No Escaping “The City” – Constantine Cavafy & Alexandria (Part Three)

Cities have been known to become synonymous with specific artists or writers. Think of Arles and Vincent Van Gogh’s cafes, buildings, and bridges come to mind. Think of Dublin and James Joyce’s Ulysses suddenly materializes with Leopold Bloom’s wandering the city on a single, extraordinary day. Cities can shape an artist or writer in such ways that one becomes inseparable from the other. Acting as each other’s alter ego. Artists and writers interpret a city in unique ways, offering a window into a world that most people would never see, let alone understand. This is the case with Constantine Cavafy and the city of Alexandria in Egypt.

The City – Constantine Cavafy (Credit: Amro Ali)

Contradictory Cavafy – A Contrasting Portrait
Cavafy spent almost his entire life in Alexandria. He was born and died there on the exact same day seventy years apart. In that time span, Cavafy was part of a an ethnically diverse Alexandria. A growing metropolis informed by a multiplicity of micro-cultures that have now vanished from the cityscape. The exoticism of Alexandria during this time is matched by that which Cavafy’s poetry offers to readers. Cavafy was a man of massive intellect, erudite and largely self-educated, but he also had a shadowy side that several of his poems make explicit. This creates a contrasting portrait of the poet. When I first began to learn about Cavafy, I imagined a bookish man, in his home surrounded by intellectual paraphernalia. Some of this had to do with photos of Cavafy. He looks the part of an intellectual’s intellectual with dark rimmed glasses, a quizzical, professorial gaze, wide eyed and mysterious in a slightly shabby way.

There is certainly much evidence of that, but a much more multi-faceted figure emerges through Cavafy’s poems. A portrait of a man whose passionate excesses are made explicit. The reader discovers a poet possessed with lust for his fellow man, frequenting bars and bordellos in the red-light district that was a short walk away from the neighborhood where he lived. This is the Cavafy of animal instinct and uncontrolled human passion. This deeply personal, confessional part of his poetry offers a different portrait of Alexandria from the Levantine, polyglot port city that existed during the mid-19th to the mid-20th century.

It has now become all too common to see present-day Alexandria as the ruinous outcome of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egyptian nationalism. A city that has succumbed to decadence and degeneracy, filled with seething sectarian tensions, that has buried its past beneath concrete. To be sure, there is plenty of that today, but Alexandria’s supposed belle epoque period was not all parasols, salons and garden parties. It was a deeply complex place, a European foothold on the shoreline of North Africa, a trade entrepot with a towering babel of voices haggling fiercely for their cut of the import-export proceeds, a place where animal instincts could be unleashed at all hours of the night.

Throwing shade – Modern Alexandria

The City – Wandering Among The Ruins
Cavafy’s Alexandria was not without its problems, just as the great poet was not without his flaws. For all his intoxicating verse, Cavafy has a dark side and that includes his relationship with Alexandria, which was really his relationship with himself. Cavafy’s hopes and dreams, fears and failures, darkest passions and most intimate desires were inextricably tied to the city. This is something his poem, The City, makes all too clear.

You will find no new lands, you will find no other seas.
The city will follow you. You will roam the same
streets. And you will age in the same neighborhoods;
and you will grow gray in these same houses.
Always you will arrive in this city. Do not hope for any other–
There is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you have destroyed your life here
in this little corner, you have ruined it in the entire world.

Cavafy found it impossible to escape from Alexandria because he could not escape from himself. The City would stalk him, hound him, hunt him down, wherever he went. Alexandria was woven into the very fiber of Cavafy’s being. There was no use leaving, because he could never escape it. The poem may have been filled with despair and despondency, but it was also a realization that the patterns of one’s life all lead back to the same place because of character traits we carry within ourselves. Cavafy understood this. He stayed in Alexandria even though he was haunted by it. Only through death did he finally depart from the city, but not quite.

