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Authors: Jan Morris

Hav (7 page)

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It was absolutely silent there. I heard not a bird nor a cricket, was stung by no ant, bitten by no wandering gnat. Though Heaven knows Hav is no showplace of hygiene, I sometimes feel it to be almost antiseptically sterile. There seems to be a shortage of everyday bug, bird or rodent life. The other day I had lunch at the Athenaeum with Dr Borge, who likes to describe himself as Botanist, Anthropologist and Philosopher, and I put this point to him. ‘You are right,' he said, as philosophers will, ‘and you are wrong. You must realize that here in Hav our conditions of life are unusual. We are at once maritime and continental, Triassic and Jurassic, marsh and salt, lime and mud. Our fauna is not lavish, but as your Bard would say, it is true to ourselves!'

Such animal life as there is, sustained by this rare combination of soils, climates and geological origins, really is sufficiently peculiar. Once or twice in the greenery immediately below my balcony I have seen a strange little snouted creature snooping in the dusk, black, soft and low on the ground. This is the Hav mongoose,
hav, a mutation of the Indian mongoose brought in by the British to deal with the snakes; there is a stuffed specimen in the museum's little zoological collection, and it looks to me less like a mongoose than a kind of furry anteater.

Then the Hav hedgehog,
Erinaceus hav
, is odd too, since it is tailed, like a prickly armadillo, and the Hav terrier is like a little grey ball of wire wool, and I believe the troglodytes breed a pony of Mongolian origins on the foot-slopes of the escarpment. Some people say the so-called Abyssinian cat, now so fashionable in Europe and America, really came from Hav, in the kitbags of British soldiers; as it happened, the British garrison here was closed in the same year as the 1868 expedition to Magdala in Ethiopia, and it is suggested that some sharp characters among the returning soldiery conceived the idea of putting a new ‘rare African cat' on the market. The modern Hav cat does not look much like the slinky patricians of Western fancy, but he is often distinguished by having extra claws on his front paws — the extra-toed cats which still swarm about Ernest Hemingway's house in Key West are claimed to have Hav ancestry.

Out on the marshes there are sheep, guarded by hangdog Arab shepherds (and hangdog they might well be, there in those dismal wastes). They are dull stringy creatures, but around them there often romp and scamper, as though in a state of permanent hilarious mockery, lithe and fleecy goats — so tirelessly jerky, springy and enterprising that from a distance, when you see one of those listless flocks like a stain on the flatlands, the goats prancing around it look like so many little devils.

I don't know what the British Resident's original cattle were like, when they arrived from England on the frigate
in 1821, but the Hav cattle of today, who are all their descendants, would win no rosettes at county shows. Disconsolately munching the scrubby turf in their pastures at the foot of the escarpment, they seem to have gone badly to seed, having long pinched faces, heavy haunches and protruding midriffs. They have never been crossed with any other cattle, Dr Borge tells me, but I suspect the poor wizened cows among them would welcome the arrival, on some later
perhaps, of a few lusty newcomers.

There are foxes, they say, on the escarpment. There are certainly rabbits. There used to be wolves; the last of them, allegedly shot by Count Kolchok himself on 4 June 1907, is mounted in the entrance hall of the Serai's North Block, looking a bit the worse for death. And only the other day, I read in
La Gazette
, a member of the Hav Zoological Society claimed to have spotted, while snake-hunting on the escarpment (where the mongoose never did thrive) a female Hav bear.

This rarest of European bears (
Ursus arctus hav
), which looks from pictures rather like a miniature grizzly, has repeatedly been declared extinct. Hunting the survivors was one of the fashionable pastimes of the
fin de siècle
: the King of Montenegro shot three or four, and you may see the skin of one still hanging in his wooden palace at home, in Cetinje. As late as the 1930s, though the Tripartite Government had declared the animals protected, hunting parties used to go out from the Casino equipped with all the paraphernalia of safari, and sometimes claimed to have shot one: it was during one of these expeditions that Hemingway, so legend says, deliberately jogged the elbow of Count Ciano, thus saving the life of a bear offering a perfect shot upon the skyline (‘You fool,' said the Count. ‘You fascist,' said the writer).

