Read Hav Online

Authors: Jan Morris

Hav (3 page)

Moved by the tragic splendour of this gesture, Saladin ordered that in honour of the minstrel, and of the Christian knights themselves, the lament should be sung each morning, from the same place, immediately after the call to prayer. The Arabs never did master the words of the song, which concerned the immolation of a group of otherwise forgotten Gascon men-at-arms, but the melody they subtly adapted until it sounded almost Muslim itself, and at dawn each day, throughout the long centuries of Islamic rule, it was sung from Katourian's Place. The British, during their half-century in Hav after the Napoleonic wars, substituted a trumpeter for the muezzin's voice; the Russians who followed honoured the old tradition, and the governors of the Tripartite Mandate, after them. And so it was that on my first morning I was hastening towards my opening revelation of the city to the echo of a dirge from the European Middle Ages.

I passed through the deserted station (the train still standing there lifeless) and stepped into the yellowish mist of the great square outside. I could hardly see across it — just a suggestion of great buildings opposite, and to my right the mass of the Castle looming in a dim succession of stairs, terraces, curtain walls and gateways, only the very top of the immense central keep, Beynac's Keep, being touched with the golden sunshine of the morning. Though I could hear not far away a deep muffled rumble, as of an army moving secretly through the dawn, the square itself was utterly empty; but even as I stood there, striding down the last steps from the Castle came the trumpeter himself, down from the heights, his instrument under his arm, huddled in a long brown greatcoat against the misty damp.

‘
Merhaba
, trumpeter!' I accosted him. ‘I am Jan Morris from Wales, on my very first morning in Hav!'

He answered in kind. ‘And I am Missakian the trumpeter,' he laughed. ‘
Merhaba
, good morning to you!'

‘Missakian! You're Armenian?'

‘But naturally. The trumpeters of Hav always are. You know the legend of Katourian? Well, then you will understand' — and after an exchange of pleasantries, expressing the hope that we might meet again, ‘not quite so early in the morning, perhaps', trumpet under his arm, he resumed his progress across the square.

Which reminded me, as the mist began to lift, of somewhere like Cracow or Kiev, so grey and cobbled did it seem to be, and so immense. It was hardly worth exploring then, so instead I followed that rumble, which seemed to have its focus somewhere away to my left, and found myself in a mesh of sidestreets I knew not where, joining the extraordinary procession of traffic that makes its way each morning to Hav's ancient market on the waterfront. Pendeh Square, the great central plaza of the city, is closed to all traffic until seven in the morning, but the thoroughfares around it, I discovered, were already clogged with all manner of vehicles. There were pick-up trucks with brightly painted sides. There were motorbikes toppling with the weight of their loaded sidecars. There were private cars with milk-churns on their roofs. Men in wide straw hats and striped cotton
gallabiyehs
and women in headscarves and long black skirts lolloped along on pony carts, and a string of mules passed by, weighed down with firewood. They moved, for all the noise of their engines and the rattle of their wheels on the cobblestones, in a kind of hush, very deliberately; and I found myself caught up in the steady press of it, stared at curiously but without comment, until we all debouched into the wide market-place at the water's edge, where fishing-boats were moored bow to stern along the quay, and where as the sun broke through the morning fog all was already bustle and flow.

In every city the morning market, the very first thing to happen every day, offers a register of the public character. Few offer so violent a first impression as the waterside market of Hav. Apparently unregulated, evidently immemorial, it seemed to me that morning partly like a Marseilles fish-wharf, and partly like the old Covent Garden, and partly like a flea-market, for there seemed to be almost nothing, at six in the morning, that was not there on sale. Everything was inextricably confused. One stall might be hung all over with umbrellas and plastic galoshes, the next piled high with celery and boxes of edible grass. There were mounds of apples, artistically arranged, there were stacks of boots and racks of sunglasses and rows of old radios. There were spare parts for cars, suitcases with images of the pyramids embossed upon them, rolls of silk, nylon underwear in yellows and sickly pinks, brass trays, Chinese medicines, hubble-bubbles, coffee beans in vast tin containers, souvenirs of Mecca or Istanbul, second-hand-book stalls with grubby old volumes in many languages — I looked inside a copy of
Moby Dick
, and stamped within its covers were the words ‘Property of the American University, Beirut'.

