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Authors: Jan Morris

Hav (8 page)

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When the troops of the Seljuks first arrived in Hav in 1079 they must have thought it a sorry sort of conquest. It had never come to much before — had never remotely rivalled the powerful city-states of the Asia Minor shore, Seleucia, Smyrna, Trebizond. Alexander had passed it by, both the Romans and the Persians had ignored it. By the time the Arabs got there the remaining Greek inhabitants were living in miserable squalor beside the harbour, their acropolis long since a ruin above them. The salt-flats were undrained then. Malaria was endemic. There was no road up the escarpment and the Kretevs were unapproachable. Yet here the Arabs built the northernmost of their great trading cities, and most of it is still to be seen.

To the north of the castle hill they established quarters for their slaves — obdurate infidels and prisoners-of-war — and these were to develop into the wan suburbs of the Balad. To the west they built their own walled headquarters, and this is now the Old City, or Medina. The huge public place they laid out was the progenitor of today's Pendeh Square, and the second of their great mosques, erected by Saladin after his liberation of Hav from the Crusaders, now does service as the Greek Orthodox cathedral, behind the railway station. The Staircase up the escarpment was first cut by Arab engineers, and it was they who drained the salt-marshes.

It is all there still, and above all the Medina remains, even now, overwhelmingly an Arab medieval city. It is crudely intersected by the Boulevard de Cetinje, but is still a glorious jumble of alleys and sudden squares, alive with the sights and sounds of Araby — you know, the dark and the sunshine of it, the shuffle and the beat, the sour hoof-smell from the smithy, the towering simplicity of the mosque in the heart of it all — you know, you know!

For some Muslims, if only a lingering few, that mosque is one of the holiest on earth, because a small and dwindling sect claims it to be the shrine of the Caliphate. You will remember that the Ottoman sultans, whose temporal, powers were abolished in 1924, claimed also to be the legitimate caliphs of Islam, the spiritual leaders of the faith. They were recognized as such by many Muslims of the Sunni persuasion, and even after the extinction of their sultanate, proclaimed themselves caliphs still. The deposed Mehmet V tried to establish himself in the Holy Land of the Hejaz itself, his cousin Abdulmecid maintained the claim from Paris until his death there in 1944, and a contemporary aspirant to the Caliphate, Namik Abdulhamid, who says he is 125th in the true line of descent from Abu Bakr, the Prophet's father-in-law, lives in Hav, the nearest he can get to the Turkey from which the Sultan's dynasty and all its pretenders have been permanently exiled. Yesterday I had an audience with him.

This had taken time to achieve. The 125th Caliph lives cautiously. I had a letter of introduction to him, from a man in Cairo whose name I should not mention, in case somebody assassinates him; and finding it difficult to discover just where the Caliph resided, this I presented to the Imam at the Grand Mosque. For a week or two there was no response. Then one evening an excited Signora Vattani told me there had been a call, good gracious Signora Morris, a call from the Caliphate! I was to be ready to be picked up at the apartment the following evening, five o'clock sharp. But five o'clock came and went without a sign, and next day I was told, without apologies, to be ready that night instead. Twice more I waited, twice more no caliphian car arrived; it was only on the fourth evening that, exactly at five as the man on the telephone had said, the doorbell rang and a big black American car, of the fin-and-chrome era, awaited me outside.

There was a chauffeur in Arab dress, but the car's back door opened from the inside, and there sat a dapper middle-aged man in a black suit, sunglasses and that almost forgotten badge of Ottoman respectability, a tarboosh. ‘A tarboosh!' I could not stop myself exclaiming ‘— can you still buy them?'

‘The Caliph has his own supplier, in Alexandria — Tadros Nakhla and Sons, you may perhaps know the name? Very old-established.'

He introduced himself as the Caliph's Wazir, and as we drove across the square he apologized for the inconveniences of the past three days. I would understand, he was sure. The Caliph was vulnerable. One had to be careful. It seemed an inadequate excuse to me, but I let it pass, and the Wazir went on to explain that because of certain, well, entanglements of a historical nature the 125th Caliph found it necessary to live in the strictest security — all through history, he reminded me, the Caliphate had been an office of the greatest delicacy — I would recall what happened to Omar in the mosque at Kufa!

