Tuesday, 10 January 2012



Alexandria  in the rain is melancholic  -  as good as a poem by the Egyptian poet,  Konstantin Cavafy .  His  poems of lost passion, Alexandria’s ancient past   and  its gods befit the moody, subdued Alexandria that I  can see from the eleventh floor of my apartment.   

Cavafy, was born in Alexandria and spent most of his life here until his death in 1933.  His parents were Greek and he was  a true son of what was then, a cosmopolitan  city. Cavafy was a man  obsessed with the transitory nature of beauty and  happiness and like his friend, Durrell,  saw  Alexandria as a City of Memory. 

A secretive man, probably because of his homosexuality – Cavafy worked for most of his life as a part-time clerk in the Egyptian government’s irrigation department. His tempered routine life, belied the rich inner life of a poet who looked at the human condition through  history with a sensual irony.

The apartment where he spent his last 35 years, in Lepsius Street - now renamed "Charm El Sheik" has been turned into a museum honoring his life and works. The building once housed a brothel, and overlooked a hospital and a church.  Cavafy once remarked, “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.”

The apartment  was turned into a cheap hostel after his death before becoming a museum dedicated the poet. The museum is supported by money from Greece, where Cavafy  is considered a national poet. Egypt's celebration of his work is  uneasy  and ambiguous - his homo-erotic poems do not sit well in a society which is becoming increasingly conservative.

 As I climb the two flights of marble stairs  to his apartments thick wooden  main door,   I can hear a voice reciting  Ithaca - the poem that Jackie Onassis requested to be read at her funeral. The voice - American and recorded hangs eerily in the stairwell. When I step into the museum I am greeted by the  lines ..... To arrive there is your final destination /but do not rush the voyage in the least/Better it lasted for many years/and once you are old cast anchor on the side…  Shivers ran down my back.
The hall is long and gloomy. Furniture meant to replicate the original is dowdy.  A brass bed catches the light from an open window, a replica of his desk stands in a dark corner. I sit at it and stare across the black stained floors towards the hall and imagine Cavafy returning home from a liaison with a beautiful young man, closing the door  behind him with a sigh, and standing by the window.
‘He is entirely devoted to books – but he’s only twenty-three years old, and very handsome; this afternoon Love passed through/ his ideal flesh that is so full of beauty / passed the erotic fever; /with no silly modesty about the nature of pleasure…..

The paintings on the walls, many of them by Cavafy himself,  are unremarkable. Books from his library are scattered throughout the rooms, while Cavafy looks down owlishly  on visitors from portraits revealing his angular nose and round glasses.  

Just as much else has disappeared from Alexandria, the hospital and brothel are now replaced by a garage and a store. Only the nearby  Elite bar remains from a number of taverns  where Cavafy sought his  illicit liasons with young men.The rest are gone, along with  the cosmopolitan community and its tolerance. In Cavafy’s era, the city was a mix of Greek, Italian, Armenian, Syrian, Maltese, Jews and the British and other nationalities adding to the majority Arab-Egyptian population, all lured  by trade in cotton and wheat. 

Alexandria was once a place where women strolled in sun dresses, not headscarves and jelabayas, and where religion was a matter of personal choice, not political campaigning.The foreigners  left  after the ousting of the monarchy in 1952, and  the rise of Arab nationalism.  Cavafy’s cosmopolitan Alexandria disappeared.

Cavafy did not live to see the exodus, but he would not have been surprised.  His historical poems draw on Alexandria’s Hellenic past, and are infused with a tragic pessimism – all human beings are doomed to defeat, with, or without their gods.  
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. Alexandria is a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood - Egypt’s biggest opposition party and majority winner of the Lower House of the  new Egyptian Parliament. The Brotherhood wants Egypt ruled under Islamic law.   Sobhi Saleh, a Muslim Brotherhood member of parliament says Islamic law precludes publishing Cavafy’s poetry.

“Cavafy was a one-time event in Alexandria,” he says. “His poems are sinful. It’s an extreme misunderstanding of Islam. 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.”

Maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference to  Cavafy. In his poem “In the Same Place,” he wrote of the coffee houses, home and neighbourhood 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.
In The God Forsakes Antony,   Cavafy writes of the doomed Marc Antony watching in despair as  the Roman troops enter the city.  Perhaps, by then, the poet  already sensed the end of the Alexandria he knew and loved. He urges Antony to  …… bid farewell  to the Alexandria you are losing.

The Italian cemetry, Alexandria