Read Hav Online

Authors: Jan Morris

Hav (4 page)

At eleven-thirty
really
sharp, every day of the week, one can hear the muffled report of a gun from the prison island, San Pietro. Hav time being half an hour before St Petersburg time, ever since the days of Russian rule, eleven thirty rather than noon has been the official centre of the Hav day, the moment when all official departments close for the midday break. The shop shutters rattle down again, the trams pause in their schedules, and for most of the people of Hav a rather heavy lunch is followed by three or four hours of idle siesta, even in the winter months — until as the evening begins to draw in everything starts up all over again.

The prison gun goes off once more at half past eight in the evening, and the working day is over. Nowadays, those who do not go home to supper with TV linger on till ten or eleven in the cafés and restaurants of New Hav, or go out to dinner in Yuan Wen Kuo, where things stay open later, or find disreputable indulgences, so Miss Yeğen says, in the back-streets of the Medina and Balad slums. But I am told that in the old days the climax or focal point of the evening, at least in the summer season, was the midnight arrival of the Express, to disgorge its complement of grandees and celebrities before a wondering crowd at the platform barricade. Now the train seldom arrives before two or three in the morning: and by then, as we know, nobody is awake in Hav but Miss Yeğen in her cubicle at the hotel.

One must also settle in, here as everywhere, in the official or administrative sense. This has proved a surprisingly pleasant experience. ‘You must go to the Serai,' said Miss Yeğen, ‘and register at the Aliens Registration Office, or else
zam
, you will be on my cousin's train without a first-class ticket, on your way to Kars.' So I went along to the Aliens Office, round the back of the government buildings, and there, presenting my passport, and Evidence of Solvency (namely my American Express credit card, which so far as I know is accepted by nobody here), I met Mr Mahmoud Azzam, Deputy Controller of Aliens.

‘Dirleddy,' said Mr Mahmoud Azzam — for this form of address, I now realize, is generic to courtly gentlemen of Hav, whatever their language — ‘I see you are a writer. So am I, when I am not being Deputy Controller of Aliens, and you really must allow me, since it is now almost eleven thirty, to introduce you to some of our confrères. Do please take lunch with me in what you might call our headquarters, the Athenaeum Club — just around the corner.' Mr Azzam was in his late twenties, I would judge, and rather progressive of appearance, having long sideburns and a droopy moustache, besides wearing in his lapel a badge saying in Turkish
Balinalari Öldürmeyin
, ‘Save the Whale'. He did not look Athenaeum material, so to speak, especially when, having packed away his files and put his three or four pens in his breast pocket, he took me round the corner and I saw the club-house before me. It was built by the Russians, and looked all you would expect of an Athenaeum, dorically pillared on a single floor, grandly porticoed, green-shuttered, Minerva-crowned of course — in short, if a little down-at-heel, distinctly of the literary or scholarly élite. Was this really Mr Azzam, I wondered? No less pertinently, I mused, eyeing my own dusty sandals and less than immaculate slacks, was it entirely me?

But I need not have worried. Hardly had we climbed the front steps, entered the tall portico (bees' nests clustered under its eaves), and pushed open the big front door, when a comforting hubbub reached us — loud talk, much laughter, even snatches of singing. ‘We are all intellectuals here,' said Mr Azzam, as though that explained everything, and thus encouraged, holding my copy of Braudel's
The Mediterranean in the Age of Philip II
, Volume II, as if in credential, I accompanied him into the maelstrom.

The whole of the ground floor of the Hav Athenaeum, which I surmise was once hall, dining-room, bar and silent library, is now a gigantic kind of common room, as in some extremely avant-garde university. Cafeteria, bar, sitting-room, office, library, seemed to be strewn at random around this immense chamber. All was in a state of exuberant vigour. Everyone was talking very loudly, as at a cocktail party, except for those bent over books and magazines in the library wing, and there were knots of people arguing and gesticulating over drinks, and people shouting to one another from one end of the cafeteria queue to the other. Even the elderly women behind the counter replied to orders in screeching fortissimi. It was not at all how I imagined an Athenaeum.

