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.