Cavafy: Istanbul versus Alexandria

Cavafy: Istanbul versus Alexandria

You said, “I will go to another land, I will go to another sea.
Another city will be found, better than this...”

New lands you will not find, you will not find other seas.
The city will follow you. You will roam the same
streets. And you will age in the same neighborhoods;
in these same houses you will grow gray.

Always you will arrive in this city.*

But which city? If you were a Rum (Anatolian Greek) and you happen to be among the several hundred who flocked into the historic Zografeion School in the neighborhood of Pera at the end of last week to attend the “student conference” on C. P. Cavafy, you would have the answer ready: The great poet was more a child of Istanbul than of his real city of birth, Alexandria of Egypt.

A four-day conference organized by the historic Zografeion School, under the auspices of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and with the generous help of sponsors, brought together Greek students from 14 lycee schools and colleges from mainland Greece, Cyprus and Egypt, as well as academics, writers, translators, artists, musicians and journalists to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth. They talked about him, about his art, about his relationship with history and his relationship with the city of birth of his parents, Istanbul.

Constantine P. Cavafy was born 150 years ago this month in Alexandria, Egypt to a prosperous merchant family from Istanbul. After his father’s early death and financial problems he and his family moved briefly to Liverpool in England, then back to Alexandria and then for three years to Istanbul, before moving back to Alexandria, where he lived until his death in 1933, on the same day as his birth, April 29. Locked into a lonely life as a poetic esthete, Cavafy was never accepted by the poetic circles in Athens. In the conservative literary circles of the period his poetry of weird linguistic combinations, tormented historical figures of periods of moral decline and homosexual innuendos was considered anathema. He was actually discovered and promoted by Anglo Saxon fellow writers E. M. Foster and T. S. Eliot. In Turkey he became known through the translations of Professor Cevat Çapan. Today, he is among the rare poets of the early 20th century who become more relevant and popular to an international audience as time goes by.

Cavafy came to Istanbul when he was only 19 and stayed with relatives in the Bosphorus suburb of Yeniköy for three years. How much the cosmopolitan Istanbul of late Ottoman times influenced his development as a poet and as a man has been a matter of hot literary debate. For the Istanbul Rums, he is a son of an Istanbulite Rum family and remained so until the end. After all, he introduced himself as someone “from Constantinople by descent, but born in Alexandria.”

“Cavafy never forgot Constantinople,” said Patriarch Bartholomew, speaking at the opening of the Cavafy conference. “He carries Istanbul in his soul, in his existence. The city follows him,” he added, referring to the famous verse quoted above.

“In 1882, the 19-year-old poet visits Istanbul for the first time and meets his many relatives. It was then that he started exploring his origins and himself and places himself in the context of greater Hellenism. It was then that after many years, he shaped up the principles of his poetry,” declared the director of the Zografeion School, Yannis Demircoğlu, while other speakers said Cavafy, 80 years after his death, actually “returned home, to Istanbul.”

There is no doubt that Cavafy is that sort of universal poetic genius who can speak directly to the heart of everyone, irrespective of nationality or culture. I tried to find out what the young Greek students from the oldest school of the Greek diaspora, the Averofeion High School of Alexandria, thought about “their” poet. “They talk a lot about Istanbul and Cavafy, here,” a boy who has been living in Alexandria for the last 10 years told me. “But for the Greeks of Egypt, as well as for Egyptians, he is their own poet,” he said. I asked the same question to a shy, bespectacled girl who, a little while earlier, had read in perfect Greek a part of a paper on Cavafy’s poetry. “I am a Muslim,” she said, “I learned Greek because I liked it, I love Cavafy’s poetry. He speaks for everyone.”