No escape – Constantine Cavafy

Closing Time – A Narrower World
In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s with the government of Gamal Abdel Nasser expropriating businesses and properties, the Greek community in Alexandria fled by the tens of thousands. Egypt was now for the Egyptians. Alexandria would be transformed into a very different city from the one that had existed since Muhammad Ali Pasha began to remake Egypt into a modern state during the early 19th century. The people who had made Alexandria an international city by opening it to a much wider world were no longer welcome. Alexandria went from being a cosmopolitan city of the Levant, to an insular, provincial metropolis. It looked inward, rather than outward. The fin de siècle buildings of Old Alexandria were either demolished, fell into disrepair or squeezed into the shadows by towering apartment blocks. Cavafy’s Alexandria was a memory, but still a very powerful one.

An amazing turnabout in the fortunes of Cavafy’s legacy has occurred in present day Alexandria. The apartment where he spent his last thirty-five years had been turned into a hostel following his death in 1933. In the early 1990’s the preservation of the apartment as the Cavafy Museum began. Photos taken at the time that Cavafy lived there helped with the reconstruction of period furnishings and aesthetics. The museum contains thousands of books and articles written by a wide range of international scholars about Cavafy’s poetry. Visitors get a feel for Cavafy’s life at the time. Many English speakers who visit there first learned of Cavafy from English novelist E.M Forster’s introduction of him in Pharos and Pharillon, a collection of essays written by Forster about Alexandria during the time he spent in the city during World War I. Forster famously refers to Cavafy as “a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe.” Cavafy was that and so much more. Just as Cavafy was haunted by his past excesses on the seedier side of Alexandria, so too is the city now haunted by Cavafy. Only fragments of the Alexandria which Cavafy knew so well now exist. To find that Alexandria one can search the streets in vain today. Better to go back to Cavafy’s poems, which like Alexandria are timeless and eternal.

The Darkness of Desire – Constantine Cavafy & Alexandria (Part Two)

One of the common patterns often found in the private lives of famous novelists and poets is the tumultuous nature of their interpersonal relationships. I can distinctly remember in college learning about the private lives of several famous authors. I was shocked by the level of conflict and chaos they had with their family and friends. Relationships were often fraught, whether due to abuse or mental illness. This manifested itself in many ways, including alcoholism and illicit drug use, self-loathing and spells of all consuming darkness that could only be relieved through art and literature were the norm. For instance, Hemingway was a heavy drinker and manic depressive, Sylvia Plath had a daddy death wish, T.S. Eliot got his first wife committed to an asylum, helped himself to her wealth and suffered a nervous breakdown. Their psychological problems were the cause or consequence of interpersonal problems. These in turn were the stimulus that brought them to literary brilliance.

Path to the past – Rue Cherif Pasha street in Alexandria where Constantine Cavafy was born

Creative Instincts – The Fiercest Passions
Impulse, decadence, and passionate excesses. Such traits are indicative of many writers with astonishing creative instincts. These are people whose creativity is connected to personal turmoil, self-destructive behavior and uncontrolled passions. For them, suicide seems like it is always just a day away. They write less for fame or riches and more as a form of therapy. Integral connections between tumult and creativity, upheaval and imagination, often lead to acts of creative brilliance. Suppression of the most human of impulses find an outlet in prose and poetry. The lives these writers led helped them produce works of literary genius, I find this incredibly depressing and terribly fascinating. This could describe the life of Constantine Cavafy, the man who many consider Greece’s greatest poet. Cavafy’s childhood was difficult, his early adulthood years even more so. His fiercest passions took place in seedy dives or played out in his poetry. The upshot was a body of literary work among the greatest of modern times.

During his lifetime, Cavafy’s hometown of Alexandria was growing right along with globalization. The Levantine port city began welcoming large numbers of Greeks in the last half of the 20th century. Cavafy’s family was among them. When Cavafy came back to Alexandria from a sojourn in Constantinople in 1885, he was only twenty-two years old at the time and had a long life ahead of him. He could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. In a 16-year period spanning the turn of the twentieth century, Cavafy lost his mother, four brothers and closest friend. Meanwhile, he was stuck in a career he despised, working in the Irrigation Service for the Ministry of Public Works. Cavafy’s real passions, poetry and numerous affairs with men, were kept private. There is a bipolarity to Cavafy’s life that served to stimulate his creative instincts.

