Thursday, May 23, 2013

With Cavafy in Alexandria

Loved, idealized voices
of those who have died, of those
lost for us like the dead.
Sometimes they speak to us in dreams;
sometimes deep in thought the mind hears them.
And, with their sound, for a moment return
sounds from our life’s first poetry---
like distant music fading away at night.
          Translated by Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard

THIS BLOG takes its name from a famous description by E.M. Forster of the Alexandrine poet C.P. Cavafy as "a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe".
Cavafy (Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis, 1863-1933) was an ethnic Greek living in Egyptian Alexandria, who toiled as a clerk in the Irrigation Service (Third Circle) of the Ministry of Public Works by day -- and crafted exquisite poetry by night. 
He was from an impoverished Istanbul-Greek commercial family, educated in Liverpool and Alexandria, and comfortable in any one of several languages. Cavafy wrote his poetry in Greek but chose to have his name Anglicized in the form that is known around the world today.  He was an aesthete, a homosexual, a foreigner in his own society in many senses.  But Cavafy was fortunate to live in a city like Alexandria, where the diverse, polyglot cultures of the Levant rubbed closely and creatively against one-another. This was where he found his poetic voice.
     (More on Cavafy at The Official Website of the Cavafy Archive)

I have known and loved the poetry of Cavafy for many years, but not too long ago I had the chance to come face-to-face with his legacy in a very personal way.  

In July 2009 I participated in a convoy, organized by the radical British MP George Galloway, that was attempting to bring relief supplies to Gaza after the brutal assault on the strip by the Israeli army.  The only way to Gaza through the Israeli blockade was via Egypt's Sinai and the Rafa Crossing. 

After landing in Cairo, a group of us traveled to Alexandria to pick up vehicles in the port which were intended to be driven -- and donated -- to the people of Gaza. Through collusion of the then Mubarak regime, the Israelis and the US Embassy, we were not able to get the vehicles released by Egyptian customs and we spent the better part of a week cooling our heals in a suburb east of Alexandria

(More on this another time, but for now you can listen to a radio interview I did afterward and view some photos here)

I took advantage of our downtime to visit the city and stopped by twice at Cavafy's house, which is now a museum dedicated to the poet.  The second-floor apartment -- not far from the Cecil Hotel, where Cavafy used to meet Forster and other literary acquaintances -- is a kind of shrine to the poet.
A photocopied sheet given to visitors has the following information:
This museum was inaugurated on the 16th of November, 1992, in the apartment where Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933) spent the last twenty-five years of his life.  During Cavafy's time the street was named Rue Lepsius, after a French engineer.  It has since been renamed Sharm El Sheikh after the town at the entrance to the Bay of Aqaba.

Not only the street names have changed in Alexandria.  When Cavafy lived here, the city was well known as a commercial and cosmopolitan centre, a crossroads of civilizations for centuries and a "capital of memories" that the Poet, along with E.M. Forster, Lawrence Durrel and Stratis Tsirkas, depicted so provocatively.

Cavafy's home stood between the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Saba, the Greek Hospital and the bordellos of the city, which he described as "the Temple of the Soul", "the Temple of the Body", and the Temple of the Flesh".  After his death, the apartment was converted into a cheap hostel and it was being used as a pension when the Cavafy International Committee leased it in 1991.  Material from a small colection dedicated to the Poet, preciously housed in the Greek Consulate General in the Shatby district of Alexandria, was moved to the apartment and Cavafy's library, which had been saved by the eminent scholar Professor George Savidis, was also brought back here.

Although most of Cavafy's furniture was sold after his death, the atmosphere of his home has been recreated with the assistance of some of his living friends. . .
Mohammed El Said, Cavafy House caretaker

During my two visits to the Cavafy House, I was usually the only person there, apart from the Egyptian caretaker, Mohammad El Said, who I got to know fairly well.  When I was getting ready to leave, he asked to write something in the book of Cavafy's poetry I had with me.  It was in Arabic, which I later had translated:

 From a human being who was born in an area which is turbulent and full of problems, who has struggled since birth with bad news every day -- and I keep asking myself how long I will be hearing bad news -- I found the answer with common sense and logic: that each human being should respect the other regardless of ethnicity, color or belief.  God has created us to choose.  He didn't create to choose for us. 

All thanks to Mr. Jeff and to Mr. Galloway for all their good deeds, in the path of goodness and love, Mohammed El Said"
 He added, in halting English: "I'm happy to meet person from Galloway team and I say I am with you.  I ask myself  for what all this?" 
*  *  *  * 
I am no poet, but I have always thought that artists and rebels share a common stance "at a slight angle" to the way things are. There can be rapture in both activities, but also defeats and disappointments.  Here is another Cavafy poem I often remember:

Honor to those who in the life they lead
define and guard a Thermopylae.
Never betraying what is right,
consistent and just in all they do
but showing pity also, and compassion;
generous when they are rich, and when they're poor,
still generous in small ways,
still helping as much as they can;
always speaking the truth,
yet without hating those who lie.
And even more honor is due to them
when they foresee (as many do foresee)
that Ephialtes will turn up in the end,
that the Medes will break through after all.
         Translated by Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard


  1. Hello Jeff,
    Thanks for the info on the museum -
    I was searching for the quote when I stumbled across your blog -
    I too find myself attracted to those at an angle to the universe -
    Hope you receive this -

    1. Thank you! The blog has mostly gone quiet lately as I have been busy with other things, but I hope to get back to it eventually.