Announcing The Icon Hunter, the Being in Community 2018 Book of the Year!

Dec 11, 2018

Art. Intrigue. War. An underground trade on the black market. Spies. Police. Politics. Religion. Family. Love. All of these can be found in Tasoula Hadjitofi’s memoir, The Icon Hunter: A Refugee’s Quest to Reclaim Her Nation’s Stolen Heritage, which is this year’s Being in Community Book of the Year! Now in its third year, this is an award I give to one book that I think exemplifies what the Being in Community blog is all about – building and strengthening our relationships with our families, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and beyond. The Icon Hunter was that book for me this year (you can read about the 2017 awardee, Yet, Home here and the 2016 awardee, The Longest Mile here).

In The Icon Hunter, Tasoula Hadjitofi (with her co-writer Kathy Barrett) chronicles her efforts to reclaim Cypriot icons and artifacts that had been stolen and trafficked by underground art dealers during and after the 1974 Turkish-Cypriot War, which Tasoula lived through and sought asylum from as a refugee in Holland (this short podcast offers some background, but the book itself provides a great overview of this aspect of modern history I knew little about). As she builds her own successful business, struggles with fertility issues, raises her family, and serves as the honorary consul for Cyprus in Holland, she also starts working with Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus, the Cypriot government, and several European governments, police forces and detectives to track down and repatriate stolen objects that were used for worship in her churches in Cyprus. One of the most successful–and stressful–operations involved the Munich sting – which you can find out more about in the book.

This post includes a special treat – my first video interview on this blog! I got a chance to interview Tasoula herself in the Netherlands via Skype. The most fun part of the interview was announcing the award of Book of the Year as a surprise to the author herself! You can go to minute 18:33 on the video to watch the announcement. As you will see from the interview (which includes a transcription below by, if you can’t watch), she is a busy woman and in addition to giving book talks on her book and her own career, she runs a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of cultural heritage called Walk of Truth. Proceeds from the sale of The Icon Hunter go to this organization. Follow Walk of Truth on Facebook here and sign up to learn more here.

In the interview, Tasoula talks about the importance of cultural heritage for refugee and diaspora communities. She shares how the work she did to restore the artifacts affected her, her family and her faith, and offers tips both for refugees and for the people who interact with them. In her words, “as refugees, [we] never chose to leave home. We are people who are forced away from home. So we are not here to steal people’s jobs or wealth. We didn’t choose for this.” To refugees, she advises that they get engaged in the same kind of work she is doing, restoring cultural heritage. “I recommend it to anyone,” she says. I have one giveaway copy of this book, provided to me by the publisher, Pegasus Books. To enter for the giveaway, “Like” Walk of Truth on Facebook, subscribe to my email newsletter here, and comment below on what interests you most about this book below. The giveaway closes on Friday, December 14, 2018 at 11:59 pm EST, US and Canada addresses only please.

Watch the interview here:  


Read the interview transcript below:

Phoebe:              I am thrilled to have the pleasure of meeting Tasoula Hadjitofi, the author of the memoir Icon Hunter: A Refugee’s Quest to Reclaim her Nation’s Stolen Heritage. And I’m really excited to interview you about this book because this was one of those books that I couldn’t stop talking about to anybody who would listen. I would read it and tell my husband, “Did you hear about the Turkish Cypriot War? Did you know what they did? Did you know what happened?” And I went to the Metropolitan Museum [of Art in New York City] and I went to the Cypriot Art section and there was a volunteer and I was like, “Have you read Icon Hunter? Do you know about what happened with this Cypriot art?” This book is really wonderful. I enjoyed both your story and how you told your experiences to being a refugee to working as an honorary diplomat as well as running a company and through all this, struggling to reclaim the stolen religious heritage of the Cypriot, religious and cultural heritage of the Cypriot community. The book has history and art intrigue and mystery. It’s really wonderful. It’s everything you could ask for in a great memoir. So, I congratulate you on this memoir and I’m very excited to have you with me today.