In a red-roofed shed near the water, shirtsleeved butchers were at work, chopping bloody limbs and carcasses, skinning sheep and goats before my eyes; and there were living sheep too, of a brownish tight-curled wool, and chickens in crude wicker baskets, and pigeons in coops. Women shawled and bundled against the cold sold cups of steaming soup. On the quay Greek fishermen offered direct from their boats fish still flapping in their boxes, mucous eels, writhing lobsters, prawns, urchins, sponges and buckets of what looked like phosphorescent plankton.

Almost any language, I discovered, would get you by in Hav — not just Turkish, but Italian, French, Arabic, English at a pinch, even Chinese. This was Pero Tafur's ‘Lesser Babel'! Some people were dressed Turkish-style in sombre dark suits with cloth caps, many wore those wide hats and cotton robes, rather like North Africans, some were dark and gypsy-looking, a few were Indian, some were high-cheeked like Mongols, and some, long-haired and medieval of face, wearing drab mixtures of jeans, raincoats and old bits of khaki uniform, I took to be the Kretevs, the cave-dwellers of the escarpment. Tousled small dogs ran about the place; the Greeks on their boats laughed and shouted badinage to each other. Moving importantly among the stalls, treated with serious respect by the most bawdy of the fishermen, the most brutal of the butchers, I saw a solitary European, in a grey suit and a panama hat, who seemed to go about his business, choosing mutton here, fruit there, in a style that was almost scholarly.

He was followed by a pair of Chinese, who saw to it when their boss had made his decisions that his choice was picked from its tank, cut from its hook or removed unbruised from its counter, and placed in the porter's trolley behind; and I followed the little cortège through the meat market, along the line of the fishing-boats, to the jetty beyond the market. A spanking new motor-launch was moored there, blue and cream, like an admiral's barge, with a smart Chinese sailor in a blue jersey waiting at the wheel, and another at the prow with his boathook across his arms. Gently into the well, amidships, went the crates of victuals; the European adeptly stepped aboard; and with a snarl of engines the boat backed from the quay, turned in a wide foamy curve, and sped away down the harbour towards the sea.

‘Good gracious,' I said to one of the Greeks, ‘who was that?'

‘That was Signor Biancheri, the chef of the Casino. Every morning he comes here. You've never heard of him? You surprise me.'

‘You should go up to Katourian's Place,' the trumpeter had told me ‘but wait for an hour or two, until the sun comes up.' So now that the sun was rising above the silhouette of the Castle, and its warm light was creeping along the quays and striking into the cobbled streets behind, I walked back across the still empty square and clambered up the steep stone steps to see for myself the city this remarkable populace had, over so many centuries, evolved for itself

I passed through barbicans and curtain walls, I clambered up shattered casements, I entered the immense gateway upon which Saladin had caused to be carved his triumphant and celebrated proclamation: ‘In the name of God, the Merciful, the Almighty, Salah ed Din the warrior, the defender of Islam, may God glorify his victories, here defeated, humiliated and spared the armies of the Infidel.' And immediately inside, on the half-ruined rampart beside the gate, I found a second inscription, in English, upon a stone slab. ‘In memory', it said, ‘of Katourian the musician. Erected by subscription of the Officers of Her Majesty's Royal Regiment of Artillery in the Protectorate of Hav and the Escarpment,
AD
1837.
Semper Fidelis.
'

On the platform beside the plaque, the very spot where Katourian is supposed to have killed himself, I spread out my map and looked down for the first time upon all Hav. The last morning vapours were dispersing, and the greyness of the night before was becoming, as the sun rode higher in the sky, almost unnaturally clear — the blue rim of the sea around, the low hillocks to west and east, the line of the escarpment, still in shadow, like a high wall in the distance. Salt gleamed white in the wide marshlands. There were patches of green crops and pasture to the north-east, and curving across the peninsula I could see the line of the canal cut by the Spartans during their long investment of Athenian Hav. Here and there around the coast, fishing-boats worked in twos and threes; rounding the southern point went the scud and spray of Signor Biancheri's provision launch, hastening home to breakfast.

