Saturday, 20 July 1996

An Irishman’s Diary: CP Cavafy

An Irishman’s Diary
Patrick Comerford

CP Cavafy ... a portrait by David Hockney

IT IS HARD to imagine that modern Egypt dates from 1799, when Napoleon drove out the Turks. It is even harder to imagine that until this century, the port city of Alexandria was one of the major centres of Greek culture and civilisation.

In a heated conversation late one night or early some morning in a taverna in Crete, I was told pointedly by a Greek whose grandparents came from the city that “there were Greeks living in Alexandria when Moses was a boy.”

The city, of course, takes its name from Alexander the Great. But it is well to remember that Cleopatra was not an Egyptian but a Greek, and that in classical times Alexandria was as purely Hellenic as Ptolemy, the founder of the dynasty of Greek monarchs which ruled the city for generations. This first Ptolemy was determined to make his capital the world centre of culture, the “Glory of the Ptolemies”:

The mentor city, the Hel-
lenic world’s acme, wisest in all the arts, in all:

In the mid 19th century, Greeks controlled the commercial life of Cairo, Khartoum and Alexandria, and in 1900, there were still 20,000 Greeks in Alexandria.

It is no accident, therefore, that Constantine Cavafy, hailed by Kimon Friar as “the undisputed founder of modern Greek poetry”, was born in Alexandria in 1863 and lived there for most for of his life, living in declining grandeur as a civil servant until his death in 1933. When his relatives, scandalised by the neighbourhood, implored him to leave his flat at 19 Rue Lepius, he went to the window drew back the curtain and asked. Where else could I be better situated than here, amidst these three centres of existence, a brothel, a church which forgives, and a hospital where you?

Craved recognition

During his life, Cavafy craved public recognition. He was introduced to English readers early in the century by F.M. Forster, T.S. Eliot, T.E. Lawrence, and Arnold Toynbee, and he is the genius loci in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. But his own sister forbade her daughter to read, her Uncle Constantine's, disreputable verses, scandalised by his homosexuality, decadence and rejection of the Orthodox Church.

Cavafy went unrecognised and without appreciation from the Athenian literati until some time after the publication of his first collected edition in 1935, two years after his death.

Today, he is read in every Greek school, and schoolchildren easily recite poems such as Ithaka, Waiting for the Barbarians, The City, and The god abandons Anthony. He has been popularised among English language readers with translations by Peter Bien, Kimon Friar, John Mavrogordato, Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, among others, and major studies by Friar, Sherrard, Christopher Robinson of Christ Church, Oxford, and Peter Bien of Dartmouth. His popularity was confirmed when poems by Cavafy were read at the funeral of Jackie Kennedy Onassis.

Yet little attention has been given to a translation of 33 of Cavafy’s poems by the Irish poet, Desmond O’Grady. O’Grady, who was born in Ireland in 1935, later travelled as a student and teacher throughout Europe, America and Egypt, where he taught at the American, University of Cairo and the University of Alexandria.

In recent years, with a grant from the Cultural Relations Committee of the Department of Foreign Affairs, he was able to accept an invitation from the Greek poet Kostis Moskof to go back to Alexandria.

Through the tireless efforts of Moskof, the Hellenic Foundation and other admirers of Cavafy’s poetry, and his cultural legacy, Cavafy’s house at 10 Rue Lepsius (now Sharm elSheykli) has been restored to what it looked like when the poet lived there and has been turned into a museum and library in his memory.

Returning to Egypt and the English Department of the American University in Cairo, O’Grady completed his translation of a selection of Cavafy’s poems, and Alternative Manners, his version of 33 Cavafy poems, was published in 1993 by the Hellenic Society, Athens Alexandria. Unfortunately, much to his regret, the proofs were never properly corrected. And so the book was never put on the market commercially and has never been reviewed in newspapers.

Readers, forgive

He feels Alternative Manners “reads like Greek ruins” and asks readers now to “please forgive, and overlook, and correct.” But, he concedes modestly, the collection has its admirers. “Greek people who know their Cavafy and who have read it found my Hiberno English very suited to Cavafy’s Alexandrian Greek, and closer to the text of Cavafy’s language than standard British and American translations.”

A reading of two of Cavafy’s best known poems illustrates the particular insights and turn of phrase which an Irish translator can bring to his work.

