Does it take an Istanbulian to know one? Does it take a great writer to know one? You do not need to be a fan of poetry, nor of this particular poet, to appreciate the observations of one of the great observers of our time, with regard to living here and there but neither here nor there, and with regard to the idea of universality in art:
Cavafy was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1863, to a Greek family of wealthy drapers and cloth merchants. (The word kavaf, now forgotten even by Turks themselves, is Ottoman Turkish for a maker of cheap shoes.) The Cavafys were originally from Istanbul’s Fener neighborhood, where the city’s rich and politically influential Greek families lived. Later, they moved to Samatya, a fishermen’s neighborhood, and then immigrated to Alexandria, where they lived as members of the Orthodox Christian minority among the Muslim majority. At first, their business activities in Alexandria proved successful, and they lived in a large mansion staffed with English nannies, cooks and servants. In the 1870s, after the death of Cavafy’s father, they moved to England, but then returned to Alexandria following the collapse of the family business. After the Arab nationalist uprisings of 1882, they left Alexandria again, this time for Istanbul, and it was in this city, where he was to spend the next three years, that Cavafy wrote his first significant poems and felt the first stirrings of homoerotic desire. In 1885 the family, now impoverished, returned to Alexandria once more, to the very city he wanted to leave behind.
The return: It is the saddest part. It is the source of the sorrow that permeates his unforgettable poem “The City,” which I have read again and again in Turkish and in English translation. There is no other city to go to: The city that makes us is the one within us. Reading Cavafy’s “The City” has changed the way I look at my own Istanbul. For those who lead a provincial life, life and happiness are always to be found elsewhere, in another city, in another country. But for us provincials, this other place is perpetually out of reach. Cavafy’s wisdom is in the dignity and introspective sensibility with which he approaches this sad truth. And finally, with the same linguistic restraint and philosophical simplicity, he concludes by revealing that we have wasted our lives in that city. We come to realize that we have all been wasting our lives, and that the problem lies not in being provincial, but in the very nature of life itself. Great poets can tell their own stories without once saying “I,” and in doing so, lend their voice to all of humanity…
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