Tag Archives: Cavafy

See “Родные” — “Close Relations” — at the MMI in Astoria

23 Sep

Bad translation.  “Pодные”…”rodnye” means intimate, familiar, related; by extension born-beloved, dear one, cared for, same root in Russian as parents, birth, homeland, Christmas…wouldn’t be surprised if it has the same Indo-European roots as “root”.

Rodnye Vitaly Mansky

Vitaly Mansky‘s documentary is being screened this coming weekend and the next at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens.  (See schedule. It’s two train stops into Queens, guys.  Then you can have a nice dinner for half of what you pay in Manhttan at a good friend and koumbaro‘s place: Mar’s.)

“In this follow-up to his award-winning documentary Under the Sun, filmmaker Vitaly Mansky examines Ukrainian society amidst the 2014 national election, a period rife with political chaos and growing uncertainty over national identity and integration. As both a Russian citizen and native Ukrainian, Mansky deftly underscores personal and political complexities as he visits with relatives living in Lvov, Odessa, the Crimean peninsula, and the Donbass region, and in the process discovers a wide and disorienting spectrum of outlooks and affiliations, including his own sense of ongoing exile and unease. Close Relations is at once an intimate family portrait and a graceful journalistic endeavor, a movie of the intense present that illuminates a place caught between a troubled past and an anxious future.”

Watch the trailer below.

Lots of moving, “disorienting” footage.  Also, lots of humor, which reminds us that so much of a certain ironic, sardonic take on the world — a viewpoint “from a certain angle”, as E.M. Forster said of Cavafy — that we in the United States think is particularly Jewish, is really just a trait common to all eastern Europe, even Greece, or perhaps just a trait common to the powerless everywhere:

“Crimea was a pity, but the Donbass…they can have it.” *

But I think the most important moment in terms of geopolitics comes at 1:15:

“So Ukraine decided to join NATO.  Isn’t that its own business?”

“Nyyyyyet!”

…comes the reply without a moment’s hesitation.

“Nyet” with its palatized “n” and final “t” is one of humanity’s great no-words.  Like “yok” in Turkish, it literally means “there isn’t” or “Il n’y a pas”.  But while “yok” has a kind of know-nothing passivity about it, “nyet” is an active “Halt!  No way you’re going further down this road.  There’s no access.” **

That moment in Mansky’s doc is why, despite widespread support for a Putin I find repulsive, I can’t get as angry at Russians as I get at Trump Americans and Türk-doğans; because Russians aren’t stupid.  They’re not as smart as they used to be in the old days, при коммунизме, when everybody knew not to believe any-thing.  They now believe all kinds of nonsense.  And they went and got religion on me too, which is one of my life’s greatest watch-what-you-wish-fors.  But they’re still pretty intelligent about the world.

I can’t get inside Putin’s head, like Ben Judah convincingly does in what’s still the best book on the Путинщина, the “Putin-ness” or the “Putin thang.”  Judah’s thesis is that Putin is really just a nebech apparatchik who others put in his place and who now — having trampled over so many people on his way up — is terrified of stepping down and that the macho persona he so tiringly projects masks mega insecurity.  It almost makes you feel sorry for him.

But this relative of Mansky’s and her coldly realpolitik “nyet” tell you why he has so many Russians’ support.  Because it means: nyet, you can’t tell me that the U.S. and NATO suddenly developed a major crush on Estonia and Georgia; nyet, you can’t suddenly tell me you’re interested in Ukraine too, because this was already starting to feel like a corporate raid on all the old girlfriends who dumped me, but Ukraine, especially, is like hitting on my sister; nyet, you can’t moan and groan about how we’re violating a basic credo of the European Union by changing borders, when neither Russia or Ukraine are part of the European Union and you wouldn’t even have considered Ukraine — with its resources, access to the Black Sea and huge Russian population —  a candidate if it weren’t a way to totally encircle Russia; and, nyet, you can’t tell us that you’re not still treating us with a Cold War mentality that you inherited from an Anglo tradition of Great Game power struggle that doesn’t apply anymore and is now completely counter-productive.

At least talk some truth and maybe we can get somewhere.  And then I’ll reconsider breaking up with Putin.

In the meantime, we can try to think of everyone as “close relations.”

For more on these issues see: The first two of my cents on Ukraine and Russia… from a couple of years ago, and more on the imperative to engage Russia in Syria, Russia, ISIS and what to do about everything“.

