Authors: Jan Morris
House of the Chinese Master (after Bourdin, 1927)
It is 5 May, the day of the Roof-Race. As the horse-race is to Siena, as the bull-running is to Pamplona, as Derby Day is to the English or even perhaps Bastille Day to the French, so the day of the Roof-Race is to the people of Hav.
It is not known for sure how this fascinating institution began, though there are plenty of plausible theories. The race was certainly being run in the sixteenth century, when Nicander Nucius described it in passing as âa curious custom of these people'; and in 1810 Lady Hester Stanhope, the future âQueen of Palmyra', was among the spectators: she vociferously demanded the right to take part herself, and was only dissuaded by her private physician, who said it would almost certainly be the end of her.
In later years the Russian aristocracy made a regular fÃªte of it, people coming all the way from St Petersburg simply for the day, and lavish house-parties were organized in the villas of the western hills. Enormous stakes were wagered on the outcome; the winner, still covered with dust and sweat; was immediately taken to the Palace in the Governor's own carriage for a champagne breakfast and the presentation of the traditional golden goblet (paid for, by the way, out of an annual bequest administered by the Department of Wakfs).
Today gambling is theoretically illegal in Hav, but the goblet is still presented, more prosaically nowadays at the finishing line, and the winner remains one of the heroes of Hav for the rest of his life â several old men have been admiringly pointed out to me in the streets as Roof-Race winners of long ago. The race is so demanding that nobody over the age of twenty-five has ever run it â no woman at all yet â and only once in recorded history has it been won by the same runner twice; so that actually there is quite a community of winners still alive in Hav â the most senior extant, who owns the pleasure-garden on the Lazaretto, won the race in 1921.
The most familiar account of the race's origins is this. During a rising against the Ottoman Turks, soon after their occupation of Hav, a messenger was sent clandestinely from Cyprus to make contact with the patriotic leader Gamal Abdul Hussein, who was operating from a secret headquarters in the Medina. The messenger landed safely on the waterfront at midnight, but found every entrance to the Old City blocked, and every street patrolled by Turkish soldiers. Even as he stood there wondering how to get to Gamal, at his house behind the Grand Mosque, he was spotted by Turkish sentries and a hue and cry was raised; but far from retreating to his boat, whose crew anxiously awaited him in the darkness, without a second thought he leapt up to the ramparts of the Medina, and began running helter-skelter over the rooftops towards the mosque. Up clambered the soldiers after him, scores of them, and there began a wild chase among the chimney-pots and wind-towers; but desperately leaping over alleyways, slithering down gutters, swarming over eaves and balustrades, the messenger found his way through an upper window of Gamal's house, presented his message, and died there and then, as Hav legendary heroes must, of a cracked but indomitable heart.
Such is the popular version, the one that used to get into the guide-books â Baedeker, for instance, offered it in his
, 1911, while adding that âexperienced travellers may prefer to view the tale with the usual reservations'. Magda has another version altogether, concerning the exploits of an Albanian prince, while Dr Borge regards the whole thing as pagan allegory, symbolic of summer's arrival, or possibly Christian, prefiguring the miracle of Pentecost. Most Havians, though, seem to accept the story of the messenger; and in my view, if it wasn't true in the first place, so many centuries of belief have made it true now.
The course is immensely demanding. It begins, as did the messenger's mission, with the scaling of the city wall, beside the Market Gate, and it entails a double circuit of the entire Medina, by a different route each time, involving jumps over more than thirty alleyways, culminating in a prodigious leap over the open space in the centre of the Great Bazaar, and ending desperately in a slither down the walls of the Castle Gate to the finish. The record time for the course is just under an hour, and officials are posted all over the rooftops, beneath red umbrellas like Turkish pashas themselves, to make sure there is no cheating.
Virtually all Hav turns out for this stupendous athletic event. All shops and government offices are closed for the day, and almost the only person who cannot come to watch is Missakian the trumpeter, because it is his call from the castle rampart which is the signal for the start. In former times the race was run at midnight, as the messenger supposedly ran, but so many competitors died or were terribly injured, tripping over unseen projections, misjudging the width of lanes, that in 1882 the Russians decreed it should be run instead as dawn broke over the city â to the chagrin of those young bloods whose chief pleasure, if we are to believe Tolstoy, lay in seeing the splayed bodies falling through the street-lights to their deaths. But if it was well ordered in Russian times, when Grand Duchesses came to watch, it is less so now: the race itself may be properly umpired and refereed, but the spectators, conveniently removed as they are from the actual course above their heads, are left absolutely uncontrolled. âYou are strong,' said Mahmoud, inviting me to join him at the great event, âwe will do the triple.'
This meant so positioning ourselves that we could see the three climactic moments of the race, one after the other â the start, the Bazaar Leap and the finish. For
this is the
way to watch, and over the years dozens of ways of doing it have been devised. Some use bicycles to race around the outer circle of the walls. Some are alleged to know of passages through the city's cellars and sewers. Our system however would be simple: we would just barge our way, with several thousand others, down the clogged and excited streets from one site to the other.
Forty-two young men took part in the race this morning, and when we hastened in the half-light to join the great crowd at the Market Gate, we found them flexing their muscles, stretching themselves and touching their toes in a long line below the city wall. Two were Chinese. One was black. One I recognized â he works at the Big Star garage, where I bought my car. One was Mahmoud's cousin Gabril, who works for the tramways company. Several wore red trunks to show that they had run the race before, in itself a mark of great distinction, and they were all heavily greased â a protection, Mahmoud said, against abrasions.
