Read Hav Online

Authors: Jan Morris

Hav (9 page)

Six centuries later, when I crossed the Omani desert with the Sultan of Muscat and Oman in 1956, one of his slave-cooks confided in me that the Sultan would eat no salt but salt from Hav.

Thus it is that an exotic trade still binds this city to the Arab countries across the sea. The salt merchants of the Medina stand in line of the Seljuk camel-men, with their myrrh, their gold, their silks, cloves and gingers; and true successors to the dhows and feluccas of medieval Hav are the white salt-ships for ever passing in and out beneath the changeless scrutiny of the Dog.

8

On the waterfront — the Fondaco — Chimoun and the Venetians — more Arabesques — tramps and colliers — a dawn visitor — the Electric Ferry

Very often now, as the days warm up, I rise with the trumpet, and taking my notebook, and sometimes my sketching pad, I walk down to the waterfront. I like to watch the market people, and exchange a few words with Brack; and later I often take my breakfast at one of the waterfront cafés, sitting outside and drawing pictures as I eat.

You must imagine the harbour of Hav rather like a small fiord, twisted by its central Hook so that from the quaysides of the city you cannot see the open sea, only bare sloping hillocks on each side. On the east bank, beyond New Hav, stands the isolated white villa that is the British Agency, and was once the British Residency, surrounded still by its green compound, with a tangle of radio-masts on its outbuildings and a landing-stage below. On the west bank, beyond the market and the Medina, there is nothing much but a scatter of small houses, the tower of a navigation light and a semaphore, like an old-fashioned railway signal, with black balls on a mast above. Set against the mottled jumble of the Old City and its markets, the grandiose domes of the Serai, and New Hav seedy but symmetrical on its eastern shore, the harbour of Hav looks all green, wide, cool and spacious. It reminds me sometimes of a little Sydney Harbour, and sometimes of Bergen.

The historical tone of it, even now, is set by the Venetians who dominated its commerce for so long. There are two small islands in the harbour, and from my usual vantage point on the quay they look exactly like islands of the Venetian lagoon — those ‘humped islands' that Shelley celebrated, running away from a far grander waterfront towards a colder sea. This is not surprising, for the buildings on them are mostly Venetian: the nearer island, still called the Lazaretto, was the Venetian quarantine station, now a jolly pleasure-garden. The further and larger one, still called Isola San Pietro, still crowned with a campanile, was leased to the Venetians as a place of confinement for prisoners-of-war and their own miscreants, and the gloomy barracks they built upon it are today Hav's only penitentiary — ‘
a windowless, deformed and dreary pile,/Such a one as age to age might add, for uses vile
. . .'

Then to my left, heavily arched and graced with sundry escutcheons, most of them so worn away as to be unrecognizable, stands the Fondaco di Cina, the biggest Venetian commercial building outside Venice, through which in its heyday an astonishing proportion of all the eastern trade, from Russia, from Central Asia, from the Levant, from Persia and of course from China itself was trans-shipped. In medieval times there were repeated rumours that the Venetians were about to annex Hav, as the last in their chain of islands and peninsular strongholds guarding the eastern trade routes, and looking at this building it is easy to understand why. Though it was built in Arab territory, it is an unmistakably imperial structure — just as commanding as anything the Serenissirna erected in Crete, Cyprus or Corfu. It was partly a warehouse indeed, and partly a hostelry for the Venetian merchants resident in Hav, but it was also a base for the Venetian galleys based here, with slips and sheds alongside for their careening and repair. The sheds are still there, like aircraft hangars: on top of the stone pillar outside there used to stand the Lion of St Mark, bravely demonstrating his gospel upon this waterfront of Islam.

The Fondaco now is everything under the sun, as ancient waterfront buildings ought to be — in the West it would long ago have been prettied up with souvenir hops and net-hung restaurants. There are chandlers and junk shops, and alcoves stacked with crates, sacks and broken baskets, and hole-in-corner currency dealers, and financial concerns in upstairs offices whose small name-plates are hard to make out in the shadows of their passages — Cosmopolitan Forwarding SA is one, and another is Ahmed Khalid, Hav, Dubai and Jeddah. Mr S. Assuyian announces himself as Lloyd's Agent and Representative of Lloyd Triestino. World-wide Preferential Shipping Tariffs are offered, in several languages, by a firm surprisingly named Butterworth and Sons. The great central courtyard of the Fondaco, where once the silks and spices were stored, is now an apparently insoluble shambles of trucks, wagons, cars and motorbikes, squeezing themselves in and out through the narrow street entrance at the back. And above the grand front gate on the quayside, in the apartment I suppose of the old Venetian factory governor, sits Mr Chimoun, the Captain of the Port, a masterly Lebanese.