Putin Judah Fragle Empire

************************************************************************************* * The Donbass, the river Don basin is part of southeast Russia and the Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine where the current conflict is centered.  From The first two of my cents on Ukraine and Russia“:

“Also, thence, a crucial point: that Ukraine wasn’t so much conquered, but settled by Russia…

“The independent “frontiersmen” mentality of the Russians of these areas, a sort of Russian Texas  — among its ethnic Cossack peoples especially — should not be underestimated and should not be disregarded as a possible element in the current conflict.  (See: And Quiet Flows the Don at Amazon and at Wiki.)”

“Новая Россия,” (Novaya Rossiya), New Russia, is not a Putinism.  It’s a name for these lands that goes back to Catherine the Great and the first serious subduing of Cossack rebelliousness and settling of Russians in the region in the 18th century.  It was part of the Russian empire’s most fertile grain-producing regions and then the scene of crazy industrialization under the Bolsheviks; maybe it was once a sort of “Russian Texas” but now it’s more like a sort of Russian Rust-Belt.  Hence, the “they can have it” comment.  The Soviet Army, decapitated by Stalin’s purges of its most talented and experienced, and ill-prepared and ill-equipped, only made the Nazi sweep through Ukraine grind to a halt once the Germans had made it this far east and after hundreds of thousands of Russian men had already been sent to a meaningless death and the Nazis had swept the old lands of the Pale clean of Jews through massive massacring and mass executions which were an integral part of the military strategy of the eastern front; many military historians believe that if the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union hadn’t been slowed by German troops stopping every other community to round up and shoot its Jews (a method/process that killed more Jews than the gas chambers did), they might have been successful in beating the coming of winter and more successful in their campaign long-term.  The region then became the scene of brutal attrition warfare, culminating in the siege of Stalingrad (now reverted back to its original name, Волгоград / Volgograd on map below).  This left the region seriously trashed and so huge numbers of Russian workers were settled there post-WWII, Russianizing the Ukrainian far east even further and setting the stage for today’s conflict.

Map of the Don Basin.  The grey line shows the border between Russia (РОССИЯ) and Ukraine (УКРАИНА) and the broken grey lines in Ukrainian east indicate the Lugansk (Луганск) and Donetsk (Донетск)

Don_basin

** “У меня денег нет” (“U menya deneg nyet”) in Russian is the same structure as the Turkish “Benim param yok” — “I don’t have any money.”  Though Russian has a verb for “to have” like other Slavic languages, these structures both mean, literally: “By me there’s no money” or “My money isn’t there/isn’t by me.”  Wondering whether it’s a construction Russian acquired through contact with Tatar.  There is apparently a phenomenon where languages effect each other and transmit certain properties between them, though there’s no large bilingual population to bring them together and though they’re not genetically related, at least not closely.  The absence of an infinitive, for example, in modern Greek, Albanian, Bulgarian and Romanian/Vlach, though each are from different Indo-European families and more closely related languages have an infinitive, is one good example.  Also, Yiddish “by mir” (as in “By mir bist du shayn”) which is like the Russian по-моему (“according to me”) — for me, in my opinion.  Though German uses “bei mir” also to mean same thing.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Durrell on Cavafy: “He was by divine choice only a poet…”

21 Sep

Screen Shot 2017-09-21 at 8.39.51 PM

Durrell with wife Nancy and a young Cavafy (below)

Durrell Nancy

Cavafy young

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Upon escaping from Greece…

7 Sep

cp-cavafy2

How do you go through the work of the poet whose opus consists of the sharpest and most accurate analysis of Modern Greek identity, and find the poem that displays perhaps the most razor-sharp understanding of all of them? I’ve always known that poet was Cavafy, but I wasn’t looking for that one poem or anything, when, just leafing through his stuff a few days before I left Greece this past July, I came upon one of my favorites, the following. Please have a look first:

Going Back Home from Greece (an unbelievably clumsy translation of the Greek title)

Well, we’re nearly there, Hermippos.
Day after tomorrow, it seems—that’s what the captain said.
At least we’re sailing our seas,
the waters of Cyprus, Syria, and Egypt,
the beloved waters of our home countries.
Why so silent? Ask your heart:
didn’t you too feel happier
the farther we got from Greece?
What’s the point of fooling ourselves?
That would hardly be properly Greek. 
 
