May 27, 2013
At least that was what her former husband Christopher Hitchens called her. THEO PANAYIDES meets a feisty lawyer with an ambivalent relationship with Cyprus
As I sit in the waiting area I can hear a lawyer talking on the phone – a middle-aged woman, crisp and authoritative. “You’ll have to close up the building,” she tells her client, “then take legal action against those responsible. Send me the facts of the case, and the video”. This, I tell myself, must be Eleni Meleagrou – at least till Eleni walks in, slim and rather tousled with her curly blond hair and thin violet top. She wears sandals and a bead necklace. A tattoo of an olive branch (“my favourite tree”) adorns her right forearm. She gives off a casual, hippyish vibe. In her small, bare office the laptop is in mid-browse, showing off the glow from the New Yorker website.
She’s been renting this office for the past couple of years, ever since she moved (or semi-moved) to Cyprus from London, where she worked as a solicitor. It’s true she doesn’t look like a human-rights lawyer, then again she only became a lawyer in her late 30s. (She’s now 58.) Before that she raised kids, tried to write books, took part in countless demonstrations, did some “airy-fairy” degrees – a BA in Philosophy at Bedford College in London, then History of Political Thought at the LSE, then most of a PhD on “Partition as a settlement in internal disputes” – and worked, briefly, for the Greek-American lobby in Washington DC.
And of course there’s something else – because if you Google ‘Eleni Meleagrou’ (especially if you type her name in English), most of the results you’ll find won’t be about Eleni herself but the man whose life is inextricably linked to her own. Eleni Meleagrou was, from 1981 to 1989, the first wife of Christopher Hitchens, the late writer and essayist who became, in his later years, not just a celebrity but something of a secular saint, debating religion (he was against it) with Tony Blair, speaking out against “Islamofascism” in the wake of 9/11 and selling half a million copies of his atheist polemic God Is Not Great.
“I know!” she smiles, her eyes flashing – they often do, when she’s angry or amused – when I mention the Google thing. She’ll often tell her kids (Alexandros and Sophia, 29 and 23 respectively) to Google her in Greek, she adds wryly, especially if they want to learn more about her recent adventures. It’s worth learning more, because – despite her eventful life, despite her memories of Hitchens, despite her formidable intellect and sparky personality – the most important subject to discuss with Eleni right now is ‘Meleagrou and others vs. Turkey’, a case decided on April 2 by the European Court of Human Rights which essentially ends the long-running Cyprus problem, at least in terms of the ‘property issue’ and refugees going back to their homes.
That’s an eyebrow-raising statement, and some may wonder why they haven’t heard about this case if it’s so important. The answer, at least in part, is that no-one wants to talk about it; only now (on the day of our interview, in fact) has Eleni even been invited to the Foreign Ministry for debriefing and discussion. Greek Cypriots are in denial, as they’ve been since the Loizidou case in 1997 – a landmark case and a major victory, making Turkey responsible for human rights violations in the occupied north. The trouble, according to Eleni, is that things have moved on since Loizidou, especially as regards the Immovable Property Commission (IPC) set up by the Turks to settle with (or buy off) refugees.
The Xenides-Aristes case (2005) rejected the first version of the IPC but gave guidelines, which Turkey duly followed. The writing was on the wall, she sighs, “but we didn’t want to hear. We were still going on about illegal state, illegal this, illegal that, quotation marks, quotation marks”. Then came the Demopoulos case (2010), a “devastating decision” which not only weakened refugees’ ownership rights but also approved the IPC as a valid “domestic remedy”. The plaintiffs in that case had refused to go before the Property Commission, but by that time 70 Greek Cypriots had already been and got settlements: “So we go to Strasbourg and the Turks had 70 settled cases, no complaints, and we had jack shit. And we’re arguing that it’s not effective, it’s illegal – and the Court said ‘But you haven’t tried it’.”
So if not a single Greek Cypriot had gone we might’ve been okay, I point out. “But you can’t prevent people from going to the only remedy,” she counters – especially with the problem mired in stalemate, and especially for areas (like Kyrenia) that are so developed they’re unlikely to be returned in any solution. No, says Eleni, what we should’ve done was grasp the nettle and engage with the IPC: “They should’ve gone and tested it properly, and had arguments about restitution [i.e. the return of land] and the level of compensation. It wasn’t done properly”.
Hence her own case where she tried to do exactly that, refusing to settle and demanding that the case go to trial – and hence the decision of April 2, hammering the final nail in our coffin. Eleni had refused compensation and demanded the return of her land (her family’s holiday home in Kyrenia), only to be told that she couldn’t pick and choose. All three remedies are valid, ruled the Court (the third remedy is exchange of land); only if you exhaust all three – ie. if you get nothing at all, which is highly unlikely – can you claim to have been wronged. Worst of all, she says, the Court refused to exercise its supervisory role, ie. to review the IPC on its merits: “The message could not have been clearer. What we have now is that the highest European court has thrown us out on the property issue, and left us to the mercy of Turkey. Now, are we going to go and settle [the problem], or are we going to sit there and let Turkey decide?”.
Is she surprised by the lack of reaction to her case? Not really, she shrugs; there’s an attitude of ‘serves her right’ and ‘we told you not to go’ – just like the negative attitude she’s faced all along in pursuing her claim (“Whoever dared say anything was supposedly a ‘traitor’, you know all that”). It’s fair to say that Eleni Meleagrou has a slightly ambivalent relationship with Cyprus – and in fact she always did, even in childhood. “I was brought up in a home that was acutely politically aware, and very progressive,” she explains, where ‘progressive’ equals Left-wing. Her father was a doctor, her mum was (and is) an intellectual; both were socialists, demonstrating against the Greek junta at a time when many Cypriots were applauding it. Eleni marched as well, then marched against Vietnam when she went to the UK, then marched for Cyprus after the invasion – but has never, until now, actually lived in her native country as an adult.
