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Letter From Alexandria

April 30, 2000|CYNTHIA HAVEN | Cynthia Haven has written for a number of publications, including The Washington Post and the San Jose Mercury News

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.

-- CONSTANTINE CAVAFY,

from "The City,"

translated from the Greek by Rae Dalven

*

His verses have been translated into nearly 75 languages. W.H. Auden, among others, claimed him as an influence on his own work. Few modern poets have made such a claim on the 20th century as Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933). His writings insistently confront the collisions of time, history and the fallibility of memory. Perhaps that is why our era has canonized him: As we face the perishing of our own worlds, we better appreciate his anguish and acceptance, his utter lack of self-deceiving sentimentality or conventional emotion as he observes the evanescence of life, pleasure, love.

Cavafy's admirers are many. Though his city, like the one in the lines above, best exists in the mind, the real, ramshackle Alexandria is the city where Cavafy spent most of his life, a Greek survivor in a British-occupied Arab nation. In a neutral Greek stripped of simile, metrical extravagances, easy effects and eventually rhyme, the city itself became Cavafy's richest metaphor, expanded and made eternal in its ephemeral history as a Greek capital, as a Roman backwater and as the contemporary setting for his own fleeting homosexual affairs. His poems of forgotten emperors, diasporic Greeks, Ptolemaic pharaohs and casual pick-ups in the local brothels are tinged with irony, sensuality, Hellenic values and the silence of effacing time.

I had occasion recently to visit Cavafy's Alexandria, to wander the western side of the city, past street side hawkers, vegetable and fruit carts drawn by donkeys, heaps of garbage that filled gutters and potholes and strings of the faded laundry hanging over the chipped and peeling 19th century facades. Ducking into an unpromising doorway in a dirty side street, I came to 4 Sharm el Sheikh, formerly Rue Lepsius, Cavafy's home for the last 25 years of his life, now a museum.

Cavafy nicknamed this street "Rue Clapsius": In his time, a brothel occupied the lowest floor of this four-story building. Step outside on his tiny balcony, into the sudden sunlight from the dark interior of his apartment, and you will see the same sight that greeted Cavafy daily: the rooftop of white St. Sabia, surmounted by a cross, perhaps a block or two away to the right; and, apparently equidistant to the left, the grim rectangular lines of the Greek hospital. Cavafy was hospitalized in the latter during his final months; his funeral was held in the former. Cavafy called them "Temple of the Body" and "Temple of the Soul" and called the nearby bordellos of the Attarin district, the third apex of his Trinity, "Temple of the Flesh."

"Where could I live better?" he asked. It was a small world, a claustrophobic life.

Even this small world has been rendered more precarious by the unpleasant tug-of-war that has enveloped the museum's history of the Greek community, whose roots go back to the city's founding by Alexander the Great. About 132,000 Greeks lived here in Cavafy's time; that number has dwindled to a tenacious 500. Thanks to Nasser's program of land reform and the nationalization of banks and industries, the majority "returned" to Greece, abandoning this once-European city.

The non-Greek landlords--not, apparently, fans of the poet--resisted selling or leasing the spacious six-room apartment for a museum but finally conceded after Greek citizens privately raised 10 million drachmas. The museum, which opened in 1992, recently signed another 10-year lease, but the price has climbed. The owners are now offering to sell the whole building for $1.3 million. It's about 10 times the market value of the property in this squalid part of Alexandria. Can Greece cough up the cash for a museum so far from its borders? Questionable.

Step into the rooms. The apartment is furbished mostly with period re-creations. A few pieces of Cavafy's own furnishings were retrieved from a general dispersal by heirs and are prominently displayed. The large, rusty alarm clock is original, as are the icons over his re-created bed: St. George, a Crucifixion and a few unidentifiable saints in the rosy, Victorian style. A dark Arabic ornamental wooden screen re-creates the images seen in the photos on the wall from Cavafy's time. The apartment, with its heavy curtains of vaguely Oriental and modern design, is dark; Cavafy debated about whether to put in electricity to the end of his days. That pre-electric mood, at least, has been sustained: There is still no phone line to the museum, nor are there postcards or books for sale.

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