It’s time we admitted the truth:
we are Greeks also—what else are we?—
but with Asiatic affections and feelings,
affections and feelings
sometimes alien to Hellenism. 
 
It isn’t right, Hermippos, for us philosophers
to be like some of our petty kings
(remember how we laughed at them
when they used to come to our lectures?)
who through their showy Hellenified exteriors,
Macedonian exteriors (naturally),
let a bit of Arabia peep out now and then,
a bit of Media they can’t keep back.
And to what laughable lengths the fools went
trying to cover it up! 
 
No, that’s not at all right for us.
For Greeks like us that kind of pettiness won’t do.
We must not be ashamed
of the Syrian and Egyptian blood in our veins;
we should really honor it, take pride in it.

— Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard

Επάνοδος από την Ελλάδα

Ώστε κοντεύουμε να φθάσουμ’, Έρμιππε.
Μεθαύριο, θαρρώ· έτσ’ είπε ο πλοίαρχος.
Τουλάχιστον στην θάλασσά μας πλέουμε·
νερά της Κύπρου, της Συρίας, και της Aιγύπτου,
αγαπημένα των πατρίδων μας νερά.
Γιατί έτσι σιωπηλός; Pώτησε την καρδιά σου,
όσο που απ’ την Ελλάδα μακρυνόμεθαν
δεν χαίροσουν και συ; Aξίζει να γελιούμαστε; —
αυτό δεν θα ’ταν βέβαια ελληνοπρεπές. Aς την παραδεχθούμε την αλήθεια πια·
είμεθα Έλληνες κ’ εμείς — τι άλλο είμεθα; —
αλλά με αγάπες και με συγκινήσεις της Aσίας,
αλλά με αγάπες και με συγκινήσεις
που κάποτε ξενίζουν τον Ελληνισμό. Δεν μας ταιριάζει, Έρμιππε, εμάς τους φιλοσόφους
να μοιάζουμε σαν κάτι μικροβασιλείς μας
(θυμάσαι πώς γελούσαμε με δαύτους
σαν επισκέπτονταν τα σπουδαστήριά μας)
που κάτω απ’ το εξωτερικό τους το επιδεικτικά
ελληνοποιημένο, και (τι λόγος!) μακεδονικό,
καμιά Aραβία ξεμυτίζει κάθε τόσο
καμιά Μηδία που δεν περιμαζεύεται,
και με τι κωμικά τεχνάσματα οι καημένοι
πασχίζουν να μη παρατηρηθεί. A όχι δεν ταιριάζουνε σ’ εμάς αυτά.
Σ’ Έλληνας σαν κ’ εμάς δεν κάνουν τέτοιες μικροπρέπειες.
Το αίμα της Συρίας και της Aιγύπτου
που ρέει μες στες φλέβες μας να μη ντραπούμε,
να το τιμήσουμε και να το καυχηθούμε.

What gives this poem such pride of place as an analysis of Greek identity? For me, it starts with the simple joy both passengers feel as they’re arriving home – not approaching Greece, but leaving it. “Upon Escaping from Greece” would be my choice for the title’s English translation, because it’s clearly an experience of suffocation that the two friends have experienced that has started to lighten up for them as they cruise east through the breezy waters of the Mediterranean.