And another un-Athenaeum-like thing: hardly anybody there, except the counter-women and me, seemed much more than thirty years old. Men and women, they looked like so many students — not even associate professors, I thought, at the most research graduates. They greeted me very breezily as we elbowed our way through. ‘Hello old thing,' said a man in big horn-rimmed glasses, provoking a storm of ‘Hush', ‘Anton, so rude', and ‘Take no notice, dirleddy', and from a young woman behind us in the queue came the cry ‘Braudel! That monster!'

I asked her afterwards, when we came to share a table, why she cherished this exotic antipathy — it is not common, after all, to feel so fiercely about illustrious scholars.

‘Why, because in God knows how many pages of God knows how many volumes, he never even recognizes the
existence
of Hav.'

This raised ardent waves of assent from our companions — ‘shame, shame', ‘quite true', ‘notorious', etc. ‘Fair play, Magda,' said Mahmoud Azzam, ‘surely he mentions us in footnotes?'

She ignored him. ‘And do you know why?' she asked me urgently, looking me very close and hard in the face. ‘Because the French wish to refuse our being. They do not wish us to have existed. They failed to keep us after their infamous occupation in 1917, and so they want us not to be. They are a very jealous people. They know Hav has been for centuries, for aeons, a centre of art and civilization — long before France was thought of! — so if they cannot have us, and pretend us to be French, like Guadeloupans, or what-have-yous in the Pacific Sea, then they do not want us to be.'

A frenzied discussion followed this outburst, some supporting Magda, some telling me to take no notice of her, some declaring the Italians to be much worse than the French, some blaming the Americans, some fondly remembering visits to Paris, some going on to talk about wine, or Sartre, or Yves Saint Laurent (‘You have met Yves? he is my hero') . . . ‘We are intellectuals you see,' Mahmoud bawled in my ear. ‘There is no subject that we cannot discuss, and all subjects make us angry:'

So now I am a member of the Athenaeum — it will make me feel at home, Mahmoud says. More than that, I am a colleague of Mahmoud and Magda and the man with the horn-rimmed glasses, whose name is Dr Borge, and so, despite my age, a temporary member of the intellectual establishment. Why
were
they all so young? I ventured to ask the other day, and there was a short silence before Mahmoud replied, ‘Ah, well, you see in 1978 there were certain scandals here, and the leaders of the affair — the Prefects? is that the word in English? — they were all members of the Athenaeum. Many, many members, most of the older ones, resigned then.'

‘Huh,' said Magda, ‘or were
made
to resign . . .'

I asked no more. I knew my place. Still, I wonder what did happen in 1978? I wonder who the Prefects were?

Hav days pass swiftly, but somehow hazily. I know of nowhere in the world where the purpose of life seems so ill-defined. It is perfectly true that in the past Hav has played an exceedingly important role in history — has sometimes seemed indeed, as Magda would claim, the very centre of affairs, a crux, a junction of great traffic, not just the run-down terminal of the preposterously anachronistic Mediterranean Express. Especially down at the harbour, I can often imagine the days when the dhows and galleys lay alongside in a clamour of commerce, and the camel caravans from remotest Central Asia, all bales, and straw, and buckets, and ropes, and arguing Turcomans in long robes, assembled sprawled and grunting on the quays beside the warehouses!

But those purposes have long gone, and more than any other city I know Hav seems to live in a hazy vacuum. They used to say of Beirut that, just as aerodynamically a bumble-bee has no right to fly, so Beirut had no logical claim to survival. Even more is it true of contemporary Hav, which has no visible resources but the salt and the fish, which makes virtually nothing, which offers no flag of convenience, but yet manages to stagger on if not richly, at least without destitution.

History has left Hav behind, and our own times too, like Professor Braudel, have wilfully ignored the place. Its modern reputation is murky. Its political situation, vague enough even when you are in the city, is a blur indeed to the world at large. There is no airport, no proper highway into the peninsula, no harbour deep enough for big ships, and only a trickle of tourists ever bothers to make the long and extremely inconvenient journey on the train. Not one foreign news agency or newspaper maintains a correspondent in Hav. Only the British have a consul here, though the Turks possess their own Delegation Office in the Serai, and Hav has no missions abroad.

Were it not for the vessels in the harbour, the train twice a week, and the vapour trails of the airliners flying high overhead to Damascus, Teheran and the further east, it would often feel as though the place occupied its own entirely separate plane of existence, insulated against everywhere else.