Passionate excesses – Constantine Cavafy

Dangerous Things – A Lustful Life
On one hand, he lived in a cosmopolitan Greek world where he worked a career job in the professional bureaucracy. He was also an inveterate reader with an incredible intellect. On the other hand,
Cavafy frequented Alexandria’s bars, clubs and low rent districts at night satisfying his lust. From contrasting impulses, bourgeoise and decadent, arose his poetry. Cavafy satisfied his desires not only in the flesh, but through words. Much of Cavafy’s creative energies centered around his homosexuality. There was lust and shame in unequal measure. It would take several decades before he found his voice and explicitly stated his deepest desires. In 1911, Cavafy penned “Dangerous Things.” In this short poem he takes on the voice of Myrtias, a Syrian student who lived in Alexandria during the mid-4th century. Cavafy does not hold back:

I shall not fear my passions like a coward
I shall give my body to sensual delight,
to enjoyments dreamt,
to the most daring amorous desires, to the lustful impulses of my blood.

The poem is a tour de force of passionate excess, Cavafy’s private desires pouring out upon the page. Cavafy also mentions in the poem that Myrtias lived during the reigns of the Emperors Augustus Constans and Augustus Constantius, one of whom was pagan and the other Christian. The bipolarity of these two historical figures appealed to Cavafy. He often compared opposite extremes of humanity, whether divided by age, class, ethnicity or religion. He was exceptionally gifted at referencing historical personages and places in his poems. Cavafy made connections with the past that he applied to the present. Living in Alexandria heightened his interest in ancient history. He spent countless hours with his head buried in books. Cavafy believed history did not repeat itself because it was ongoing. In that sense, Cavafy and Alexandria were part of the same lineage, both ancient and modern. One flowing into another. There was no dividing line between past and present.

A city transformed – Present day view from the Cavafy Museum in Alexandria (Credit: @CCavafy)

An Historic Moment – Greeks in Modern Egypt
Just as Cavafy’s poems were infused with history, so too was his life deeply affected by it. History not just of the distant past, but also of the present world that he was living within. Cavafy lived in Alexandria during a unique moment in Egyptian history, one that can be seen more clearly in retrospect. Alexandria was outward facing, towards the Mediterranean both literally and figuratively. It was more open to the world in many respects, then it was to the rest of Egypt. The creation of modern Egypt which had begun in the early 19th century during the reign of Muhammad Ali Pasha brought Europeans to live and work in communities that coexisted with Arabs, Turks, and Circassians. Greeks were one of the great beneficiaries of the movement toward foreign influence in trade and culture.

Cavafy was part of a Greek community that grew considerably during his lifetime. Also known as Egyptiotes, the Greeks in Egypt expanded fourfold from 62,000 in 1907 to 250,000 on the eve of World War II. At the same time, colonialism was starting to fade, empires beginning to recede, and the established, European led order starting to disintegrate. This would have major consequences for Alexandria and particularly for the Greek community in the city. Cavafy would die before the Greeks fled Egypt in the late 1950’s. In the meantime, he was witness to a golden age in Alexandria. Cavafy was also part of that age. Fortunately, both his poems and the home where he spent the last thirty years of his life would survive the sweeping changes that transformed Alexandria into a city Cavafy would hardly recognize today.

Coming Tomorrow: No Escaping “The City”– Constantine Cavafy & Alexandria (Part Three)

Conquest & Creation –Alexander & Alexandria: The Greek Influence in Egypt (Part Three)

Greece and Egypt would seem to be strange bedfellows. They are on two entirely different continents, one noted for prosperity, the other for poverty. Geographically, Greece is known more for its islands than the mainland. Egypt is known for the Nile, rather than the desert wasteland that covers most of the country.  One is a long-standing member of the European Union, the other experienced a revolution just a decade ago. While both are known for ancient history, Pharaonic Egypt and Classical Greece were constructed on contrasting political systems. One hierarchical, the other horizontal. Despite these differences, there have been times when these two places and their peoples have been connected to historic effect. Greece as a fringe territory in southeastern Europe has often looked further east. Several of its native sons have written their name into history through their exploits in Egypt. This influence is remarkable and remarkably overlooked.  