Tasoula:             Thank you so much for that. Thank you. I must say that it did help me writing the book with an American lady who is non-Christian Orthodox [Kathy Barrett]. Because a lot of things we take for granted about the role of the icons in our faith, that they are a means for us to pray, but for a non-Christian or a non-Orthodox person where images have a different purpose in their faith, it is hard to imagine the value of this religious antiquities to Christian Orthodox worldwide.

Phoebe:              Yeah. So, I congratulate her as well, Kathy Barrett. Sounds like it was a great partnership because it really does speak to a very wide audience while being true to your background. Your cultural background and religious background and me as also as somebody Orthodox, I connected so much with what you described in it. So I don’t want to give away too much, because I want my readers to read the book, so what I will start with asking is, in the bookwe read about your efforts to repatriate the Cypriot Icons, and since the publishing of the book, have more artifacts been returned?

Tasoula:             There are looted antiquities from Cyprus being repatriated every year. My work, the awareness raised by my work, but also the NGO, the people I work with, and the recent events in Syria, have contributed to tighter legislation worldwide in order to protect cultural heritage. The link of the destruction of cultural heritage to other crimes like weapon selling, drug selling, economic crimes, but also extremism, pushes it up the priority list of politicians. I also believe that the struggle, particularly in Europe for integration and the respect for diversity has also made politicians look at the role cultural heritage plays for identity. So yes, more antiquities came and the laws are much tighter now.

Phoebe:              Great. That’s good news. You mentioned identity. Can you talk about what effect the returns to these antiquities had on the Cypriot community abroad and in Cyprus as well as other returns to other countries that you’ve been working on more recently?

Tasoula:             Well, the thing is, that when there’s a war, there’s always destruction of cultural heritage and destruction of cultural heritage is normally seen as something for the elite, luxury, but I feel it was never understood the role it has to people in affected communities. Now being myself a refugee and being myself an immigrant in Holland, I have struggled a lot with my identity because I have a sense of belonging in Cyprus, emotionally, culturally, but I love Holland and I spent many years feeling guilty for loving Holland. At the end of the day, practically I’m different here and different there. So by highlighting and bringing the awareness that the cultural heritage, the meaning it has to ordinary citizens, I think it makes people aware, and the politicians, the role it has on our identity, whether religious or historical. They hold the community together because they hold shared memories. When you are abroad you are being different amongst different, you want to hold back on something and those memories, the happy memories in particular back home, they are very vivid when you are living abroad. That’s what I found.

Phoebe:              Yes, yes, definitely.

Tasoula:             And repatriating them. If you are a refugee, you feel helpless. You feel there’s nothing you can do. You just sit and wait until others decide for you to go home. I feel that by bringing these antiquities home, you feel you’re contributing, you know? Phoebe:              Yes, absolutely. And you’ve started to make a wider contribution, I think since you published the book, you started an organization called Walk of Truth. Can you talk about that?

Tasoula:             Yes. Walk of Truth was actually established before, but it took some time to decide where we focus because we needed to find what is available out there. What is different with us? What can we do which is you know different. We found that although there were many initiatives, there were not many initiatives that engaged the public in their responsibility to protect cultural heritage. That’s the area we decided to focus. So we decided that collecting lessons learned of repatriation, whether from Cyprus, but also from other countries, which we make available to other ordinary citizens who want to watch the trade and contribute to repatriating. We lobbied for the change of legislation in the United States, in the UK, in the Netherlands and we’ve been very successful in Holland and the UK and we hope soon to be also in the US. To tighten the laws and we contribute into antiquities being repatriated from other places than Cyprus by using this network and the lessons learned. For example, antiquities from Syria, from Yemen.