All this makes the ponderous routine of Hav seem strangely introspective. Who cares? one soon comes to feel. Who cares if Missakian sounds his trumpet on the rampart? Who cares if the train is late, or what the Prefects did? Who cares if the gun goes off? Only the city itself, whose memories are so long, whose character is so elaborately creased or layered, and into whose idiosyncratic attitudes I find myself all too easily adapting.

4

My apartment — the Serai — bureaucrats — legations — the King of Montenegro — guards and a victim

Less than a month in Hav, and I feel myself a citizen already. I write now at my table upon the balcony of my own small apartment — bedroom, dining-room with fringed velveteen table cover, kitchen, bathroom whose magnificent shower, entitled ‘Il Majestico', is tiled with majolica flowers and fruits. Above me lives my landlady, Signora Emilia Vattani, below me are the consulting rooms of an elderly Lebanese psychiatrist, and below that again is the Ristorante Milano, formerly I am told one of the best restaurants in the city, now just a genial Egyptian coffee shop.

If I go up to the roof of the house, where Signora V. maintains a genteel garden, with a pergola and two urns, I can see protruding above the rooftops to the west the spirally gilded onion domes of the Serai, the very centre of all life in Hav. The Russians built it, of course, as a deliberate expression of their own expansionism, but the great complex long ago became an exclamation of Hav's own proud if ambivalent personality, and stands towards the city today as the Eiffel Tower does to Paris, or the Opera House to Sydney.

You know how curiously separate the Vatican feels, within the enveloping tumult of Rome? Well, the Serai is rather like that. It also reminds me of the Forbidden City in Beijing, old Peking, that fantastic retreat of the Emperors which the Communists have turned into the most extraordinary of public parks; for though in Russian times the Serai was closed to all but grandees and officials, and the public was kept at bay by formidable Cossacks, nowadays anybody can walk through its gardens, which provide indeed an agreeable short cut from Pendeh Square to the Medina. Often I take a picnic lunch there, and eat my salami and oatcake on a bench immediately outside the Governor's Palace, in what was His Excellency's private pleasance. It is still dingily delightful, with fountains sporadically spouting, arbours, gravel walks, and in one corner a little
cottage orné
, now used as a potting-shed, which was built by one of the early Russian governors as a present for his wife.

One hears tales of stately receptions here, with the wide French windows of the downstairs rooms open to the evening air, a military band playing on the terrace and half the nobility of Russia gossiping and flirting in those arbours. Tolstoy was a guest at such a function in 1885, and got into a furious argument with a cocksure captain of artillery, though in his second autobiography he simply says that he found the society of Hav ‘unappealing'. Rimsky-Korsakov, on the other hand, who arrived here as an officer on a Russian warship two years later, was enchanted with everything he saw, played one of his own compositions on a grand piano in that very garden, and years later adapted the melody of the Hav trumpet call for the recurrent theme in
Scheherazade.

No ravishing tunes sound through the garden now, but still the atmosphere of the place is genial. The governors of Hav are elected for five-year terms of office, generally towards the end of their careers as state councillors, and to judge by photographs are usually portly gents of aldermanic style. I have not yet met the present incumbent, but once when Fatima Yeğen and I were sitting beside the fountains during her lunch break from the hotel we saw him emerge upon the balcony on the
piano nobile
, looking comfortably replete and holding a champagne glass in his hand. He caught sight of us and raised his glass. We waved. ‘Such a charming man,' said Fatima. ‘When he was younger he was the handsomest man in Hav, bar nobody.'

The Palace and its gardens are flanked, right and left, by the offices of the administration, each with four onion domes to balance the grand central dome of the residence. The whole ensemble looks like a cross between the Brighton Pavilion and St Basil's Cathedral in Red Square, and forms an anomalously exuberant centrepiece to the city. Though the candy colours of the domes are a little muted now, by dusty age and neglect, still seen down the streets of New Hav, or through the tumbled alleys of the Medina, when the sun is right they seem to shimmer there like huge billowing screens of silk. This fanciful and light-hearted ambience is strikingly at odds with what goes on beneath them, for I doubt if there are any government offices more morosely addled with bureaucracy than the administrative offices of Hav.

Other books

American Blood by Jason Manning
Hot Silk by Sharon Page
Girls Only! by Beverly Lewis
Anton and Cecil by Lisa Martin
Night-Bloom by Herbert Lieberman
Selected Poems 1930-1988 by Samuel Beckett