“…the innocent boy of seventeen…”

12 May

Though it was only incidental to the previous post, the image of Erdal Eren has haunted me for the rest of the night; perhaps it’s the photo of him and its painful youth and innocence; obviously the terrifying quote: that he looked forward to his execution in order to avoid thinking of the torture he had witnessed; maybe it’s that hanging has always struck me as a particularly obscene form of capital punishment’s obscenity (the setting looks prison-like, like he’s actually entering the gallows chamber there…)

Then the eerie reminder of the Cavafy poem: “27 June 1906, 2 p.m.”

27 Iουνίου 1906, 2 μ.μ.

Σαν το ’φεραν οι Xριστιανοί να το κρεμάσουν
το δεκαεφτά χρονώ αθώο παιδί,
η μάνα του που στην κρεμάλα εκεί κοντά
σέρνονταν και χτυπιούνταν μες στα χώματα
κάτω απ’ τον μεσημεριανό, τον άγριον ήλιο,
πότε ούρλιαζε, και κραύγαζε σα λύκος, σα θηρίο
και πότε εξαντλημένη η μάρτυσσα μοιρολογούσε
«Δεκαφτά χρόνια μοναχά με τα ’ζησες, παιδί μου».
Κι όταν το ανέβασαν την σκάλα της κρεμάλας
κι επέρασάν το το σκοινί και το ’πνιξαν
το δεκαεφτά χρονώ αθώο παιδί,
κ’ ελεεινά κρεμνιούνταν στο κενόν
με τους σπασμούς της μαύρης του αγωνίας
το εφηβικόν ωραία καμωμένο σώμα,
η μάνα η μάρτυσσα κυλιούντανε στα χώματα
και δεν μοιρολογούσε πια για χρόνια τώρα·
«Δεκαφτά μέρες μοναχά», μοιρολογούσε,
«δεκαφτά μέρες μοναχά σε χάρηκα, παιδί μου».

“27 June 1906, 2 p.m.”

When the Christians brought him out to be hanged
the innocent boy of seventeen
his mother there near the scaffold
was dragging and beating herself in the dust,
under the sun, the savage noon-day sun,
and now would screech, and now would howl like a wolf, like a beast,
and then exhausted the martyred woman would keen
“You only lived these seventeen years my child.”
And when they raised the boy up on the scaffold,
and passed the rope around his neck,
the innocent boy of seventeen,
and his body swung hideously in the void
wracked by the spasms of his black agony
the beautifully made youthful body,
the martyred mother rolling in the dirt
was no longer keening of years,
“Seventeen days only” she keened,
“Seventeen days only did I enjoy you, my child.”

(my translation)

Erdal Eren

Cavafy wrote the poem in remembrance of the 1906 Denshawi affair, one of Britain’s unfinest hours.  Apparently some British military personnel were returning from Cairo to Alexandria and, near the village of Denshawi, shot some pigeons that belonged to the locals.  A scuffle ensued; a rock was thrown that hit a British soldier on the head and, though he died of what was later proven to be sunstroke, like a delicate E.M. Forster memsahib, five of the residents of Denshawi, including the seventeen-year old of the poem, were imprisoned.  Fortunately, there was such a public outcry after the execution of the young man that the other four men were released, though not till two years later in 1908.  The episode still remains disgusting and Cavafy’s poem one of his most chilling, a register he usually didn’t work in.

At the same time it’s a beautiful reminder of his humanity on several levels.  One is his life-long opposition to capital punishment: “Whenever I have the opportunity I declare this,” he wrote in 1902.  The other, without re-outfitting him as a post-colonialist before his time, is his affection for and lack of alienation and estrangement towards Egypt itself.  He could have had the cloistered emotional outlook of an erudite fag in the European cocoon of Alexandria, yet the otherness that life imposed on him taught his heart the right lessons.  The above poem (even his use of “the Christians,” which in the context can mean nothing less than “the kafirs,”* is a jarring statement of identification) is only his most poignant expression of his love for the country, not just the historical Egypt of so much of his poetry, but the actual Arab Egypt he lived in; “To glyky mas Misiri,” as he calls it in one poem: “Our sweet Misiri” — our sweet Egypt.**

I wonder what he would have thought of the current state of Greek politics – not that he ever cared much for either the Neo-Greek statelet or its inhabitants.  What would a man that lived and wrote on the cusp of every possible human margin and in every plural space conceivable, who would have died before he let his Hellenism be trapped by geography, nationalism or its idiocy, have thought of Greece having the most potentially powerful Nazi (I’m tired of dignifying them with the prefix neo-) party on the European continent?  And that granted to them by a significant youth vote.  A thirty-something Athenian, and a left-leaning one at that, recounting to me the multiple incidents of petty anti-immigrant animosity that she had been witness to in Athens even before the current crisis, recently said to me, in glib defensiveness: “Well, we’re not used to strangers in our country.”  This from us, malaka, the inventors of migration and its pain, who since the beginning of our historical presence have been strangers in every stranger’s land on the planet, except those corners ventured into only by more intrepid or desperate Jews or Gypsies.  It’s beyond even remotely doubting for me that it’s partly the loss of a diaspora consciousness on Neo-Greeks’ part, and the wider sense of world it gives you, that has made us such closed, parochial idiots, just as Israel — sorry to say — has had the same effect on Jews.  And the comparison doesn’t end there; in both cases the diaspora is not just forgotten and ignored, but a source of embarrassment and shame, and each state and its official and/or fabricated culture has the hubris to think itself the metropolitan standard that those left outside should aspire to, when neither state in question contained a serious metropolitan center of either Hellenism or Jewishness until the twentieth century (…with Israel causing a progressive closing of the Jewish mind everywhere — a disaster for all of us).  Now maybe that some young Greeks have had to start emigrating again some of that attitude will get a real reality check.  The economic crisis in Greece is a source of genuine consternation for me and I’m guardedly on the anti-EU/Troika side; at the same time some humility may be exactly what that society needed.  Maybe…though voting for Nazis doesn’t exactly indicate humility but childish rage.


*Qafr, kafir: infidel

**Masr is Egypt in Arabic.  Cavafy uses “Misiri” because in Modern Greek words can only end in certain consonants.  This is something  — tzatziki, kazani, kadaifi, kokoretsi, duvari — that makes Turks giggle and strikes them as particularly funny when they hear it in Greek and the kick they get out of it has always struck me as particularly sweet in return.  I think Cavafy intended it to have this effect.


Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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