Rising from the shore – Alexandria (Credit: Argenberg)

Riding The Waves – Tides of Civilization
Southeastern Europe and North Africa were never that far apart. Before modern times, water was often easier to cross than land. The Mediterranean Sea offered one of the widest avenues available for the transport of peoples, ideas, and goods. Waterborne transport led to cross-cultural contacts. The Mediterranean was one of the world’s great highways, spreading civilization onto distant shores. One needs to look no further than the ancient Roman ruins on the coast of present-day Algeria as evidence of how civilization spread from one side of the Mediterranean to the other. Roman and Hellenistic influences in North Africa will come as a surprise to most Westerners.

Historical biases against the east, whether that be Eastern Europe, the near east or the middle east still stubbornly persist in the western world today. For instance, it is not sufficiently known that the richest part of the Roman Empire was its eastern half, particularly Egypt. One of the most glaring anti-eastern biases concerns the fall of Rome. It is still widely believed today that the Roman Empire came to an end in 476 AD. This, even though the empire’s eastern half continued for 977 more years. It lasted until the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. One of the most obvious and overlooked examples of anti-eastern bias is explicitly stated in the phrase, “History of Western Civilization” for which entire textbooks, popular histories, and countless university courses are named. These inherent and long-lasting biases have little time for tales of cultural interaction that took place along the shores of the Mediterranean.

Alexander’s vision – Plan of ancient Alexandria (Credit: Philg88)

Life Everlasting – A Wide Canvas
After Alexander died, he received the ultimate posthumous honor in Alexandria as his body laid there on display in a gold sarcophagus. Alexander and Alexandria offer the greatest evidence to support the great man theory of history. It was Alexander’s decision to found Alexandria that set all its succeeding history in motion. While Alexander died before his vision of the city would be fully realized, his achievement has outlasted him by 2,300 years. For all his greatness, Alexander could not escape mortality. He went from cradle to grave rather quickly, living a relatively short 33 years. Alexandria is very different in this regard. The city is still a cradle of civilization that despite a great deal of degeneration over the past seventy-five years managed to have staying power.

Alexandria has suffered numerous conflicts, conquests, sacks, and sieges at a steady rate throughout its history. Nonetheless, it is one of history’s great survivors. People come and go, but Alexander’s city lives on. The city has historically offered a wide canvas from which others hailing from Greece could fulfill their dreams. Modern Egypt, as it exists today, would be a very different place if not for its founder who came straight out of the Balkans by way of Greece. Muhammad Ali Pasha, an energetic ethnic Albanian who grew up in Greece and gravitated to Egypt as part of an Ottoman military contingent, is one of the most influential historical figures in Egyptian history. During the first half of the 19th century, he set about modernizing Egypt with vigor and vision. Greece, at the time an Ottoman outpost and Balkan backwater, was closer than one might imagine to Egypt and the near East. This was because both Greece and Egypt were part of the Ottoman Empire.

Staking his claim – Alexander the Great founding Alexandria (Credit: Placido Costanzi)

Empire Building – The Grecian Way
While it is now common to speak of empires as disasters for the regions and countries which they conquered, empires also allowed for the transference of capital, ideas, and talent. In the case of Egypt, without the Ottoman Empire, Muhammad Ali would never have set foot on its shores. For all the excesses of empires they also lent a veneer of stability to places where it had otherwise been lacking. Muhammad Ali’s reign and subsequent creation of a dynasty provided Egypt with enough stability that others sought it out. These emigres brought much needed skills and created communities with their own unique cultures.

This was the case with the Greeks. They started coming to Egypt in large numbers during Muhammad Ali’s reign. The dynasty he established allowed them to stay. Their skills were highly valued, as they were well educated and economically driven. Micro-cultures developed among these emigres who lived in two worlds, the Egyptian one and their own. The Greek community in Egypt developed distinctive cultural traits. They also produced individuals of distinction, the most famous of which was Constantine Cavafy, perhaps the greatest of Greek poets.