When he graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus in the mid-1980s, Adi Atassi, a 56-year-old Syrian, decided to emigrate from his homeland. "The security authority in Syria was very active after the events of the Brotherhood, and the security service became the greatest authority in the country," he says.
It was a coincidence that I met my ex-wife, who was originally Cypriot. I was working at a hotel during college and I met her when she was working for a left-wing Palestinian magazine called “Freedom” that was published in Cyprus. The magazine was forbidden in Syria so they used to send my wife over as a secretary to transport the written transcripts. We had a love affair, and it was also an opportunity for me to get out of the country."
Adi says that the racial discrimination he faced upon his arrival in Cyprus in 1987 was distinctive "in terms of religion first and then in terms of considering every Turk to be a Muslim". His exposure to religious discrimination prompted him to think about leaving. However, he had arrived with a temporary passport and says, “I was unable to leave the island and was in effect imprisoned without being in prison”.
Adi did not have a Syrian passport because he did not perform compulsory military service in Syria when he was a student. He wanted to travel with his Cypriot wife to Canada as a political refugee and her family suggested that he went to church to get baptised in order to get a passport faster. He says, “I totally rejected the idea of changing my religion in order to get a passport.” After 17 years, Adi obtained Cypriot citizenship, although according to the law, he was eligible to get it after 5 years of marriage to a Cypriot.
Adi did not speak Greek but learned English from an English friend who he worked with in a furniture factory. He says, “My co-worker was British and married to a Cypriot too. My relationship with him was stronger than with anyone else in the factory; my English improved because of communication with him."
However, the English language was not enough for Adi to integrate fully into Cypriot Society. "I realised that the English language alone was not enough and I would always be considered a foreigner. I decided to go to the Greek literacy school and my language started to improve with time and with the help of my ex-wife. If I had not learnt the language, it would have been difficult for me to integrate fully into society."
Adi believes that since the mid-1980s, Cypriots are very sensitivity about religion. According to their perceptions, the Cypriot Muslim is Turkish, or loves the Turks, or has a relationship with the Turks, or sympathises with them. Unfortunately, I later discovered that this attitude exists even among intellectuals. Perhaps that is why I am a Muslim".
With the arrival of his first child, Adi felt that he started to put down roots on the island. He says, "I broke the barrier into closed Cypriot society." He carried in his mind the Arab pain from language, identity and what he had been exposed to and lived through in his youth. "I used to hate everything related to Arabic language, customs and traditions. I felt like I wanted to get out of this Arab skin during that period. People ask me why I did not teach my children Arabic. I tell them,” why should I teach them Arabic? I did not feel I belonged to the Syrian Arab until 2011" – in other words, the beginning of events in Syria.
Adi worked for years in many companies that oversaw the printing of newspapers and other publications. He says, “a group of friends who worked in this field taught me. After the closing down of Arab magazines and newspapers, I found myself in the field of graphic design and started as a novice designer.” Later, he devoted himself to drawing and visual art.
Adi has come a long way in understanding and dealing with Cypriot Society and being able to speak the language and enter the world of visual art has helped in this process. He says, "I was interested in visiting exhibitions and cultural meetings, and so I started forming a network of relationships with Cypriot artists over time. Of course, at the beginning, I limited my relationships with foreign artists in the country because as foreigners we had a common concern about the republic, regardless of our different nationalities."
Adi says that the beginning of the protests in Syria in 2011 prompted him to start Syrian political activity in Cyprus, where he knew dozens of Syrians. He says, "We went to a demonstration that included five thousand Syrians - it was amazing, it was shocking to me, so I started to get to know Syrians of different affiliations.”
Adi does not believe that his identity as a Cypriot, Syrian and Arab was greatly affected after his separation from his wife and the events of the Arab Spring. He confirms, “identity for me is a personal creation that I built with my own hands, and it is a balancing act between two cultures. I consider myself very lucky because I have one hand in the Arab culture and the other in the Greek. I benefit from both, growing my moral, emotional, cultural and creative powers from these two cultures. I built this house of two cultures with my own hands, and my children are the fruit of the beautiful mix.”