Anyway, the bear apparently survives, nobody is quite sure how. The terrain of the escarpment is difficult and infertile, yet
Ursus arctus hav
has never, it seems, wandered over the crest into the easier flatlands of Anatolia, and has rarely been sighted in the Hav lowlands either. There were reports in the 1950s that a covey had somehow made themselves a lair within the escarpment tunnel — maintenance men reported seeing animal eyes glowing in alcoves as they went by on their trollies, and for a time amateur zoologists went backwards and forwards on the train, to and from the frontier station, unavailingly hoping to catch a glimpse of them. More persistently, rumour has the Kretevs sheltering the bear in their warren of caves at the western end of the escarpment, either because they believe it to be holy, or just because they are fond of it. ‘The troglodytes', Dr Borge told me learnedly, ‘possess a special relationship with the animal world, not unlike I believe that of the ancient Minoans. You are aware of the Minoans? They venerated a monster, you will remember, within a labyrinth. Perhaps our Kretevs cherish other creatures within their caves?' It seemed improbable, I suggested, that only thirty-odd miles from the cafeteria of the Athenaeum such mysteries could persist. ‘Ah,' said the young doctor, ‘but you have not met the troglodytes. You do not know their obstinacy.'

Actually I have met some of them — I cultivate their acquaintance at the morning market, and have even struck up a sort of friendship with one of their more articulate stall-holders, who learnt some English as a merchant seaman, and whose name sounds to me like Brack. I concede, though, that of all the manifestations of nature in Hav, the Kretevs seem the most elusive. Talking the arcane unwritten language which, it is said, no foreign adult has ever mastered, crouched over their stalls with long tangled hair often half-bleached by the sun, their nondescript clothes set off by many bracelets and ear-rings, down at the market they seem to me like a race of gypsy Rastafarians, visiting the town from some other country altogether. Even Brack claims never to have set foot within the circuit of New Hav.

Yet they form a still living bridge between the city and its remotest origins. In the second or first centuries before Christ, the theory is, Celts from the Anatolian interior found their way to the edge of the great escarpment and saw before them, probably for the first time in their lives, the sea. So blue it seemed, we are told, so warm was the Mediterranean prospect, that they called the place simply ‘Summer' — still
in the surviving Celtic languages of the West, just as ‘Kretev' is thought to be etymologically related to the Welsh
, wanderers. They were a continental people, though, a people of the land mass, and they never did settle upon the peninsula proper, forming instead troglodytic colonies in the raddled limestone caverns where their descendants still live. Their fellow-Celts of the interior presently evolved into the Galatians; and it was the poor Kretevs that St Paul had in mind when he wrote in his Epistle to the Galatians of ‘your ignorant brethren living like conies in the rocks of the south'.

They are like strange familiars of the peninsula, and on one day in the year they perform a truly magical or mythological service to the city of Hav, whose foundation their presence here so long preceded, and from whose affairs they remain so generally remote. At dawn one morning, usually near the beginning of February, their gaily decorated pick-ups come storming into the morning market with far more than their usual gusto, blowing their horns fit to wake the Governor and out-blast Missakian's trumpet. They are not unexpected, since it happens every year, and the market throws itself immediately
en fête.
Every truck horn blows, every ship's siren hoots, and all the market people line the street to greet them. They are bringing, or rather one of the trucks is bringing, the first of the snow raspberries.

Almost the last too, for this supreme delicacy is to be found only on three or four days of the year, when the early spring suns melt the last of the escarpment's winter snows. Like the dragon-fly, the snow raspberry is born only to die. It sprouts mushroom-like overnight, without warning, and by noonday it is gone. It grows only in shaded crannies of the limestone, and only the cave people know where to look for it, or are there to pick it anyway. Brack says he was first taken out to gather the snow raspberries when he was five years old.

The arrival of this fruit in Hav is like the arrival of the first Beaujolais Nouveau in Paris, or the first grouse of the season in London, but much more exciting than either. Nobody knows just when the snow raspberry will appear, and for a week or two around the end of January the morning market, they tell me, is in a high state of expectancy. Even Signor Biancheri has no prior claim to supplies — even he must await the day when, honking their celebratory way past the sleeping city, the troglodytes arrive in wild array with their small but priceless commodity. The cost of snow raspberries is phenomenal. Few people in Hav have ever tasted the fruit, and nobody outside Hav has ever tasted it at all, for if it is frozen it loses its savour altogether. I suppose the Kretevs themselves may eat a few, but otherwise almost every berry goes to the government (official receptions of the most important kind are often timed to coincide with the snow raspberry season), to Biancheri's kitchen at the Casino, or to the Chinese millionaires of Yuan Wen Kuo.