Cavafy has become an object of a resurgent cult in Greece, partly due to last year’s 150-year celebration (he was born in 1863), that’s a kind of an “emperor’s-new-clothes” phenomenon for me; not because his new clothes aren’t real, but I feel that few Greeks actually know what it is they’re suppose to be liking so much. I much prefer people who just say up front that they don’t like him. He’s “childish” they say, in response to his prose-like, early modernist experiments. These are the people who like their poetry with a capital “P”; they want it to rhyme: “φεγγαράκι μου λαμπρό…” and they want it to have epic scale heroics and ‘the thousands dead under the axles’ and ‘the living giving their blood’ in the heroic deed of ‘making the sun turn,’ along with some myrtle and oleander and jasmine thrown in for Aegean effect. (What if you’re from Epiros and you don’t know from oleander and jasmine, just tsouknida and pournari?) Others only like a very emphatically stressed “some” of his poems: these are the ones turned off by his sexuality, but who feel they can’t say so openly in 2014 – or to me. (And the degree to which that whole part of his work, a good half, was ignored by the official festivities – they wanted only “Ithaka” or “Waiting for the Barbarians” or “The City” — was amazing.*) The Messenger for example, found a publisher for his paternal grandfather’s, my great-grand-uncle on my mother’s side, fascinating memoirs, which span the whole period from the late nineteenth century and the end of Ottoman rule to WWII. Except his grandfather met a Jewish guy who screwed him over when he was a young immigrant in New York in the 20s and he included the unfortunate phrase: “Hitler was right for doing what he did to them.”**  The publisher thought maybe that line should be cut. But the Messenger stuck to his cast-iron principles and insisted it be left as is, because it would be “censorship” to remove it.  Hardly an upholder of the most liberal sentiments on issues of that kind, I have a feeling that if the comment hadn’t been about Jews, he wouldn’t have minded the censorship so much. Just a few months earlier, for example, he hadn’t thought it was “censorship” to cut a slightly too homoerotic line from a Cavafy poem he read at his father’s funeral, for fear that our landsmen, our chorianoi, would be scandalized.

These elements and others: that Cavafy preferred the tragic dénouement to the epic climax; the unconsummated to the fulfilled; that he preferred the coded to the open and disclosed, and not out of choice; but learning to love what fate had made him, he learned to love the beauty of code – its poetry — the furtive touch over some cheap handkerchiefs; that he loved the ethnically and culturally and religiously mixed margins of Greek history and the poignancy of characters who had to straddle those margins and did not write a single poem about its Attic glory days (who are all these half-breed Egyptians and Parthians and Jews and other exotic anatolites he’s always making us read about anyway? Where’s Pericles and Aristotle?); that he understood life and humanity as fundamentally amoral, and morality as a convenient weapon to be used against the unfortunate few or often just a bad joke. All this did not do much to endear him to his contemporaries, along with the fact that he famously disliked Greece and especially Athens (the latter kind of unfair in my opinion: Athens at that time must’ve been at its most beautiful and charming), and the straight, homophobic white boys of the Generation of the ‘30s in particular, despite Seferis’ famous eulogy, had no time for him. The most vehement, Theotokas (unfortunately, one of my favorite Greek writers otherwise) scathingly declared Cavafy, in his Free Spirit, a “dead end” (a common trope, whether conscious or not: the gay man begets no issue and is thus fundamentally allied with death); that his modernism was an experiment that had been taken to its logical conclusion and that the Alexandrian was now a decadent (same difference), a point of departure for what Greek letters should move on from next and not a road open for them to continue down.

That right there is the grand and egregious error. Because Greek culture and identity – in a way that makes any sense to who we are today – simply didn’t exist until the Hellenistic (and then Roman/Byzantine) periods that Cavafy chose, almost exclusively, to write about in his historical poems. The conglomeration of Indo-European tribal units who all spoke dialects of similar languages and had started coalescing into larger city-state forms of political organization by the mid-first millennium B.C. have nothing to do with us. They may have started calling themselves “Hellenes,” but let’s not forget that the Iliad does not contain one, single, blessed mention of that holy word, and was compiled only a century-and-a- half or so before the Golden Periclean Age we’re so obsessed with.

It was because he was fascinated with the true origins of Greek identity, the cauldron of cultural mixture that Alexander created that later became condensed into a more distilled Greek-speaking, Orthodox idea, that Cavafy wrote about those periods so widely and studied them so deeply. And being from such deep aristocratic Constantinopolitan roots and an Alexandrian, how could he not have felt that basic idea on a gut level.

This is another reason the mention of the words “Macedonia” and “Alexander” makes my hair stand on end. The Macedonians (by which I mean Slav Macedonians) are ridiculous in their attempt to appropriate Alexander as a phenomenon of their own culture, though many observers have written about how this conscious policy of “antikvatsiya” (“antiquization”) on the Macedonian government’s part is, partly, a response to Greek intransigence on every other grounds. But you can see from how Greeks respond to Macedonian moves that Greeks don’t get Alexander either. Alexander is not a culminating point of Hellenic history, where the great hero brought Hellenic civilization to the “borders of India.” Alexander is not even a Greek herohe very early in his career quickly became déraciné, as Mary Renault keenly observed. Alexander is where Greek history starts. It’s all really the other way around. Alexander is what brought the East, and its incomparably greater and older civilizational achievements, to us. He drove us deep into contact with that wider world, cementing what had always been our bonds to those lands and those peoples he grew to love so much, and giving us as much in return, actually more, than what we gave them. He created the great creolized cultural space that a universal, cosmopolitan Greek identity was first born in and that later – when the name for “universal, cosmopolitan identity” changed, due to political circumstances, from “Greek” to “Roman,” – changed along with it, but which left the Helladic peninsula — or “the Hellenic” generally — behind permanently as a focus of any kind. Until the twentieth century.

