Search for 'lost brides' of Cyprus stirs painful past

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Those who witnessed it said a sobbing Fetine Menish had to be physically dragged by each arm to meet her fate; the 14-year-old was being married off to a Palestinian merchant searching Cyprus for a suitable Muslim wife to take back home.

After all, Turkish Cypriot brides in the time between the two World Wars were prized for their beauty and work ethic.

Fetine's pleas fell on deaf ears, for the deal was done in 1936. Grinding poverty on the eastern Mediterranean island was compounded by years of drought through the 1930s, and her indebted Turkish Cypriot father had already accepted a dowry of a pocketful of British pounds sterling.

"If you send me away you will never see me again," Fetine warned. Her older brother Huseyin ran away and spent 40 days in the mountains, never really able to forgive his father.

Seven decades later, Fetine's grandniece Pembe Mentesh mounted a search for a "lost" relative that other family members never really talked about. In doing so, Mentesh uncovered hundreds of similar cases, revealing the suppressed guilt of families who felt they had sold their young daughters to foreign men.

Mentesh and colleague Yeliz Shukri say it's the word "sold" that's at the root of the shame felt by some Turkish Cypriot families for "giving away" their daughters for money, even though dowries for brides had long been an established custom.

But they say in these instances there was a key difference. The dowry didn't go to the bride as a financial safety net. Instead, it went to the families, giving the impression that a child was "sold."

Turkish Cypriot author Cemay Onalt Muezzin suggested in his own research that the social stigma was reinforced by a Turkish Cypriot soldier's 1943 pamphlet bemoaning the "sale" of Cypriot women to Arab men.

Mentesh and Shukri say no one knows exactly how many Turkish Cypriot brides were married off to foreign merchants between the 1920s and the late 1940s because records were destroyed. But their research leads them to believe that approximately 1,500 brides left the island — a significant number given the 70,000-strong Turkish Cypriot population at the time.

They say the number of people speaking openly about their relatives leaving is small given the actual number of brides. Most went to Palestine but a few ended up in Egypt and Lebanon.

Mentesh's search has spawned the documentary "Missing Fetine," which was directed by Shukri. Its revelations helped Mentesh and her relatives come to terms with their family secret and laid the groundwork to help other families reconnect with lost loved ones or their descendants.

"We believe this is a painful topic for all involved. For some, it may just be easier to leave it in the past," Shukri told The Associated Press.

Mentesh's travels took her to the West Bank and Jordan where Fetine's 13 children from two marriages live with their own families. It's not clear if Fetine ever attempted to contact her family back in Cyprus over the decades.

But Mentesh and Shukri are careful to stress that not all Turkish Cypriot brides went against their will or were unhappy — some may have sought a better life elsewhere. Some of Fetine's own children bristle at suggestions that Turkish Cypriot brides were mere commodities.

"We feel like we did the right thing," Mentesh told an audience at a recent screening of the documentary, which has entered a local film festival taking place in August. Mentesh and Shukri, who were born and raised in Australia and now live in Cyprus, say they're looking to screen the documentary at other international film festivals.

A glimpse into Fetine's frame of mind can be seen in the only surviving photograph of her that Mentesh came across during her research.

Taken just before her departure, Fetine, with strikingly long braids, dons a dress and inexpensive jewelry customarily provided by a photo studio to less well-heeled clients.

She appears to have little interest in the flower bouquet she was given to hold — it hangs by her side pointing downward. Fetine looks into the camera, unsmiling, with a gaze betraying some resentment about the choice made for her.

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