[MGSA-L] Egypt 2011 and 1906

Syrimis, George george.syrimis at yale.edu
Wed Feb 2 07:35:18 PST 2011

A lesser known Cavafy poem and a surprisingly political one. In recognition of what is going on in Egypt these days.

27 ΙΟΥΝΙΟΥ 1906, 2 μ. μ.

Σαν τόφεραν οι Χριστιανοί να το κρεμάσουν
το δεκαεφτά χρονώ αθώο παιδί,
η μάνα του που στην κρεμάλα έκει κοντά
σέρνονταν και χτυπιούνταν μες στα χώματα
κάτω άπ' τον μεσημεριανό, τον άγριον ήλιο
πότε ούρλιαζε, καί κραύγαζε σα λύκος, σα θηρίο
και πότε έξαντλημένη η μάρτυσσα μοιρολογούσε
«Δεκαφτά χρόνια μοναχά μέ τάζησες παιδί μου».
Κι όταν το ανέβασαν την σκάλα της κρεμάλας
κ' επέρασάν το το σκοινί και τόπνιξαν
το δεκαεφτά χρονώ αθώο παιδί,
κ' ελεεινά κρεμνιούνταν στο κενόν
με τους σπασμούς της μαύρης του αγωνίας
τό έφηβικόν 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 to be hanged,
the innocent boy of seventeen,
his mother, who there beside the scaffold
had dragged herself and lay beaten on the ground
beneath the midday sun, the savage sun,
now would moan, and howl like a wolf, a beast,
and then the martyr, overcome, would keen
"Seventeen years only you lived with me, my child."
And when they took him up the scaffold's steps
and passed the rope around him and strangled him,
the innocent boy, seventeen years old,
and piteously it hung inside the void,
with the spasms of black agony--
The youthful body, beautifully wrought--
His mother, martyr, wallowed on the ground
and now she keened no more about his years:
"Seventeen days only," she keened,
"seventeen days only I had joy of you, my child."


This poem was inspired by the Denshawi affair, a 1906 clash between
British military personnel and Egyptian locals. The Englishmen, traveling
between Alexandria and Cairo, stopped in the village of Denshawi
and shot some pigeons belonging to the villagers; after violence
erupted, one of the Englishmen was hit in the head with a stone and
later died, of sunstroke, after making his way back to the British camp.
The English responded by trying and hanging five of the villagers for
murder, a punishment that Sir Reginal Storrs, an acquaintance of
Cavafy's, referred to in his 1945 memoirs, Orientations, as "excessive and
medieval." Cavafy, who was violently opposed to capital punishment
("whenever I have the opportunity I declare this," he wrote in a note of
October 1902), was similarly revolted, although of course his sympathy
in this poem has an erotic component.

Notes and translation by Daniel Mendelsohn

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