Down the Boulevard de Cetinje we sped, and out of the Old City, and before we reached the canal we turned up a gravel track, shaded by tall eucalyptus trees. ‘People say', remarked the Wazir, ‘that this house was built for Count Kolchok's mistress, the lovely dancer Olga Naratlova. True? False?' He shrugged his neat shoulders. ‘It makes a nice little story. The Caliph likes the fancy.' It looked an imposing love-nest, as we passed through lavishly ornamental gates, crossed a wide yard, and were debouched upon a portico whose doors were instantly opened by two swarthy men in khaki drill, one each side (‘Assyrians,' the Wazir said breezily as we entered, as though they were deaf mutes). Through a bare but still luxurious hall . . . down a marbled corridor . . . two more Assyrians at a double door . . . and there rising courteously to greet me from a silken sofa was Nadik Abdulhamid.

He wore a red tarboosh too, and a suit of exquisite pale linen, and shoes that looked like lizardskin, and he held in his left hand a string of ivory prayer-beads, and in his right a cigarette in a long holder. He was clean-shaven, with heavy blue eyes and a becoming tan. All in all the pretender to the Caliphate was very suave, and not I thought very caliph-like, and he gestured me suavely to the sofa, and suavely offered me a cigarette from a silver box engraved in Arabic, and most suavely, as we talked, flicked his own ash into what looked like a solid-gold ashtray.

‘You seem surprised. I am not what you expected? Tell me frankly, what did you expect?'

Someone blackly bearded, I said, and sage, and dressed in the robes of holiness.

‘Then you would have been perfectly satisfied with my father. He was all that! Nobody was much sager than my father! But I decided long ago that I would be myself. As you would say, the world must take me or leave me.'

And did not this worldly persona make him enemies?

‘Oh yes, I should say so. Imagine what they think of me in Iran, or even in Saudi Arabia! They hate me very much. Do you know that I have never been allowed to make the holy pilgrimage to Mecca? If I went there they would tear me limb from limb.'

Coffee arrived, flavoured with camomile, together with biscuits on little scallop-edged plates, and the Caliph asked if I would like to see something of the house. ‘You know its history, I dare say? Count Kolchok built it for his mistress, the dancer Olga Naratlova, who came to Hav with Diaghilev. Everything was taken from the house when Kolchok died, but I have had her portrait painted
in memoriam
' — and he showed me on the wall above our sofa a large and sickly representation, doubtless taken from a photograph, of a dark turn-of-the-century beauty, full-length, leaning in a dress of satiny red against a truncated column.

‘What became of her?'

‘Ah, you must ask the Bolsheviks. She went home to Russia in 1918, and was never heard of again.'

Poor Olga. She sounds a lonely figure, hidden away here in such secluded luxury, and she is lonely still, for hers is the only portrait in the whole of the Caliph's house — ‘And just think what the
would say, if they knew I had
!' Otherwise the house, or as much as I saw of it, was severely undecorated. Spindly gilded armchairs and sofas were the nearest it got to creature comfort, unless you count the elaborate television, video and hi-fi equipment which the Caliph kept in his private sitting-room (‘You may not be aware of it, but the Caliphate is a principal shareholder in Hav TV, so it is necessary for me to keep in touch . . .').

On we went, among the grand, beautifully kept but still desolate rooms, through the office where two male secretaries sat surrounded by files and typewriters with a telex in the corner; we were bowed to here and there by silent Assyrians, interrupted once by the Wazir for a brief reminder about that evening's later arrangements (‘A most excellent fellow,' said the Caliph. ‘Did you like him? He would make a fine husband for you') until on the terrace at the back of the house we stood before the small octagonal mosque, a marble miniature of the Dome of the Rock, which the Caliph had built, he told me, for his private use.

Two more Assyrians guarded it. ‘I dare say you are also surprised', said the Caliph, ‘to find all these Assyrians. They are new to the Caliphate. I recruit them in Iraq, where as you may know for some generations they served the British military authorities, guarding camps, airfields and so forth. They are Christians, you see, with no particular allegiance to any state or power, and so very suitable to our needs. You must realize, Miss Morris, that my situation is precarious. Many people hate me, many people wish to use me.'