Does she still feel roots, after 40 years of being away? “Yes I do,” she replies instantly. “I very much feel part of Cyprus, I always have done”. Her children speak Cypriot Greek, visit every year, and make a point of bringing their partners. She herself is too combustible to be sentimental – she got in a fight the other day with a young man driving his sports car onto the pavement, and whips out a photo she took on her mobile to show to the cops – but she is, I suspect, intensely loyal as a person, and attachments die hard. After all, she muses, “I married a guy who I met here in Cyprus – and, in a way, that was what we had. Otherwise I would never have met him. And he spent a lot of time talking and writing about Cyprus in the first years, it was part of my relationship with him. He loved Cyprus as well, in his way – and he loved the idea of having a Cypriot family, which was a very un-English experience for him”.
‘He’, of course, was Hitchens, who wrote a book on Cyprus (Hostage to History) in 1984 – seven years after he and Eleni met on her uncle’s verandah, her uncle being former EDEK MP Takis Hadjidemetriou. Hitchens was here for a conference; “I’d heard about him, and I was interested”. He was just a hack in those days, “but Christopher had it in him, none of [what came later] is a surprise. He was very ambitious, very intelligent, very hard-working and very knowledgeable. An exceptional guy. That’s why I fell in love with him, and had to be with him”. And what did he see in her? Well, she shrugs, being a foreigner was undoubtedly exotic: “He wasn’t someone to settle with some English…” – long pause – “girl, you know? And he liked my argumentativeness, he used to refer to me as ‘the Cypriot terrorist’ in those days. And we understood each other… We had a very good marriage. This is what I keep telling everyone, we had a very good marriage of eight years or so – which unravelled in the last year for all sorts of reasons, but it wasn’t a marriage throughout which we were quarrelling. We had a good marriage, and that is why we had a good divorce”.
‘All sorts of reasons’ is a bit diplomatic; in fact the marriage ended because Hitchens fell in love with another woman, even as his wife was pregnant with Sophia (leading to a fraught relationship with his daughter in later years). Hitchens-haters invariably use this betrayal and desertion against him – “but you know what?” says Eleni, “I don’t think they know what they’re talking about, basically. I mean yes, I was pregnant. [But] I could’ve held him back. I threw him out when he told me he was in love with someone else, I literally threw him out. I could’ve carried on and cried and so on, but I had too much pride”. Easy for outsiders to pass judgment, she adds, but “it takes two to get to that point”.
Some would say that’s a bit too generous – then again, I can think of reasons why Eleni might want to be magnanimous. Firstly, of course, Hitchens is no longer with us (he died of cancer in 2011). Secondly, those years with him – her late 20s and early 30s, first in London then Washington – must’ve been exciting, a whirl of glitzy shindigs and famous faces. Martin Amis (Hitchens’ closest friend) was their best man; “Oh, Martin can be hilarious,” she replies when I ask what he’s like, which admittedly isn’t quite the same as ‘friendly’ or ‘empathetic’ (I note her throwaway comment on Ian McEwan, another famous writer who was part of the gang: “He’s a lovely guy, and you can’t say that about any of the others!”) – but it’s still a golden memory to cling to as she sits in Nicosia, perusing the New Yorker and mulling over the disappointment of ‘Meleagrou vs. Turkey’.
Yet she doesn’t seem disappointed; not at all, in fact. I could listen to the tape of our interview, but it can’t evoke the actual experience of talking to Eleni – the way she sits on a swivel chair and happily wheels herself around the room as she talks, her joie de vivre and flashes of temper as she lists all the “irritating or childish or hopeless” things about Cyprus. And besides, there’s a third reason why she’d want to be magnanimous about Christopher Hitchens: she loved the man. “One could never – or at least I could never stay angry with Christopher for very long,” she muses fondly. Even when he wrote his autobiography (Hitch-22) and devoted a grand total of eight words to her – and even those in parentheses – she eventually forgave him. “He had such charm,” she smiles. “And he had a desire to please, which was almost as huge as his desire to argue”.
They argued a lot; that was part of the mutual attraction (“He’d never admit defeat. But he was also prepared to sit up all night, if need be, to do it”). Eleni Meleagrou still argues now, whether with drivers who park on the pavement or oblivious Greek Cypriots who’ve sunk into inertia and complacency – “You can’t remain stuck in the same old slogans. You can’t. You lose if you do” – just like she once argued for Marxism-Leninism with a touch of Maoism, back in her fiery youth. Yet the final impression I get isn’t of an angry or embittered person but a clannish, emotional person, one who values friends and the deep, serene bonds of home and family.
Let’s go back to her darkest time: Washington DC in the early 90s, newly divorced, small kids, no real job (this was when she decided to go to law school). Things were tough – yet they also inspired her. “The kids and I became a family,” she recalls with a kind of tender pride. “And we were a happy family. It worked. I was happy with my kids, I really was.
“I remember one day – because yeah, I’m a highly-strung, quite neurotic person, and I have all kinds of worries and anxieties, but I remember one day I was walking on the Mall in Washington – a wonderful open space, with monuments – and pushing a stroller with Sophia in it, and Alexandros next to it. And the weather was brilliant – and I was young! And right then I thought: ‘I am truly happy. This is a real moment of happiness. And I’ll hang on to this and I’ll remember it, because this makes me happy’.” No wonder she looks so un-lawyerly.