner Festspiele, you worked in the diplomatic service for around 14 years and from 1983 to 1986 as envoy at the German Embassy in Cyprus. During this time, you were deeply immersed in the country's cultural scene and befriended well-known artists and cultural figures. What was going on culturally on the island at that time? What was the mood in the cultural scene?
The cultural scene had gained a new vibrancy during that time. In their programming exciting galleries were founded, the Famagusta Gate gained acceptance as the new cultural centre of the city, where I saw many exciting dance evenings by Arianna Economou, but also stimulating installations and video works, for example in the context of a cultural exchange between Cologne and Nicosia. My friend Garo Keheyan founded the Pharos Foundation and transformed an old, abandoned shoe factory in the old town into an exciting center for old and new music. These are just a few examples. All in all, the mayor at the time, Lellos Demetriades, and his head of culture, Anna Marangou, had created a good climate. And the mood was, because you ask about it, overall a mood of awakening, even if the demand and the "market" were small, because it was and still is a small and divided island. Authors, in particular, preferred to be published in Athens rather than by a small Cypriot publishing house. This has probably not changed until today.
Unlike in most European countries, the German cultural institute, the Goethe-Institut, is not part of the German embassy. But there is a form of trusting cooperation and exchange. How did you perceive the work of the Goethe-Institut Nicosia at that time? Were there any joint activities?
The cooperation with the Goethe-Institut was already very familiar to me from previous posts in New York and in Ankara. The director of the institute in Nicosia at that time was Gerhard Blümlein, and we had a very good, friendly "connection" with each other over the years, in terms of sharing information about cultural projects and their implementation. As long as I was in the Foreign Service, I always respected the autonomy of the Goethe-Institut, and when I changed sides, I fought for the independence of the Goethe-Institut. Because distance from official associations, from the state, increases the credibility of the Institute's activities.
Do you still remember a special event of the Institute from that time? Or in other words, what did the Goethe-Institut Cyprus stand for at that time?
I remember above all a cooperation with the Cypriot National Theater – for example, Volker Geissler staged Brecht's Puntila – and literary events. They often dealt with political and social issues. For example, Uwe Timm read from his novel "Der Mann auf dem Hochrad" (The Man on the Penny-farthing), which was translated into Greek at the time and later into Turkish, on two consecutive evenings. The institute is located on the border and so it was possible to offer programmes for both groups of the population.
In your book "My Cyprus or the Geckos of Bellapais" you describe your life in Cyprus. The partition of the island was not yet ten years old, and the checkpoints were still closed. As a diplomat, however, you were able to move freely throughout the island and spent the summer months in a house on the northern coast in Lapithos. At the time, Germany was also a divided country and Berlin a divided city – like Nicosia. How did you feel about the two divided countries back then?
The division of Cyprus in the 1980s was much more hermetic and brutal than the German division. It was also more hopeless, because at the political level, with the hostile mother countries of Greece and Turkey in the background, there was virtually no movement toward a federal solution. On the level below the political one, however, some things were happening: At that time, we tried to support "the policy of small steps" propagated by the aforementioned Lellos Demetriades and his Turkish Cypriot colleague Mustafa Akinci with eveything in our power. In concrete terms, this meant trying to bring Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots together in a third place, for example architects, urban planners, theater people. One project, I remember, was to establish a joint sewage disposal system in divided Nicosia or to keep the road system open, so that if the border was opened, previous connections could be re-established.
In 2011-2012 you were on the island again for research for your book, and in 2018 you were invited by the Goethe-Institut for a reading tour. What surprised you or confirmed your expectations about the development the country made from the early 1980s to the end of the 2010s, a period of about 35 years?
Compared to the 1980s, the changes have been enormous. At that time, the island was still very much agricultural, even in the Greek part. Tourism had begun, but overall everything was still very sleepy. The Greek Cypriots, it seems to me, have tried to overcome the enormous trauma of the division by throwing themselves with great diligence and also with skill into tourism and the banking sector. Their Turkish counterparts followed suit, but with a longer delay. In the end, they also benefitted from the fact that the partition was lifted and free "circulation" was possible again.
What do you wish the Goethe-Institut Cyprus for the next 60 years?
I am not a prophet. It is already difficult for me to anticipate the next ten years. For the near future, I wish the institute to continue successfully on its chosen course of bringing together artists and intellectuals from both sides. I think it is essential to invite the young generation on both sides, who are not burdened by memories of invasion and plunder and injustice, to discuss exciting topics about the future of the Eastern Mediterranean, and in this way to create in them a new sense of belonging together.