Alexander Renault

Hermippos and his friend, Greeks going home to Antioch in Syria or Seleucia in Mesopotamia, can’t be Greek in Greece. It suffocates them. They don’t fit into that nonsense, antiquarian straightjacket. It’s “beneath” them, as Greeks, to reject the wider world that they’ve long been an intimate and inseparable part of. Greek means cosmopolitan to them and they can’t be Greeks without that quality. It would be the most provincial thing for them to do, to act like provincials who try to hide their “easterness”:

“…like some of our petty kings
(remember how we laughed at them
when they used to come to our lectures?)
who through their showy Hellenified exteriors,
Macedonian exteriors (naturally),
let a bit of Arabia peep out now and then,
a bit of Media they can’t keep back.
And to what laughable lengths the fools went
trying to cover it up!”

Eastern Mediterranean(click)

The nation-state is bound up inseparably with provincialness. And narrowed tribalism. And provincials hide. Not true Greek men. Cavafy’s “petty kings” are the Neo-Greek bourgeoisie, from the statelet’s origins down to our day, with their still immovable disdain for the East, who don their ancient fineries and try to make the world call them Hellenes and have no clue how ridiculous they’re being. Provincials dissimulate – not true Greek men — and that dissimulation has been the main thread of Neo-Greek culture since the late eighteenth century, so much so that all perspective has been lost. Hermippos and his buddy aren’t provincials. They’re Greek alright – from some of the richest, most sophisticated and Greekest cities in the world; but they understand the larger cultural context they’re a part of, and they’re too supremely secure in their Greekness to put down the Egypt and Syria that ‘flow in their veins.’ Greece tries to take that away from them. I imagine the Athens they had to go study at as a kind of tired old Cambridge, MA, still resting on its now dried-up laurels. But they’re too Greek to let Greece do that to them. Sorry to get repetitive. It’s an attempt to make the paradox – a wholly healthy and natural one – sink in.

Greece still tries to do that to you. And in the crisis mode it’s in today, it tries even harder because its sad inhabitants’ perspectives have become narrower and narrower to the point where they see nothing of the rest of the world and there’s simply very little language left you can share with them. “Η φτώχεια φέρνει γκρίνια,” the Greek says – “poverty makes for kvetching” — and though many people I know have faced the current crisis with the best kind of Greek dignity and humor in the face of adversity, too many others have lapsed back into ideological craziness, or just a frustrated lashing-out bitterness, or were always there but kept it hidden and now think that it’s more okay to express things openly; it’s hard to tell which.

One friend or relative has become a Golden Dawn apologist if not supporter: “What’s a young man who loves his country supposed to do?” I dunno; but half of Dostoevsky is about what to do with the unguided idealism of strong young men and phenomena like Golden Dawn wasn’t one of his answers; he strictly warned us against them, in fact. Another wants to take a DNA test to make sure he has no Albanian genes: actually believes such a thing exists – a chromosome for Albanian-ness and a test that will detect it. And this is one of those uncomfortable situations we’ve all been in where this is coming from the spouse of a good friend, so you have to keep your silence and you can’t just say: “That’s nice _______, Hitler and the Nazis were into that kind of thing too.” If I could I would’ve also asked if he wanted to see my DNA chart too, which is probably chock full of “Albanian-ness” and if he would then feel the need to maybe keep me away from his daughters. Another is still obsessing, as we go on twenty-five years since the break-up of Yugoslavia, on the “Macedonian issue.”*** And after hours of mind-bogglingly pointless conversation – “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into,” said Jonathan Swift — you take a step back and realize that that’s all that’s ever mattered to this guy. The hundreds of thousands dead produced by the Yugoslav disaster, the millions displaced, the destruction of the last part of the former Ottoman sphere where there was still some hope of survival for a multi-ethnic society, the greatest bloodletting in Europe since WWII, right on our doorstep…  He doesn’t give two shits, nor has he let one blessed thought or idea on that series of calamities occupy even one of his brain cells for a second. All he cares about is the “Macedonian Issue.” Twenty-five f*cking years later. And he doesn’t find such narcissism the least bit obscene.  “The world is burning, και το μ**νί της Χάιδως χτενίζεται.”  I won’t translate.