His translation of Ithaka loses the references by Friar and Keeley and Sherrard to Laistrygonians and Cyclops; instead, they become “cannibal bogeymen met in half light” and “those with one eye, open for their main chance.” The “Phoenician trading stations” or “market places” of the other translators become “ports you’ve not dreamed of” and “every city”.

In Waiting for the Barbarians, Sherrard and Keeley have the city fathers “assembled in the forum” and Friar has them mustered in the forum but O’Grady has them “waiting, here in the square.” Instead of the barbarians being dazzled, they are not impressed by “bamboozle”. And, instead of rhetoric and public speaking or “eloquence and public speeches”, O’Grady speaks of boring baloney.

Secretary to Pound

For some years, Desmond O’Grady was secretary to the American poet Ezra Pound in his exile in Italy. Now he lives in Kinsale, but regards Greece as his second home. His work as a poet has, of course, been recognised at home, where he is a member of Aosdana, and where he has been back for the opening of “Waves of the Sea”, the new writers’ and translators’ centre.

His earlier frustration with the printers handling of Alternative Manners could be rectified if an Irish publisher found an interest in the book. But in the meantime, he can take comfort from the theme in Cavafy’s Ithaka: the journey, not the destination, is what constitutes our true reward.

This ‘Irishman’s Diary’ was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 20 July 1996

Saturday, 6 July 1996

Dropping Ankara in Rhodes

Patrick Comerford

Early summer is the time to go island hopping in the Aegean. The harbours of Greek islands such as Rhodes, Kos and Kalimnos are lined with small ferries, fishing boats and caiques offering day trips to neighbouring islands in the Dodecanese, and to Greece’s nearest neighbour, Turkey.

From Agathonissi in the north to Kastellorizo in the far south east, the Dodecanese is a chain of over 1,000 islands, islets and rocky outcrops at the end of the eastern Mediterranean, strung out like a necklace along the west and south west coast of Asia Minor.

These are islands dripping with history and oozing with culture: Kos, where Hippocrates formulated the foundations of modern medicine; Patmos, where St John the Divine wrote The Book of Revelation; Kalimnos, Leros and Simi, with their neo-classical mansions; and Rhodes, where the giant Colossus once straddled the harbour of Mandhraki, holding aloft the flame of freedom that inspired the Statue of Liberty.

The casual freedom of land and sea, to hop from one island to the next, is part of the lure of a holiday in the sun in this part of Greece. But it’s a freedom that comes with a price, and a freedom valued by the local Greeks. At the crossroads of three continents, this island chain was once ruled by Alexander the Great and Ptolemy; it has been occupied by the Romans, the Crusaders, the Venetians, the Knights of St John, the Turks, the Italians and Nazi Germany. Only with the end of the second World War was it finally handed over by Britain and incorporated into the Greek state in 1947.

Today, only 26 of the Dodecanese islands are inhabited: the largest, Rhodes, has about 100,000 people, but most have only a few hundred residents or less, and there are only 79 people left on Pserimos.

The large Turkish minorities in Rhodes and Kos and the mosques and minarets still dotting the skylines of many islands are ever present reminders that Turkey occupied the Dodecanese for almost 400 years, from 1522 to 1912. Turkey is Greece’s nearest neighbour, and from many islands you can feel it’s almost possible to touch the Turkish coast with its harbours and towns, houses and hotels.

The fishermen and ferry operators supplement their income during these months with day trips from Rhodes to Marmaris, from Simi to Data, and from Kos to Bodrum, site of the ancient world’s Hallicarnassus and its Mausoleum.

On Saturdays and Sundays, the NV Nissos offers day trips to Turkey, leaving Kos at 9 a.m. and returning at 5 p.m. But as a small group of not more than two dozen journalists boarded the Nissos in Kos Harbour, close to the Plane Tree of Hippocrates and the Mosque of Hatzi Hassan, we were reminded of the ever present fear of an invasion from Anatolia, five kilometres across the stretch of water: local people talk in terms of “when the Turks come”, not “if”.

With blue skies and blue seas, it could have been an idyllic summer trip. Apart from goat herds and environmentalists, few people ever bother to visit the more remote rocks off the coast of Kos, Kalimnos, Kalolimnos and Pserimos. The crew took down the sign reading “Turkey” as we sailed off for the islets of Imia or Limnia, two flat pancakes less than two miles from Kalolimnos, almost 2½ miles from the Turkish island of Cavus, and over three miles from the western most Turkish coast on the peninsula of Bodrum.

