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Constantine P. Cavafy, regarded as the most distinguished Greek poet of the 20th century, largely draws upon Hellenic history but contemporises it with a purposeful quiet and a plausible ease. He was born in Alexandria, Egypt, to parents of Greek origin and lived there most of his life, spending some time during his adolescence and youth in England and Turkey.

Among his many fascinating poems, and certainly one of the most acclaimed, is ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’. In it, the emperor and the subjects, senators and consuls, orators and listeners collectively prepare for the barbarians to arrive and take away their land and riches, invalidate their laws and beliefs and alter their norms and lifestyle. But night falls and the barbarians never arrive, causing discomfort and confusion among the populace which was expecting to first be ravaged and then revived under new laws and different norms. Some who were posted at the frontier return to tell the others that there are no barbarians any more. The poem ends with these lines: “And now what will become of us without Barbarians?/ Those people were some sort of a solution” (translation by John Mavrogordato).

The poem has multiple layers of meaning. At the simplest level, it announces that with the extinction of barbarians, the possibility of any political and social change no longer exists. But as often happens with any major work of art and poetry, an interpretive departure can be based on the reader’s own personal and political condition, determined by his or her own specific time and space. Therefore, it is all different in our immediate times.

Unlike the emperor and the senators mentioned in Cavafy’s poem who — having the subjects and commoners at their side — wanted to rather convivially receive the barbarians and give in to their power, all of our rich and powerful — global and local — know fully well even before the night falls that there are no barbarians.

They create the spectre of barbarians themselves for a different reason and a distinctive purpose: to haunt the common people with fears of an imminent destruction and demolition leading to a complete annihilation of their existence. They proclaim that not only will there be no laws, beliefs, norms and values left once the barbarians take over, there is no construction after deconstruction and no resurrection after extermination. The common people are told that the barbarians are not only charging at the frontier to invade, but that their sleepers have already penetrated our closest quarters. They are next door. No, in fact, they are hidden behind the closets in our living rooms. This imaginary spectre of barbarians can never be seen and welcomed as a change to the status quo but must be fought — tooth and nail — at our frontiers and within our homes to save us from extinction.

Therefore, just as a sizeable segment of the common people of the West sees Muslims as barbarians and wishes to strike them, the people of Pakistan — at the behest of those who rule us — are not only waiting to attack the ones whom we are made to think are the real barbarians when they march to our frontiers, but are constantly spotting them within our folds in order to cleanse society and save the state. But if it is true that barbarians in the neighbourhood are charging at the frontiers, then they have been charging for too long. Rather, it seems that they are also waiting at the

frontiers just as we are waiting for them to arrive. We don’t know if they are waiting for a nod from their allied barbarians in the West. Since there is a limbo of sorts at the frontiers — except for the minor scuffles between us and them — we have decided to strike those barbarians who we think are destabilising us from within with precision and sharpness.

Coming back to Cavafy, he concludes in his poem that there are no barbarians. In E.M. Forster’s words, Cavafy is a gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe.

The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 22nd, 2017

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