Signora Vattani claims to have tasted one in her youth, but I don't believe her for a moment. Fatima Yeğen says that the Kaiser, who was lucky enough to arrive in Hav at just the right moment, was given a basket of them to eat on his ride down the Staircase. Dr Borge claims to believe them imaginary — ‘folk-loric, nothing more' — and says the Kaiser was probably palmed off with Syrian loganberries. But Armand ate one once, on 8 February 1929, when an international delegation from the League of Nations was fêted at the Palace.

‘Oh it was so funny, how you would have laughed! In came this single footman, as pompous as a monsignor, carrying a silver dish piled high with these snow raspberries. The biggest ones were on the top. I was just a young attaché, at the foot of the table almost. All down the room I heard the oohs and aahs, ‘wonderful', ‘
quelle expérience
', you know the kind of thing. But by the time the dish reached us young people at the end of the room, only a few shrivelled little red fruits remained for us. They tasted like very old dry cherries.

‘My dear, you must not be shocked. We were very young and disrespectful. My dear friend Ulrich Helpmann, from. the German Residency, who was the most disrespectful of us all, placed his precious raspberry on the palm of his hand and flicked it with his right forefinger — so! — across the table at me. It missed me altogether and hit the boiled shirt of the footman standing behind my chair. I mean to say, my dear, before you could blink your eye that man had scooped it off and eaten it. His one and only snow raspberry! He's probably boasting of it still.'

Anyway, as I was saying, spring is here. The stuttered colourless Hav that greeted me has disappeared. The flowers are blooming in the western hills, and everything else is tentatively blooming too. Even the functionaries of the Serai, when I went to have my permit stamped this morning, were emancipated into shirtsleeves. The sentries at the Palace are in white uniforms now, with smashing gold epaulettes, and the station café has set up its pavement tables on the edge of Pendeh Square, under the palms, beneath well-patched blue, white and green sunshades. I wore my yellow towelling hat from Australia to go to the Serai. ‘
Başinda kavak yelleri esiyor
,' a passer-by said without pausing, which translated from the Hav Turkish means ‘There is the springtime in your hat!'


The Arabs — a Muslim city — the 125th Caliph — ‘you seem surprised' — Olga Naratlova — not so peaceful — Hav 001 — salt

I can hear the call to prayer only faintly in the mornings. Though it is electrically amplified, from the minaret of the mosque of Malik, the Grand Mosque in the Medina, it is not harshly distorted, as it is so often in Arab countries, but remains fragile and other-worldly; what is more it is not recorded, but really is sung every morning by the muezzin who climbs the precipitous eleventh-century staircase of the minaret. For me it is much the most beautiful sound in Hav: just as for my taste the Arab presence in this city remains the most haunting — more profound than the Russian flamboyances, more lasting than the hopes of New Hav, less aloof than the Chinese ambience, more subtle than the Turkish . . .

Besides, though the massive structures of the Serai may seem dominant when you first arrive in Pendeh Square, gradually you come to realize that it was the Arabs who really created this city. They gave it its great days, its glory days. Although for more than a century they were supplanted by the Crusaders, in effect they dominated Hav for four hundred years, and they made it rich. Through Hav half the spices, skins, carpets, works of art and learning of the Muslim East found their way into Europe — and not only the Muslim East, for this sophisticated and well-equipped mart between the sea and the land, between Asia and Europe, became the chief staging-post of the Silk Route from the further Orient. Ibn Batuta, in the fourteenth century, called it one of the six greatest ports of the world, the others being Alexandria in Egypt, Quilon and Calicut in India, Sudaq in the Crimea and Zaitun in China. Here the Venetians established their Fondaco di Cina, their China Warehouse, and here later the very first Chinese colony of the West settled itself in the peninsula known to the Arabs as Yuan Wen Kuo, Land of the Distant Warmth. Great was the fame of Arab Hav, attested by many an old traveller, and its last splendours were extinguished only when in 1460 the Ottoman Turks, deposing the last of the Hav Amirs and expelling the Venetians, incorporated the peninsula into their own domains and so plunged it, for nearly four centuries, into the dispirited gloom of their despotism.

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