[ilds] Alexandria is not much interested in Cavafy anymore

Charles Sligh Charles-Sligh at utc.edu
Wed Oct 14 09:07:28 PDT 2009

See below for the following piece on the dismissal of Cavafy from Alexandrian memory.  

My thanks to Richard Pine for calling Daniel Williams' article to my attention.

Erotic Poet Cavafy’s Trace Fades in Egypt’s Mythic Alexandria

By Daniel Williams

Oct. 13 (Bloomberg) -- Ask a concierge or taxi driver in the Egyptian city of Alexandria for the way to the house-museum of Constantine P. Cavafy, the town’s 20th-century pioneer poet, and it’s likely you’ll draw blank stares.

“Alexandria is not much interested in Cavafy anymore,” says Mohammed Said, caretaker of the museum. “We’re not even interested in the Alexandria that he lived in.”

Perhaps it’s the inevitable fate of a poet who viewed Alexandria as less of a real place than a stimulating figment of the mind. Cavafy (1863-1933) wrote much of his poetry in the first third of the 20th century and all but invented the myth of Alexandria as a sensuous city. With E.M. Forster and Lawrence Durrell, who both spent time there, Cavafy is part of a literary trinity that took stock of the city’s passionate atmosphere.

Cavafy’s works, written in Greek, are the subject of comprehensive translations by Daniel Mendelsohn, American author and literary critic, in two volumes: “C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems” and “C.P. Cavafy: The Unfinished Poems,” published last spring by Alfred A. Knopf. Mendelsohn’s are the latest of at least a dozen English-language Cavafy renditions produced since 1961. The poet, who died in 1933, has been translated in 70 languages, according to Said.

Sensuous Verse

Many of the poems combine episodes of ancient Alexandrian history with striking eroticism; Cavafy was homosexual. In the poem “Dangerous,” set in the 4th century A.D., for instance, a student articulates his yearnings:

My body I will give to pleasures,

to diversions that I’ve dreamed of,

to the most daring erotic desires,

to the lustful impulses of my blood, without

any fear at all.

The museum-house offers no evidence of sheltering a libertine or even, as Mendelsohn notes, “the presence of a great artistic mind.” Furniture meant to replicate the original is dowdy. Art on the walls is unremarkable. A few ancient vases scavenged from the sea decorate the floors. There are numerous formal portraits of Cavafy, with his angular nose and round glasses giving him an owlish look. Visitors are mostly Greek tourists, Said, the caretaker, said.

Cavafy once described the scene from his balcony this way: “Under me is a house of ill repute, which caters to the needs of the flesh. Over there is a church, where sins are forgiven. And beyond is the hospital where we die.”

No Bordello

The church exists, though the hospital and bordello are gone, replaced by a garage and a store. Much else has disappeared from Alexandria: the taverns where Cavafy’s illicit liaisons took place, the exotic interaction of a diverse population and a tolerance that inspired the late Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine and the novelist Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid.

“It’s enough to put Cavafy out of favor that he was Greek and wrote in Greek,” says Abdel-Meguid, who has written three novels set in the city. “Cosmopolitan Alexandria is finished.”

Cavafy rarely dealt with the nitty-gritty detail of his Alexandria, where he was born, except perhaps in his elegant descriptions of the young men he loved and lusted after. The men’s eyes are “poetic,” their lips “red,” the limbs “made for pleasure.” Mendelsohn declares that, for all the acknowledgement given to Cavafy’s historical sophistication, his contemporary reputation rests on the sensual poems.

“That the desire and longing were for other men only makes him seem the more contemporary, more at home in our own times,” Mendelsohn writes in his introduction.

Ethnic Mix

Though not in Alexandria’s current times. In Cavafy’s era, the Mediterranean port city was a mix of Greek, Italian, Armenian, Syrian, Maltese, British and other nationalities adding to the majority Arab-Egyptian population, all lured there by trade in cotton and wheat.

The city, and Egypt as a whole, grew more homogenized after the ouster of the monarchy in 1952, the rise of Arab nationalism and the confiscation of private property by Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser.

In the past two decades, the emergence of Islam as a prime source of identity among many Egyptians made Cavafy’s sensuous subject matter unfashionable. By all accounts, Alexandria is a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s biggest opposition party. The brotherhood wants Egypt ruled under Islamic law. Alexandria was once a place where women strolled in sun dresses, not headscarves and caftans, and where religion was a matter of personal choice, not political campaigning.

After visiting the museum, I discuss Cavafy at the office of Sobhi Saleh, a Muslim Brotherhood member of parliament. Saleh says Islamic law precludes publishing Cavafy’s poetry.

“Cavafy was a one-time event in Alexandria,” he says. “His poems are sinful.”

Brave Poetry

“It’s an extreme misunderstanding of Islam,” counters Said. “In any case, Cavafy was brave to write as he did. Now, he probably could not be a poet in Alexandria. He’d be driven out.”

Or maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference for Cavafy. In the poem “In the Same Place,” he wrote of the coffeehouses, home and neighborhood where he spent his years not as they were but as he made them:

I crafted you amid joy and amid sorrows:

Out of so much that happened, out of so many things.

And you’ve been wholly remade into feeling; for me.

Or he might suggest, as he did to the doomed Marc Antony in “The God Abandons Antony,” to “bid farewell to her, to Alexandria, whom you are losing.”

“C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems” is published by Alfred A. Knopf. (547 pages, $35) “C.P. Cavafy: The Unfinished Poems” is also from Alfred A. Knopf. (144 pages, $30).

The Cavafy Museum is located at 6 Sharm al-Sheikh Street, Alexandria, Egypt. Admission is 20 Egyptian pounds.

(Daniel Williams is Middle East correspondent for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the reporter on the story: Daniel Williams in Cairo at dwilliams41 at bloomberg.net.
Last Updated: October 12, 2009 19:00 EDT 
Charles L. Sligh
Department of English
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
Charles-Sligh at utc.edu

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