A constant interplay of the personal and political, Greek poet and diplomat George Seferis' A Levant Journal expresses the feelings of many wanderers.
A border official, fingers running through salt-and-pepper hair, a cigarette dangling from his fingers, stares intensely at my documents, his curiosity shared by two others leaning across the desk, trying to read the document upside down. Then, in a gruff smoker's voice, he announces, “You are welcome” and waves me dramatically into the blazing yellow Sinai afternoon. From the top end of the Gulf of Aqaba, where three countries meet around its iridescent blue waters, to the tunnel that ducks under the Suez, the road is predictable in its monotony; even the grossly overloaded vans that one crosses every few kilometres, seem part of the featureless landscape. The emptiness does not hold the eye and I doze, or slip at random into the creamy pages of A Levant Journal, my unlikely companion for the journey.
The Journal contains pickings from the diaries and poems of the Greek poet, essayist, diarist and diplomat George Seferis. His life was a constant interplay of the personal and the political; while he won the Nobel in 1963 for “his eminent lyrical writing, inspired by a deep feeling for the Hellenic world of culture”, he also rose to be the Greek Ambassador to the U.K. A Levant Journal concentrates on the wartime years of 1941-44 when he served the Greek Government-in-exile in Egypt and the period when he served as Ambassador simultaneously to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq in the fifties.
The same featureless landscape greeted him too in 1941 as he approached Port Said: “Egypt, the low-lying land. The lowest-lying land I've ever seen. Not a hill on the horizon. The tallest thing in sight, as you approach: the ships and the houses. The sea looks yellow: the sea of Proteus, and jelly-fish, a great many jelly-fish, deep blue.” But Seferis was not on an ordinary weekend trip; he was in forced exile, an experience made all the more painful by his poetic sensibilities. He felt constantly the sense of displacement from a land and people he loved and though a professional diplomat was a most reluctant traveller. The introduction to the Journal likens him to Homer's Odysseus who longs for his day of returning. Seferis too saw travel only as a means of coming back home and harboured yearnings peculiar to those constantly on the move, such as the desire for a well-settled house in which old photographs and books have remained in the same place for years.
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For a day or two, I wander through the Cairo that Seferis did not like. As he wrote: “Cairo has gone. It gave me nothing. Looking back now, nothing has stayed with me but the smell of camel-dung and a moldy taste. Perhaps also the long antennas of the boats on the Nile. That's all.” His was not the city of museums and monuments; at the Pyramids he “felt nothing.” He lay sleepless in noisy hotels, listening to the sounds of the streets – “the horseshoes on the asphalt, the first trams - a terrific clatter of ironmongery -cars.” His was a Cairo that centred around the Shepheard's hotel with its nightly gatherings of conspirators, exiles and out of favour politicians. In the Journal, he wrote: “Shepheard's, that caravanserai for all who pass through, has an unlimited monotony about it. Even the monotony of a new face. Every so often you meet someone you last saw in normal or extraordinary circumstances: he's surprised and you're surprised. You ask him, ‘What's happened to you?' and he tells you what he's been doing since then. Then it occurs to you that even these feelings are like a worn suit.” Tired and worn out by his daily chores, “drained dry like a glass of water,” Seferis wound up there often. “Around 11 in the evening the great foyer at Shepheard's full of drunks staggering under the subdued lighting; it's like the salon of a brothel, and the ghost of Hamlet's father, unheard, goes this way and that, crying vengeance.”
From a villa in Zamalek, that leafy island on the Nile in the heart of Cairo, I can see, shining faintly beyond the bridge, the neon sign of Shepheard's hotel. But soon the khamseenrises somewhere in the desert and within minutes the entire scene of the slow-flowing river with its dinner boats, the teeming bridge, the lights on the other bank is swallowed up in the sudden dust storm. The neon sign too vanishes, like that smoky world of Seferis of long ago.
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At the El Giza railway station, I wait for the so-called sleeping train. A metro track arches over the station, as if headed for the low half-moon. The muezzin's call for the night prayer rises and is echoed quickly from the small mosque on the platform. Some waiting passengers, a policeman in uniform, hurry in to pray. A few Japanese girls, with uncharacteristic abandon, practice belly dancing steps on the platform.
I am heading south, only too aware that Seferis would have gone north. Alexandria was the place that appealed to him in all Egypt. (The new moon came out in Alexandria/with the old moon in her arms...) In Alexandria, he wrote, “the sea air, and the sails, and the hazy light have made me human again; someone who begins to be normally sensitive……who is worthy to raise his head and look at the stars in the sky, without being on his guard.” Alexandria appealed too because there he felt that he had “fetched up in some corner of the greater Greek world.” Seferis, after all, was the reluctant exile who wrote: “I wish now I'd never left Greece, at times with terrible bitterness. That's where my friends are; those are my people over there.” He was also the tortured poet who knew: “Travel where I might, it is Greece that causes me pain.” He had the courage to admit what so many wanderers, diplomats among them, must surely feel.