Whether or not they’re becoming more extreme or just showing their true colors more, it’s certain that I’ve become more radical – not in my ideological positions, which are what they always were – but in my inability to tolerate their stupidity and growing narrow-mindedness. I’m always ready to leave Greece when the time comes, but this time it had become truly unbearable. There were just too many people that it had become too uncomfortable to even be around. And stumbling on this half-forgotten Cavafy poem was no accident I feel.

And so I took that great big breath of relief that Hermippos and his friend took on the deck of their boat as the shores of Cyprus came into view when I myself left for Serbia back in July. I had to get out of this place – and disassociate myself from it and its inhabitants — if the fact that I’m Greek was going to continue to be to at all tolerable to me. I’ll always love arriving; with the new flight path south over the Attic midlands passing right over the town and beach — over the very apartment building — where I spent my childhood summers, I’ll always choke up a little at the sight of the brown hills of Attica. But when I’m ready to leave, I gotta go – and fast – and this year more urgently than any other.

And I can see myself spending more and more of my future time in “Greece” in Albania with my relatives – “deep” Greeks who don’t have the ball-and-chain of a nation-state tied around their ankles; in Istanbul – with smart young Greek and Turkish kids who are trying to do something intelligent and productive about our relationship; maybe in Cyprus – which Kosmas Polites called the last surviving remnant of his beloved lost Ionia and where I have friends to whom I owe long over-due visits; or just here in Queens — where every block and street corner and subway stop and church bears a piece of my Roman-ness.

Because Greece, man… Greece just cramps my Greekness.

Egypte, Alexandrie, le front de merAlexandria (click)

******************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

* And the thing is, if you ignore his erotic poems, I find it hard to believe that most people can even understand, much less really appreciate, the rest — the historical poems.  Who understands the religious and cultural sociology of fourth-century Alexandria enough to have the proper context to apprehend all of “Myres: Alexandria, AD 340”?  Who the hell knows where Commagene is?  Or who Alexander Jannaios was?  Or what a handsome Jewish prince is doing with the name Aristovoulos?  Or why he was murdered and “those sluts Kypros and Salome” are now gloating in private?

** It’s amazing.  And disturbing.  Anti-semitism and the extent of its popularization and the accessibility of its language.  Not only can one accusation of unethicalness — and from a Greek at that! — be used to tar a whole people, but Jews are the only people with whom that one charge leads straight to the gas chambers so easily, in people’s minds and on people’s tongues.  Not “what a sleazebag.”  Or “what a nation of sleazebags.”  But straight to “Hitler was right…”

*** Yes.  Believe it or not.  The “Macedonian” “issue.”  More on that to come.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Jesus, guys, I thought my readership was a little bit more literate than this.

12 Jun

CavafyC.P. Cavafy

Where do the lines: Οι άνθρωποι αυτοί ήσαν μια κάποια λύσις.” “Those people were a solution of some kind. come from?!?!  That came at the end of my “‘Magnificent Turks’ and the origins of this blog” post?!?!

They’re from Cavafy (above), from his poem “Περιμένοντας τους Bαρβάρους” or “Waiting for the Barbarians.”  Please…  Let’s get our faces out of the screens every now and then and sit down with a book of poetry.

Τραγικό...

 

Here are the full texts of Keeley’s English translation  and the original Greek below:

 

Waiting for the Barbarians

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
 
            The barbarians are due here today.
Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?
           
            Because the barbarians are coming today.
            What laws can the senators make now?
            Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.
 
Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?
 
            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
            He has even prepared a scroll to give them,
            replete with titles, with imposing names.
 
Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?
 
            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and things like that dazzle the barbarians.
 
Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?
 
            Because the barbarians are coming today
            and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?
 
            Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
            And some who have just returned from the border say
            there are no barbarians any longer.
 
And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard 

Περιμένοντας τους Bαρβάρους

— Τι περιμένουμε στην αγορά συναθροισμένοι;

        Είναι οι βάρβαροι να φθάσουν σήμερα.