The eastern sky began to pale; the shape of the high wall revealed itself before us; from the mosque, as we stood there in silence, came the call to prayer; and then from the distant castle heights sounded Missakian's trumpet. The very instant its last notes died those forty-two young men were scrabbling furiously up the stonework, finding a foothold here, a handhold there, pulling themselves up bump by bump, crack by crack, by routes which, like climbers' pitches, all have their long-familiar names and well-known characteristics. A few seconds â it cannot have been more â and they were all over the top and out of sight.
âRight,' said Mahmoud, âquick, follow me,' and ruthlessly pushing and elbowing our way we struggled through the gate into the street that leads to the Great Bazaar in the very middle of the Medina. In sudden gusts and mighty sighs, as we progressed, we could hear spectators across the city greeting some spectacular jump, mourning some unfortunate slither â first to our right, then in front of us, then to our left, and presently behind our backs, as the runners finished their first lap. âQuick, quick,' said Mahmoud to nobody in particular, and everyone else was saying it too â âquick, only a few minutes now, we mustn't miss it, come along, dirleddy' â and at last we were beneath the vaulted arcade of the bazaar, lit only by shafts of sunlight through its roof-holes, shoving along its eastern axis until we found ourselves jammed with a few hundred others in the circular open space that is its apex.
We were just in time. Just as we got there we heard a wild padding of feet along the roofs above, and looking up we saw,
! one flying brown body, then another, then a third, spreadeagled violently across the gap, rather like flying squirrels. One after the other they came, momentarily showed themselves in their frenzied leaps and vanished, and the crowd began to count them as they appeared â
dÃ¶rt, bes, alti, yedi
. . . Twenty-five came over in quick succession, then two more after a long pause, and then no more. âEight fallen,' said Mahmoud. âI hope my cousin was not one' â but by then we had all begun to move off again, up the bazaar's north axis this time, to the Castle Gate. Now the crush was not so hectic. Everyone knew that the second half of the race was run much slower than the first â though the light was better by now; the terrible exertions had taken their toll. So we had time to conjecture, as we moved towards the finish line. Was that Majourian in the lead at the bazaar, or was it the formidable Cheng Lo? Who was the first Red Trunk? Had Ahmed Aziz fallen, one wondered â he was getting on a bit, after all . . . In a great sort of communal murmur we emerged from the bazaar, hurried down the Street of the Four Nomads, and passed through the Castle Gate into the square outside.
There the Governor was waiting, with the gold goblet on the table before him, attended by sundry worthies: the gendarmerie commander in his white drills and silver helmet, the chairman of the Assembly, the Catholic, Orthodox and Maronite bishops in their varied vestments, the Imam of the Grand Mosque, and many another less identifiable. There seemed to be a demonstration of some kind happening over by the Serai â a clutch of people holding banners and intermittently shouting: but the gendarmes were keeping them well away, and the dignitaries were not distracted. They did not have long to wait, anyway. Those spurts of wonder and commiseration grew closer and closer. The Governor joked benignly, as governors will, to ever-appreciative aides. The churchmen chatted ecumenically. The gendarmerie commander resolutely turned his back on the scuffles by the Serai. Splosh! like a loose sack of potatoes the first of the roof-runners, without more ado, suddenly fell, rather than jumped or even scrambled, down the sheer face of the gateway, to lie heaving, greased, bruised and bloody at the Governor's feet. Every few seconds then the others arrived, those that were still in the race. They simply let themselves drop from the gate-tower, plomp, like stunt-men playing corpses in western movies, to lie there at the bottom in crumpled heaps, or flat on their backs in absolute exhaustion.
It looked like a battlefield. The crowd cheered each new deposit, the dignitaries affably clapped. And when the winner had sufficiently recovered to receive his prize, the Governor, taking good care, I noticed, that none of the grease, blood or dust got on his suit, kissed him on both cheeks to rapturous cries of âBravo! Bravo the Victor!' rather as though we were all at the opera.
âWho won?' demanded Missakian, looking up from his beans and newspaper as we entered the station cafÃ© for our breakfast.
âIzmic,' said Mahmoud.
âIzmic!' cried Missakian disgustedly, and picking up his trumpet he blew through it a rude unmusical noise.
To Little Yalta â âfresh start' â Russian Hav â Diaghilev and Nijinsky â the graveyard
Boulevard de Cetinje, which slices its way so arrogantly through the Medina, turns into something nicer when it crosses the canal and winds into the western hills. Though it is little more than a rutted track now, you can see that it was once an agreeable country avenue. Many of its trees are dead and gone, but the survivors are fine old Hav catalpas, sometimes so rich, if decrepit, that they lean right across the road and touch each other. Halfway to the sea, at a crest of the road, there is a little wooden pavilion, showing traces of blue paint upon it; at weekends a girl sells fruit, biscuits and lemonade there, to lugubrious Havian music from her transistor, and outside there are pretty little rustic tables and benches, and the remains of a flower-garden.
This is the road the Russians built, purely for their own convenience, in the days of Imperial Hav. Many a memoir mentions the little blue pleasure-pavilion on the road to the sea. And when, like the princes and Grand Duchesses; the generals and the courtesans of long ago, you emerge from the hills a few miles further on, there before you, on a wide sandy bay beside the glistening sea, stand the houses of the small bathing resort they used to call Malaya Yalta, Little Yalta. They are hardly houses really, only glorified bathing huts, to which the servants would hurry beforehand with food and wine, to get the samovars going and put out the parasols, but from a distance they look entertainingly imposing. Each with its own wooded stockade, they are merrily embellished with domes, turrets, spires, ornate barge-boarded verandahs and ornamental chimney-pots. It looks like a goblin Trouville down there, full of colour and vivacity: it is only when the road peters out at the remains of the boardwalk that you find it all to be a spectral colony, its fences collapsed, its verandahs sagging, its paintwork flaked away, its comical little towers precariously listing, and only three or four of its once-festive houses at the northern end remaining, occupied by sad families of Indian squatters.