Fugitive forced to play a waiting game: Life in northern Cyprus is a far cry from Asil Nadir's London existence. Esther Oxford reports

OPPOSITE Asil Nadir's house in the village of Lapta, there sit eight, nine, ten men. They have skin creased and broken by the sun, they are bare-footed, and they are happy. They sit all day in the shade, playing cards, dominoes or draughts and drinking salted yoghurt with mint. They are the men who helped build Asil Nadir's fortune. They picked his fruit.

Outside the grocer's store is a boy. It is his job to hose the roads to wash the dust away so Nadir's car does not get dirty.

'We are having a new road built,' said one old man excusing the dirt, 'in August.'

Only one section of the road is to be tarmacked: the section leading to Nadir's home. Is Nadir paying for it? 'No, we are.'

Hidden behind the white walls surrounding his house, Nadir retains his aura. His 13 years away have been enough for the people of Cyprus to distance Nadir the god from Nadir the hard-working little boy they once knew who used to race round selling newspapers. He is the man who has given his people wealth and dignity, they say; who has forced foreign governments to utter the words: 'The Turkish republic of Northern Cyprus.'

Nadir's lifestyle may have taken a lift since his days as a gown-presser for his family business in east London, but the lives of the people in his home village have stayed static: few houses have hygiene facilities; few people have cars. 'Mr Nadir, Mr Nadir,' the men in the cafe say collectively, 'he is nice, very good. All people like him. He gives oranges, he gives hay, he pays cash.'

But ask them how rich they have become or how life has improved since Nadir made fresh fruit the cornerstone of Polly Peck, and the answer is vague: 'I can't know,' Mustafa Mehmet says, 'maybe medium rich.' Asked what he earns, a young waiter at his luxury Jasmine Court Hotel complex says: 'It is not much. They work us hard.'

Languishing in the courtyard of his home, Nadir, smooth-skinned and flabby, looks as though he has not done a hard day's work in a long time. Others do it for him: his manservant, his female companion who brings his faxes, his army of suited men who hide guns under their jackets and receive the villagers who come bearing gifts of garlands, oranges, flowers.

Ask people who work for him - newspaper editors, hotel owners, waiters - how he spends his days and they look surprised. 'He repairs Jasmine Court Hotel,' one said.

An editor who did not wish to be named said: 'He visits the newspaper most mornings. He visits his mother, the manager of Wear Well, the clothing factory outside Nicosia. He talks to his sister who runs the Olive Tree tourist complex.'

Nadir says he is just biding time before rebuilding Polly Peck. 'I love my life here,' he says sniffing the air. Minutes later he uses words like 'claustrophobic' and 'small'.

'I am used to spending eight months of every year travelling abroad,' he says, tapping a cigarette impatiently. He makes his body looks relaxed but his speech is rambling.

'Of course, you realise that none of this exists, don't you?' he says after a while, gesturing at his fishpond, his lillies, his sweet-smelling jasmine. His mind seems to be running ahead. 'Fascinating, isn't it?'

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