— Γιατί μέσα στην Σύγκλητο μια τέτοια απραξία;
  Τι κάθοντ’ οι Συγκλητικοί και δεν νομοθετούνε;

        Γιατί οι βάρβαροι θα φθάσουν σήμερα.
        Τι νόμους πια θα κάμουν οι Συγκλητικοί;
        Οι βάρβαροι σαν έλθουν θα νομοθετήσουν.

—Γιατί ο αυτοκράτωρ μας τόσο πρωί σηκώθη,
 και κάθεται στης πόλεως την πιο μεγάλη πύλη
 στον θρόνο επάνω, επίσημος, φορώντας την κορώνα;

        Γιατί οι βάρβαροι θα φθάσουν σήμερα.
        Κι ο αυτοκράτωρ περιμένει να δεχθεί
        τον αρχηγό τους. Μάλιστα ετοίμασε
        για να τον δώσει μια περγαμηνή. Εκεί
        τον έγραψε τίτλους πολλούς κι ονόματα.

— Γιατί οι δυο μας ύπατοι κ’ οι πραίτορες εβγήκαν
 σήμερα με τες κόκκινες, τες κεντημένες τόγες·
 γιατί βραχιόλια φόρεσαν με τόσους αμεθύστους,
 και δαχτυλίδια με λαμπρά, γυαλιστερά σμαράγδια·
 γιατί να πιάσουν σήμερα πολύτιμα μπαστούνια
 μ’ ασήμια και μαλάματα έκτακτα σκαλιγμένα;

        Γιατί οι βάρβαροι θα φθάσουν σήμερα·
        και τέτοια πράγματα θαμπώνουν τους βαρβάρους.

—Γιατί κ’ οι άξιοι ρήτορες δεν έρχονται σαν πάντα
 να βγάλουνε τους λόγους τους, να πούνε τα δικά τους;

        Γιατί οι βάρβαροι θα φθάσουν σήμερα·
        κι αυτοί βαρυούντ’ ευφράδειες και δημηγορίες.

— Γιατί ν’ αρχίσει μονομιάς αυτή η ανησυχία
 κ’ η σύγχυσις. (Τα πρόσωπα τι σοβαρά που εγίναν).
 Γιατί αδειάζουν γρήγορα οι δρόμοι κ’ η πλατέες,
 κι όλοι γυρνούν στα σπίτια τους πολύ συλλογισμένοι;

        Γιατί ενύχτωσε κ’ οι βάρβαροι δεν ήλθαν.
        Και μερικοί έφθασαν απ’ τα σύνορα,
        και είπανε πως βάρβαροι πια δεν υπάρχουν.

                               __

 Και τώρα τι θα γένουμε χωρίς βαρβάρους.
 Οι άνθρωποι αυτοί ήσαν μια κάποια λύσις.

 

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“…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

Egypt: The Other Homeland

6 Apr

Another people’s exodus from Egypt… 

I always feel like smirking a bit when I come across the title of Mark Mazower’s 2005 book: Salonica: City of GhostsIt’s not just that “our parts” with their ‘ancient, tribal hatreds’ always seem to be ‘haunted’ in the Western imagination; it’s just that, truly, which of our cities isn’t a city of ghosts?  Salonica, Sarajevo, Istanbul, Izmir?  Beirut, Alexandria, Lahore, Delhi?  Which?

Well, Al Jazeera has produced a beautiful little documentary by Giorgos Augeropoulos about the story of Alexandrian Greeks.  Augeropoulos is apparently the director of a highly praised Greek documentary series and has been pretty vocal in Greece’s recent political and fiscal crisis/rezili, but I had never heard of him before.

Al Jazerera, by the way, has now become my primary source of news.  It’s the only place one can get any serious international news, run from the idiocy of American politics, escape from MSNBC’s twenty-four hour liberal catechism class, and catch genuinely original and — I don’t know how else to put it — sincere documentaries like this.  Watch it when you have the chance.