While the Western powers took no notice of him, he said, the Communists courted him. He had been to Moscow several times. He had many followers in Bokhara, Tashkent, and more recently in Kabul. ‘You may perhaps have seen my picture at the May Day parade in Red Square in 1983? The late Mr Andropov was always especially good to me.' As for the Muslims of the Middle East, some of them loathed him, some would die for him, he claimed. ‘The Iranians have twice tried to have me killed, once with a bomb in an aeroplane when I was travelling in Egypt, once here in this very house, with a gunman in the garden — you see, there are the bullet-holes still! Not everything in Hav, you know, is as peaceful as it seems. When you have been here a little longer you will come to realize that.'

And the Turks? The Caliph smiled a knowing and even more suave smile. ‘The Turks will not allow me over that escarpment' — and he pointed through the trees to the distant dim line of the northern hills. ‘I am a non-person to the Turks. And yet you know, Miss Morris, between ourselves — off the record, as they say — traditionally caliphs have been adept at travelling incognito, and so it is with me. I have been over that escarpment many times. I have many, many friends in my forebears' country. That is why they are afraid of me in Ankara, in Washington even — a flick of my finger, they think, and I could start revolution — as if I would want to! Even my sage father had no such plans.

‘But still it is pleasant to go here now and then. How do I travel? Ah, that I cannot tell you. Suffice it to say that there are certain people not unconnected with the railway administration who have been for many generations faithful adherents of the Caliphate . . .'

Laughing heartily, conspiratorially and sophisticatedly, all at the same time, the Caliph called for an Assyrian to show me to the waiting car. ‘You must remember, if you ever need anything, any help that the house of a caliph can afford, or if you wish to marry the Wazir after all, you are to telephone me at once. And now', he concluded unexpectedly, ‘you must allow me to excuse myself, for it is time for my evening prayers.' With a gentle bow, and a smile full of self-amusement, he disappeared inside his little sanctuary.

His telephone number is Hav 001. I doubt if I shall ever ring it, but still my visit to Nadik Abdulhamid left me with a paradoxical sense of stability or at least of continuity. I have no idea how authentic is his claim to the Caliphate, and by his own account he leads a tricky kind of life, but there was something about his presence that made Hav feel still in the mainstream of Arab affairs, still in touch, however surreptitiously, with the debates, the feuds and the aspirations of Islam.

It is not all romantic illusion, either. Even today, they tell me, a remarkable proportion of Hav's Arabs have made the pilgrimage to Mecca, unlike the poor Caliph, and there is a regular flow of students to the University of Al Azhar in Cairo. Much the best-selling tapes at the Fantastique Video and Hi-Fi Shop in New Hav, so its manager tells me, are second-hand cassettes from Egypt, supplied by seamen from the salt ships.

The salt ships! I forgot to tell you! Today the strongest link of all between the Arabs of Hav and the Arabs of Arabia is the trade in Hav salt, whose wide sad pans I saw that first evening on the train. It is said to have been the Greeks who first discovered that salt extracted from the Hav marshes had aphrodisiac qualities: shiploads of it, they say, were sent to Attica, and according to Schliemann it was the salt that led Achilles to set up his base on Hav's western shore. By the Middle Ages the power of Hav's salt was so well attested that some scholars think it was the first reason for the Arab seizure of the peninsula.

It was largely to work the salt-flats that the Arabs established that huge slave quarter, and when the Venetians struck up their commercial alliance with the Amirs salt became the staple of their triangular trade with the Egyptians. The great merchant convoys, assembling with their escorts off Crete, would sail first to Hav to ship salt, often having to fight terrible battles with the Turks along the way, then to Alexandria to exchange it for spices and ivories, before returning rich and glorious home.

After the expulsion of the Venetians the Arabs of Hav exported the salt themselves. By then it had long been prized, as it still is, all over the Muslim world. Ibn Batuta had tried it in Tunis as early as 1325, and was much impressed:

It is of a texture not remarkable in itself, being in colour and composition much like other salts, but hidden, within its grains is a power of youth and vigour beyond the accomplishment of the most learned apothecaries. I have tasted this salt for myself (though the merchants of the place, who are extremely greedy, demand disgraceful prices for it) and I can vouch before God that its powers are real.

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