Phoebe:              There was some news about antiquities from Iraq that have been-

Tasoula:             Yes. You see we are a network of antiquities or cultural heritage lovers worldwide there are many, there are law enforcement, there are lawyers, we are all volunteers and basically we share knowledge, we share yeah whereabouts and lessons learned so that we can help each other. So directly or indirectly, anyone repatriating any antiquity contributes to the cause of the others and lessons learned are daily created for all of us.

Phoebe:              Yeah, that’s great! I do hope that as more awareness gets raised, the network grows and more people take those lessons learned and continue to strengthen some of these laws to prevent such theft in the future. So going back to the book, you shared so much vulnerability in the book about your drive to repatriate the stolen icons to your home country. You share how it affected your marriage and family life while also being very fair and testifying to the immense support that you received from your family as well. Now, years after those very intense years during the time of the Munich sting… I’m dropping hints so the readers want to open the book… the sting that you played a very big part in arranging. How would you say your work to repatriate the icons and your work of Walk of Truth has affected your family over the long term?

Tasoula:             Well obviously during the time, my priorities was the repatriation and my responsibilities were my company, my children, my family and I had to juggle a lot of balls in the air. I constantly felt guilty like most women do that they have more than one balls to juggle in the air. So I felt very guilty for depriving time from my family to go and work under cover with police officer and go track down antiquities. I mean, it’s not an easy task for an everyday mother. Now that my children are older, the only thing I can say, I would do it tomorrow again and again. I have zero regrets. My children, now that they’re older, I think they’re my greatest fans. They’re so wonderful and so proud of what I’ve done and they’re helping me and they support me and so does my husband, so no regrets. I just extended my network of fans with them.

Phoebe:              Good. Have they read your book?

Tasoula:             Absolutely.

Phoebe:              How did they respond?

Tasoula:             Well, they loved it but they are shy and they don’t like their pictures being shared.

Phoebe:              I guess it comes with the territory.

Tasoula:             Yeah.

Phoebe:              So, we mentioned earlier in the interview about how you talk about your Orthodox faith and what these artifacts and antiquities mean as an Orthodox Christian and what I enjoyed about the book too is how you managed to maintain, to be true to your Orthodox Christian faith without judging or condemning other religions. How were you able to draw the line when it seemed like the theft of your cultural heritage was religiously motivated?

Tasoula:             Well, you know thugs are thugs everywhere. I think that thugs have no nationality and no boundaries. I think there are good and bad everywhere. Of course I could even argue that the destruction of religious antiquities being that it was being done by Turkish soldiers and Muslims that it was religiously motivated, but if you look at art trafficking and the whole chain, they aren’t the only guilty parties to it. There is lack of legislation and how they pass unspotted through customs. How some legislation is more favorable to the possessors than others. So if you’re as busy as I’ve been with the subject you understand that there are a lot more things to improve to stop this crime than the religious motivation.

Tasoula:             Therefore, I don’t see it that way. Now, how it impacted my faith, it is another question. As a child, I was born Christian Orthodox and I was Christian Orthodox by culture and by fear because I wanted to be a good girl and I did what my Mom told me to do, well my parents did. But, through my journey of the repatriation and my growth and my reflection and particularly my relationship with the former Archbishop of Cyprus, that I worked closely with, my faith deepened and strengthened.  As a free woman, living in the Netherlands, I can say that today that I’m more faithful because today I choose my faith by choice as a free woman and not because I have to.

Phoebe:              I would say that’s probably the case for a lot of Orthodox who live sort of away, abroad or away from their home Orthodox country. When they live in a lot of the diaspora in Europe and the US. You know they probably feel that way. They decided to stay when they had the freedom to leave and have so many choices.

Tasoula:             But also coming back to faith, you said how I don’t condemn other faiths, I am one of those people that believe that my family, today is beyond boundaries. My friends and family are people I share my values with and I have friends that share the same values as me from a variety of religions and I think that sharing the same values is fundamental to relationships, more so than religion. You can be from the same ethnic group or the same nationality, but if you don’t share the same values, you’re gonna be divided, or you’re gonna have conflicts. That is what I’ve learned. I believe that the Christian Orthodox faith works for me, but who am I to judge what you believe, or someone else believes. If that works for them and they share my value system, ie. they’re not using faith to be destructive then who am I to judge?

