Tasoula Hadjitofi is the author of The Icon Hunter: A Refugee’s Quest to Reclaim Her Nation’s Stolen Heritage. Born in Famagusta, Cyprus, Hadjitofi and her family became refugees after the Turkish army invaded in 1974. Hadjitofi will be talking about her book at noon on April 29 at the Santa Barbara Greek Orthodox Church (1205 San Antonio Creek Rd.), and she spoke with us recently from her home in the Netherlands.
You were 14 years old when the Turkish army invaded Northern Cyprus. What do you remember from that time? My family had the direct experience of war, of being under bombardment in our own home, and then we were forced to move to another city. After that, my family was not really together; we didn’t have a chance to grieve together.
A fascinating aspect of your book is how you learned about the workings of the illicit trade in antiquities and complex international law. How did you manage this? I am an entrepreneur by trade, so I knew something about finding the best people and then listening to them very carefully. Because I had the full support of the Church of Cyprus, I had access to the best legal experts. The archbishop at the time placed great faith and trust in me.
Why is it so important to the people of Cyprus that looted artifacts be returned? The return of historical antiquities is a vital link to our ancestors, our identity, who we are as a people. When it comes to religious art — the icons, mosaics, and frescoes — the importance is also spiritual in that these are used to deepen our religious experience when we worship.
In your book, you write, “There is a story of hopelessness visibly written on the face of every refugee.” After 44 years, do you have any hope for resolution of the situation in Cyprus? I am an optimist by nature, but I am not naive. I have had the experience of looking through wire at the city where I was born and went to school and being told that I wasn’t allowed to go home. I am not allowed to show my children the house I was raised in or the places where I played as a child. This is almost indescribable.
What is the idea behind Walk of Truth, the organization you founded? Walk of Truth is a platform for me to share the lessons I have learned over the past 40 years. I didn’t choose this work; it chose me. There is a voice inside me that drives me to protect the world’s cultural heritage, to be an activist committed to this effort. Walk of Truth is an important part of that.