The first time I heard the poem, the City by Cavafy in Greek, we were in an outdoor restaurant by the Golden Horn watching the glimmering lights of the old town, and Fener in the distance -the formerly Greek quarter, where the Greek Orthodox Patriarchy is located. The poem was recited both in Greek and Turkish simultaneously by everyone at the table, and a drop of raki was almost a tear in the eyes once language was no longer a barrier.
There are many interpretations as to which city the great Greek poet referred to in his poem: Alexandria or Constantinople? THE city could only mean Constantinople to the Greeks as it was the seat of Greekness for almost 2000 years, and even the word Istanbul was derived from the Greek word, the city. In Turkey, Cavafy’s poem became quite popular in the ’80s when it was turned into a song by a band called Ezgi’nin Günlüğü so when we sing the song, for many of us, it is istanbul, THE city. However, to our disillusionment, though he spent some time here between 1882-85 and his family was originally a distinguished Phanariote (of Fener) family, wherever Cavafy travelled to all throughout his life, he always went back to the city he was born, Alexandria, and he died there.
Yet, for a few thousand years, in the heart of Istanbullites of all times, there is no other city but Istanbul.
A Cavafy illustration by David Hockney.
The City by C.P. Cavafy
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 like something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I 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’ll walk the same streets, grow old
in the same neighborhoods, turn gray in these same houses.
You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.
Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.
C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard
Tags: Alexandria Cavafy David Hockney Ezgi'nin Günlüğü Fener Greek heritage literature memories music video poetry