Phoebe:              Let God be the judge. Exactly.

Tasoula:             Exactly. Exactly.

Phoebe:              So speaking of crossing borders, you dedicated your book to refugees. On my blog too I’ve written about the current refugee crisis and not just on my blog, it’s been on the news, it seems to be a growing crisis… what advice would you share with a refugee right now about finding their way in the world? What advice would you give them about creating a new community in their new environment?

Tasoula:             Well, I would like to give two tips. One for the people who interact with the refugees and one about refugees. People who interact with refugees, I would like to tell them that as refugees, never chose to leave home. We are people who are forced away from home. So we are not here to steal people’s jobs or wealth. We didn’t choose for this. A true refugee, the first year of their arrival to a new country is normally traumatized and their priority is not to learn the local language and integrate because that is contradictory to what we want. We don’t want to hear that we’re here to stay because we’re still dealing with the trauma of having to leave. That is something that I would like to make clear that we are not economic migrants. The second is as a refugee, I can only share from my own experience that the inability of going back home and this helplessness feeling of “there’s nothing I can do” watching the trade, watching collections and tracking down antiquities or contributing with information to the repatriation of antiquities, it really helped me to heal my inner conflicts, my inner wounds, you know? So I channeled all this energy into bringing home the antiquities until I am able to go home. I recommend it to anyone. So if anyone wants to do the same, reach out to Walk of Truth, send us an email or reach out to me and I promise you we will share with you lessons learned, our network, everything and empower you to do the same for your own country.

Phoebe:              Good. I hope many people take you up on this offer.

Tasoula:             Thank you.

Phoebe:              So I have two announcements. The first is that Pegasus Books provided me with a giveaway copy. I can give Icon Hunter to one of my readers. So those readers who would like to enter, subscribe to my email newsletter and comment on the blog post about why this book interests you and I will post more details about the giveaway in the post. But I have another announcement that Tasoula has not heard and that is thatIcon Hunter has been chosen as the Being in Community Book of the Year for 2018!

Tasoula:             Oh! That’s nice of you. That I didn’t expect. You didn’t tell me!

Phoebe:              So, to give you some background, the Being in Community Book of the Year is an honor I bestow on one book that I have read that year that truly encompasses the idea of being in community. A book that is about different kinds of community, family, work, local community, global community, religious community, how to build them, how to navigate them, how to strengthen them. Icon Hunter manages to touch upon all of these important spheres and aspects of community. So this is the third year I’ve bestowed this honor. This is the third book to receive the Being in Community Book of the Year award. So I congratulate Tasoula and I thank you so much for joining me and for writing this wonderful memoir.

Tasoula:             I’ll share that with my Kathy as well.

Phoebe:              So, congratulations. Right now it is just an honor. Maybe in the future it might be something bigger. I do want to thank you again for joining me, for sharing your story. It is something that will certainly strengthen many people on their own journeys in different ways. It’s not just for refugees. It’s really for anyone who wants to understand what it’s like to have to escape your home from war and also what it is like to see things that are so important to you be dealt with like objects rather than something that is truly holy and meaningful for you. It’s really a book I recommend everyone read. I’m just so glad I had this opportunity. Tasoula:             Thank you very, very much. If I may say to yourself, the book is on sale on and Barnes and Nobles in the United States. Profits from the book from my behalf, they are given to Walk of Truth, they are charitable, in my part of it. And any group of people who wants to sell it, I would promote you because you’re just contributing to the cause, it’s not me becoming rich or famous.

Phoebe:              So that’s another good reason to buy and read this book even if you enter the give away you can give it as a gift and get your own copy.

Tasoula:             Thank you.

By Phoebe Farag Mikhail