Now I could get the hang of the place, for the Castle stands on the bald hill which is the true centre of Hav, and which was for centuries the seat of its power too. To the north of it, away to the salt-flats, extended the hangdog suburb where Hav's multi-ethnic proletariat, Turkish, Arab, Greek, African, Armenian, lives in a long frayed grid of shacks and cabins. It was marked on my map as the Balad, and it looked altogether anonymous, blank like a labour camp but for the spike of a minaret here and there, one or two church towers and brickwork chimneys, a stagnant-looking lake in the middle of it and a power station spouting smoke at its southern end. The railway track cut a wide swathe through the Balad, and parallel to it ran a tram-line, about which in places swamped dense clusters of figures, some in brown or black, some in white robes — ah, and there came the first tram of the morning, pulling a trailer, already scrambled all over by a mass of passengers clinging to its sides and platforms. I watched its lurching progress south — through those shabby shanty-streets — past the power station — out of sight for a moment in the lee of the castle hill . . .

. . . and turning myself to follow it, I saw spread out before me downtown Hav around the wide inlet of its haven. To the west, at the other end of the castle ridge, stood the vestigial remains of the Athenian acropolis, its surviving columns shored up by ugly brick buttresses. Away to the south I fancied I could just make out the Iron Dog at the entrance to the harbour, and beside it the platform of the Conveyor Bridge was already swinging slowly across the water. A couple of ships lay at their moorings in the port; on the waterfront the market was still thronged and bustling. And at my feet lay the mass of the central city, the Palace, the brightly domed offices of government, the circular slab of New Hav, the narrow crannied streets and tall white blocks of the Medina.

A red light was flashing from the prison island in the harbour, but even as I watched, it was switched off for the day, and instantly a hooter somewhere sounded a long steady blast. Seven o'clock, Hav time! Immediately, as if gates had been unlocked or barriers removed, the first traffic of the day spilled into Pendeh Square below me, and soon the din of the market had spread across the whole city, and there reached me from all around the reassuring noises of urban life, the hoots and the revs, the shouts, the clanging bells, the blaring radio music. The fishing-boats of the market sailed away in raggety flotilla down the harbour. Sunshine flashed from the upperworks of the ships, and wherever I looked the streets were filling up, cars were on the move and shopkeepers were unlocking their doors for the day's business. A small figure appeared upon the roof of the Palace, beneath its gilded onion dome, and raised upon its flagstaff the black-and-white chequered flag of Hav (which looks bathetically like the winner's flag at a motor-race, but was chosen in 1924, I have been told, so as to be utterly unidentifiable with the flag of any one of the Mandatory Powers).

Down the hill I went. The cicadas were chortling in the grass now, and halfway down a woman with a satchel over her shoulder was scrabbling in the turf for herbs. The great square was full of life by the time I got down there — cars everywhere, a tram rattling past the station entrance, flower-sellers setting up their trays beside the equestrian statue of Czar Alexander II in the middle. Outside the Palace gates, between the palm trees, two sentries in red jackets and crinkly astrakhan hats stood guard with fixed bayonets on antique rifles. The flag flew ridiculously up above. When I reached the station entrance, and made my way towards the hotel, I looked through the glass door of the Café de la Gare, to my right, and there with his instrument upright on the table the trumpeter Missakian, head down, was deep into a pile of beans.

3

Settling in — the routine — at the Athenaeum — in a vacuum — who cares?

Here as anywhere one must settle in. One must adjust one's first impressions, which may indeed be perfectly accurate, but are sure to be partial. Already, I must say, that castle does not look quite so towering on its hill. Missakian's morning trumpet is not quite so heart-rendingly flawless as it sounded that first morning, and the TV, if still fond of old Hollywood in Turkish, turns out to transmit programmes too in French, Italian and Chinese, not to mention brand-new American soap operas in Arabic.

Seen and heard at least from residence in the railway hotel, Hav is a city of very settled habit, living to programmes that seem inflexible. Usages of routine — ‘two o'clock sharp', ‘as always', ‘according to custom' — are much favoured by Havians. Crack of dawn comes the call to prayer and the trumpet, and soon afterwards I hear the cry of the first hawker; he sells hot oatcakes in the yard behind the station, baking them in a portable oven, and always seems to have plenty of customers — many people, Miss Yeğen tells me, make a breakfast of them before they go to work. Seven o'clock, the siren sounds, and almost at once I hear the ding-ding-ding of the first tram, clattering into Pendeh Square. At eight the angelus rings from the French cathedral, and then the steel shutters of the shops clang up, one after the other through the streets. Eleven o'clock sharp on Tuesdays and Thursdays — well,
generally
sharp — and a long blast of the steam-whistle proclaims the departure of the Mediterranean Express for Kars (or as it used to be, and still can be with minor interruptions, for Tiflis, Rostov and Moscow . . .).

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