The Greek naval frigate HS Limnos, which had taken part in operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, was fresh back from the Adriatic and had offered to take us out to look at the rocks. But before we left, Turkey protested and summoned the Greek ambassador in Ankara, Dimitrios Nezeritis, to warn against the media trip.

It was no idle warning: two days earlier, a Greek coastguard vessel and a Turkish patrol boat had collided in Greek waters, a mile south of Imia.

For more than 60 years, Turkey had accepted the maritime boundaries in the Aegean, defined by treaties and agreements with the Italians in 1923 and 1932, and ratified by the Treaty of Paris in 1947. The boundaries were never challenged by Ankara until last December. But as Turkey faced a major political crisis with the unexpected electoral success of the Islamic Welfare Party, the Foreign Ministry in Ankara claimed for the first time that Imia was part of the Turkish province of Mugla.

Tension began to escalate and on January 27th Turkish journalists from the daily Hurriyet landed on the largest of the two Imia islets, tore down the blue and white Greek flag and hoisted the red and white star and crescent of Turkey.

Four days later, Turkish troops landed on the smaller rocky outcrop. The two countries were on the brink of war when President Clinton intervened and the Turkish troops withdrew.

The crisis was a temporary boost at home to Turkey’s Tansu Ciller as she searched (in vain) for a coalition partner to keep her in power. But it threatened to bring down the new Greek Prime Minister, Costas Simitis; his Foreign Minister, Theodoros Pangalos; and the Pasok government in Athens. Both sides agreed to withdraw their forces from the area around Imia and return to the status quo ante, although Ms Ciller continued to press Turkey’s claims to 3,000 Aegean islands – the sum total of all islands in Greek waters.

As we sailed out of Kos, the military tension was palpable and visible. Greek and Turkish jets buzzed overhead sporadically, a Greek coastguard vessel and a navy ship were within sight and, in the distance, we could catch a glimpse of a ship with Turkish naval markings.

Costas Bikas, the Foreign Ministry spokesman from Athens on board the Nissos, insisted there was nothing out of the ordinary about the cruise and it was none of Ankara’s business. But the Turks made it their business. As the Greek and Turkish jet fighters swooped low over the area, the Turkish foreign ministry took a group of foreign and local journalists out from Bodrum. Once again, there were new Turkish claims to the islets known to the Turks as Kardak – by Defence Minister Oltan Sunguklu and by naval spokesman Ali Kurunahmut, who told cruising journalists: “Kardak is a Turkish islet and we are in Turkish waters.”

Trailing both groups were reporters and camera crews from the Greek and Turkish press and television. The crisis had moved from territorial claims and counter claims to cruise and counter cruise for journalists in the Aegean. As Imia faded out of sight, we followed past Pserimos, Kalolimnos, Leros and Kalimnos, through the straits separating Kalimnos and Telendhos, into Pothia, the port harbour of Kalimnos – names that once tripped off the tongues of backpackers in the 1970s.

As we disembarked at the dockside in Pothia, the microphones and cameras crowded into our faces: the foreign media had become the message.

The rocky island of Kalimnos is famous for its traditional sponge fishing; its fame in the past rested on Homer’s reference in the Iliad to the ships from the “Kalyndian Islands” taking part in the Trojan wars. Today, war remains an ever present threat to the peace of the islanders and their sponge fishers.

The Nissos returned to Kos to prepare for Sunday’s day trippers to Bodrum, and a launch from the Hellenic coastguard took us out from the harbour to the navy frigate Limnos, with its crew waiting to take us on to Rhodes. For four hours we watched the crew tracking Turkish moves in the Aegean sea and skies, before our odyssey came to an end and Rhodes came into sight with its mediaeval castles and palaces, mosques and minarets and three harbours.

Two deer stand at each end of Mandhrki where the Colossus once straddled the entrance to the harbour, with ships passing through its towering legs. A small tug, the Herakles, took us ashore, reminding us of the apt inscription that once graced Colossus, praising the lovely gift of unlettered freedom. “For to those who spring from the race of Herakles, dominion is a heritage both on land and sea.”

This feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 6 July 1996