Below are the complete texts of the two Cavafy poems used at the beginning and end of the documentary, “Candles” and “The City” in both Greek and English.  Single-accent Greek (the appropriately named “monotonic”) literally causes me visual pain — like, I can’t look at it, actually have more trouble reading it — and when used for Cavafy the pain reaches excruciating levels, but I couldn’t find the poems in polytonic versions anywhere on line; those who know what I mean, please forgive me.  And this from “The Official Website of the Cavafy Archive,” malaka: http://www.kavafis.gr/index.asp   …criminal, ntrope.  And I’m beyond certain Cavafy himself, so much of whose work was dedicated to memory, the past, and the continuity of Greek civilization, would have agreed

The English translations are by Edmund Keeley and Phillip Sherrard, still the best around, despite the attempts of many others.  Under the Greek version of “Candles” is the Greek actress Eirene Pappa’s performance of the poem set to music by Mimes Plessas.  Below the Greek version of the “The City” is a gorgeous reading of the poem by the truly great actress Elle Lambete, whose stunning Greek face I think readers should have a photo of as a visual reference:

Patricia Storace,  in her Dinner with Persephone: http://www.amazon.com/Dinner-Persephone-Travels-Patricia-Storace/dp/0679744789/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1333821533&sr=1-1, the first book I recommend to anyone who wants to get Greece and Greeks (along with Patrick Leigh Fermor’s classic Roumeli: http://www.amazon.com/Roumeli-Travels-Northern-Greece-Classics/dp/159017187X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1333821635&sr=1-1), writes:

“Greek is not a voluptuous language, or a lilting one, but stony and earthy, a language full of mud, volcanic rock, and glittering precious stones…”

Listen to Lambete and you’ll know what she means.

Κεριά

Του μέλλοντος η μέρες στέκοντ’ εμπροστά μας
σα μια σειρά κεράκια αναμένα —
χρυσά, ζεστά, και ζωηρά κεράκια.

Η περασμένες μέρες πίσω μένουν,
μια θλιβερή γραμμή κεριών σβυσμένων·
τα πιο κοντά βγάζουν καπνόν ακόμη,
κρύα κεριά, λυωμένα, και κυρτά.

Δεν θέλω να τα βλέπω· με λυπεί η μορφή των,
και με λυπεί το πρώτο φως των να θυμούμαι.
Εμπρός κυττάζω τ’ αναμένα μου κεριά.

Δεν θέλω να γυρίσω να μη διω και φρίξω
τι γρήγορα που η σκοτεινή γραμμή μακραίνει,
τι γρήγορα που τα σβυστά κεριά πληθαίνουν.

Pappa and Plessas: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0DiYKzHHdY&feature=related

Candles

Days to come stand in front of us
like a row of lighted candles—
golden, warm, and vivid candles.
 
Days gone by fall behind us,
a gloomy line of snuffed-out candles;
the nearest are smoking still,
cold, melted, and bent.
 
I don’t want to look at them: their shape saddens me,
and it saddens me to remember their original light.
I look ahead at my lighted candles.
 
I don’t want to turn for fear of seeing, terrified,
how quickly that dark line gets longer,
how quickly the snuffed-out candles proliferate.

Η Πόλις

Είπες· «Θα πάγω σ’ άλλη γη, θα πάγω σ’ άλλη θάλασσα.
Μια πόλις άλλη θα βρεθεί καλλίτερη από αυτή.
Κάθε προσπάθεια μου μια καταδίκη είναι γραφτή·
κ’ είν’ η καρδιά μου — σαν νεκρός — θαμένη.
Ο νους μου ως πότε μες στον μαρασμόν αυτόν θα μένει.
Όπου το μάτι μου γυρίσω, όπου κι αν δω
ερείπια μαύρα της ζωής μου βλέπω εδώ,
που τόσα χρόνια πέρασα και ρήμαξα και χάλασα.»

Καινούριους τόπους δεν θα βρεις, δεν θάβρεις άλλες θάλασσες.
Η πόλις θα σε ακολουθεί. Στους δρόμους θα γυρνάς
τους ίδιους. Και στες γειτονιές τες ίδιες θα γερνάς·
και μες στα ίδια σπίτια αυτά θ’ ασπρίζεις.
Πάντα στην πόλι αυτή θα φθάνεις. Για τα αλλού — μη ελπίζεις—
δεν έχει πλοίο για σε, δεν έχει οδό.
Έτσι που τη ζωή σου ρήμαξες εδώ
στην κώχη τούτη την μικρή, σ’ όλην την γη την χάλασες.

Lambete: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y32nzLanljY

The City

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”
 
You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.

 

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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