Masterly in a kind more suggestive, even romantic, than exactly functional. Mr Chimoun seems to me to have either a less than absolute grasp of the affairs of his port, or else a most delicately selective technique — ‘two blind eyes', somebody has suggested to me. But he shows a fine aesthetic appreciation of his office and its meaning. ‘When I sit here at this table,' he told me the other day — (not by the way some grand furnishing of the
seicento
, only an old deal desk piled with out-of-date reference books and letters of lading), ‘when I sit here and look out at that splendid view — look, do you see? there is the campanile of San Pietro — when I watch our great ships sailing in' (which they all too seldom do) ‘and hear the bustle of the merchants below' (he meant the hooting of trucks unable to get out of their parking place) ‘and when I hear the gun go off as it has for a thousand years' (the Russians instituted the midday gun, in 1875) ‘then do you know I feel myself truly to be some great signor myself — who knows? a Dandolo, a Grimaldi? You cannot think what a tremendous feeling it is, to be sitting at this table.'

At that moment the gun
did
go off, and Mr Chimoun suggested I might care to lunch with him at the café inside the courtyard, where they serve the great speciality of the Hav waterfront, urchin soup. The place was packed, every close-jammed table slurping with urchin-lovers of all ranks, from Magda the Braudelophobe, who was in a corner with two important-looking gentlemen, probably expellees from the Athenaeum, to dock-workers in their blue denims smoking between mouthfuls at long trestle tables. The soup was delectable: just as in some rare Corsican wines, perhaps one in a case of twelve, you can taste the heavenly scrub-fragrance of the
maquis
, so through the sea-urchins of this dish, the one native gastronomic miracle of Hav, every now and then there drifts a sweetish tangy sensation, more a bouquet than a taste, which is claimed to come from the gently waving sea-herbs of the northern coves.

‘I much regret', said Mr Chimoun when the waiter brought the bill, ‘that the rules of my office do not permit me to entertain you to this meal, since you are not on official business. But I trust you have enjoyed it.' Not very Dandolo-like, I could not help thinking: my share was 25 dinars — 40 new pence.

But anyway the working harbour now is much more Arab than Venetian. The language one hears is chiefly Arabic, and they are mostly distinctly Arab-looking financiers, with short clipped beards and digital gold watches, who emerge from the premises of Cosmopolitan Forwarding SA. Though the fishermen are all Greeks from the off-shore island of San Spiridon, the rig of their boats, the Hav rig, is recognizably Arab of origin, and very beautiful it is — a double lateen rig, with a jib, giving the whole vessel a most gracefully slanted appearance; the boats all have engines nowadays, but they often use their sails, and when one comes into the harbour on a southern wind, canvas bulging, flag streaming, keeling gloriously with a slap-slap of waves on its prow and its bare brown-torsoed Greeks exuberantly laughing and shouting to each other, it is as though young navigators have found their way to Hav out of the bright heroic past.

The only foreign ships trading regularly into Hav are Arab — the salt-ships, especially built for the trade, shallow enough to tie up at the Salt Wharf east of the Fondaco. They fly Panamanian flags actually, and were built in Norway, but they are Arab-owned, their crews are mostly Arab, and their only voyages take them back and forth, back and forth, between Hav and the Arabian Gulf. Monotonous duties, monotonous names too —
Queen of the Salt, King of the Salt, Emperor of the Salt
— but they do not look unlovely; they are low in the water, rakish, and when one of them lies alongside the wharf with its air-conditioners humming, its decks spotless and its paintwork all agleam, you might almost take it for some Arab prince's pleasure-craft (though Brack, who sailed in them for some years, seems to think the crew quarters down below rather less than sheikhly).

Out of the East too comes most of the casual sea-traffic which noses its way into the inner harbour. This is a great place still for the vagabond trade. Browning's Waring — ‘
What's become of Waring, / Since he gave us all the slip?
' — may have been last seen laughing in the stern-sheets of a bum-boat at Trieste, but he had his Hav period too: his real name was Alfred Domett (he eventually became Prime Minister of New Zealand) and it was here that Kinglake met him in 1834, finding him ‘much as we knew him of old, only turned a chestnutty hue'. It was by sea that Hemingway first came here; arriving macho-style on a Syrian schooner but soon gravitating to the cocktails, roulette tables and steam-yachts of Casino Cove. And it was on board an Italian tramp from Alexandria that the poet C. P. Cafavy, in a rare break from the routine of his Egyptian office, sailed into Hav in 1910 to write one of the most sensual of his lyrics:

He did not expect me. I had wandered far

since we had met in the tavern at Aleppo . . .

Tramp steamers of a kind still come, and perhaps bring poets sometimes. They appear to bring little else anyway and seem to sail away with not much more — a few boxes of this or that, sometimes inexplicably a couple of old cars. They are mostly Syrian or Greek — sometimes Greek Cypriot, which is why we get Cypriot wines in our restaurants (the labels ripped off; just in case, and often the single word VIN substituted). Sometimes they seem to have come to Hav to die, and lie there at their moorings apparently abandoned, their decks flaking with rust, only the dimmest of lights shining, when night-time comes, from somewhere deep beneath their hatches. But they always revive unexpectedly, and when I turn up on the quay in the morning there goes the old
Malik
, or
Achelaos
; or
Thyella
, bravely puffing away, belching clouds of black smoke, down past San Pietro to the Hook and the open sea.

Coastal colliers come too, with fuel for the power station; they are unloaded at their own jetty, well down the harbour, by hundreds of labourers with sacks and baskets, and long after they sail away again a cloud of black dust is left in the air behind them. Small tankers tie up beside the oil-tanks near by, miscellaneous motorized dhows appear from nowhere in particular, and occasionally one sees those twos and threes of futuristic Japanese trawlers that seem to find their way into every corner of the Mediterranean.

Other traffic is harder to categorize. Once when I was down on the waterfront very early indeed, before the trumpet had blown or the market had properly opened, I heard a rumble of engines up the haven, and there came stealing out of the half-light an extremely un-shipshape motor-torpedo boat,
sans
guns or torpedo tubes. It flew a faded Stars and Stripes, and when it tied up, three young men in jeans and T-shirts emerged from wheel-house and engine-room to stretch themselves upon the quay.

‘Hi,' they said, as though we were at Sausalito or Martha's Vineyard.

‘Hi,' said I.

‘You from Chimoun?' said one.

‘Certainly not. I'm just waiting for the market to warm up.'

‘Oh
I'm
sorry,' he said, ‘I thought maybe you were from Chimoun.'

‘Is he expecting you?' I asked. They all laughed at that. ‘Expecting us?' they said. ‘He'd better be.'

As you see, it is an irregular kind of port. They say it is inadequately dredged or even charted, which is why I have never once seen a plutocrat's yacht from the Casino enter the inlet — only Signor Biancheri's supply-launch foams confidently in and out. Mr Assuyian the Lloyd's Agent is alleged to have died years ago. It is a port of louche and easy anarchy, and its only signs of authority are Mr Chimoun behind his desk, the chequered flag above his building, and the venerable guard-ship, provided by the Italians in 1940 (it used to be their Yangtse gunboat
Arnaldo Carlotto
), which is the nearest thing to a Hav navy, but which seldom moves from its mooring at the Lazaretto.

One charming institution, nevertheless, does bring a gentle suggestion of order to this haphazard haven. It is the Electric Ferry. Looking rather like a floating London taxi, being black, all-enclosed and the same at each end, this little vehicle sets slowly and silently off promptly at seven each morning from the Fondaco on its journey across the harbour — to the market, the two islands, the New Hav promenade and then back the same way to the Fondaco, its last trip ending precisely at midnight. Its passengers are few, but its manner is inexorable. Young Chinese run it, keeping it very clean, collecting their fares in leather pouches and issuing tickets stamped in red
ELECTRIC FERI HAV
: and one of the most characteristic sounds of this city is the bang, bang, bang which precedes its arrival at the quay — the noise of its slatted seats being punctiliously slammed back on their hinges, to face the other way for the next voyage.

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