Saturday, October 28, 1989

Fez

Written in 1989 for Gourmet

You tell me you are going to Fez.
Now, if you are going to Fez,
That means you are not going.
But I happen to know that you are going to Fez.
Why have you lied to me, you who are my friend?

— Moroccan saying

I’d last visited Morocco nearly four years earlier. Four years adjusts a country in one’s imagination: the place that most gripped me from that visit was Fez, the labyrinthine city that, centuries ago, was among the great centers of learning, culture, and wealth, a North African Florence. The unceasing tribal wars that beset the rest of the nearly lawless country had spared Fez; like a cunning uncle it flourished even as its country fell. When the French occupied Morocco so unsuccessfully for the early parts of this century and built a modern Fez (la Nouvelle Ville) beside the two imperial ancient ones, it condemned those earlier versions of the city to poverty and ruin. Yet today it is those one visits: and I know no place that more strongly captures the imagination, with the complex intelligent disorder of its medina, possibly unique in the world. Old Fez seems to be time itself made corporeal, given a local habitation and a name.

I stayed at the Palais Jamaï, the classic hotel on the edge of the medina immortalized (under a different name) in Paul Bowles’ novel. The Spider’s House (1955). The peacocks I remembered from my earlier visit were gone, but the hotel, formerly the 13th century pleasure palace of the Jamaï family, was as splendid and calm as ever, the staff as kindly. There are few hotels for which one can feel genuine affection—especially the grand hotels—but the Palais Jamaï is among them. With its gardens on many levels bisected by blue-tiled canals, its royal and date palms, the terraces, the flowers, the enormous shade trees and the paradisial hum of water meandering everywhere, it too seems displaced in time, waiting and at rest.

Nobody has written more eloquently than Bowles of the trance that falls over you, the imposed hypnosis that takes command upon entering, being captured by, losing yourself in the medina. "Its topography rich in prototypal dream scenes: covered streets like corridors with doors opening into rooms on either side, hidden terraces. . . streets consisting only of steps, dark impasses, small squares built on sloping terrain so that they looked like ballet sets designed in false perspective, with alleys leading off in several directions; as well as the classical dream equipment of tunnels, ramparts, ruins. . . ."

I'd visited Bowles at his flat in Tangier. A friendly, modest man, at seventy-eight one of the most original American composers and writers of this century, he first came to North Africa in the Thirties. He said, "In Fez you can get an idea of what much of this part of the world was once like, since it has so miraculously— " He paused. "Perdured. One reason is because cars can't enter the medina, the ways are too narrow." The Spider’s House remains among the great political novels, a true novel of ideas set in the middle of the independence upheaval, and written virtuosically from both an American’s and a Moroccan’s points-of-view. I was astonished to learn, though, that Bowles had not been back to Fez (a few hours' train ride from Tangier) since 1972—since the Palais Jamaï was renovated and expanded, in fact.

"Had Fez changed since you'd written about it two decades before?" I asked.

"For the worse," he answered. "The people had changed." In an introduction to a recent edition of The Spider's House, he wrote: "When France was no longer able to keep the governmental vehicle on the road, she abandoned it, leaving the motor running. The Moroccans climbed in and drove off in the same direction, but with even greater speed."


And Fez el Bali, Fez the Old (circa 9th century), the medina, struggles on, haphazardly, as much due to tourism as anything else. It is in decay and has been decaying for at least two centuries. Trees sprout from walls, smoke drifts in from the surrounding hills, houses lean, doors cave in, stairways and streets totter. It is perhaps the most complicated square mile on earth, and you need a guide for the first day or two, at least to fend off others.

It didn't take any effort to dislike the official guides, those who'd bought their status from the government. All day long they lurked outside the better hotels in their fine robes, their official badges highly visible, and they could be insulting in several languages if you declined their services. Careful to steer their charges to this carpet shop or that ceramics emporium, they grow irritable if you demonstrate that you don't wish to buy; and on no account should you buy accompanied by an official guide, for he often receives 50% commission on a sale, which is why your timid bargaining is accompanied by glycerine exclamations at your expertise. "It's as if," a student told me, "the carpet dealers work for the guides, not the other way round."

I found an unofficial guide on the train south from Tangier, or rather he very acutely found me. His name was Mustafa Tagla. He was in his mid-twenties, studying for a degree in economics. He looked rather like a handsome extra in a ’60s Italian film, and he was fluent in English and French; he also had imagination. He understood right away that I had no interest in buying anything, and he took the trouble to show me obscurities no official guide would’ve bothered with. Even though he lived with his family in the New Town, he'd spent one summer as a mailman in the medina, so he knew half the population and all the narrowest lanes.


If most Westerners come to North Africa in search of (let us say) a vague sense of romantic mystery made up of equal parts palm trees, slippers, robes, casbahs, spies, muttered prayers, and other sets from old movies, they usually find much of what they seek in Fez. At first it appears to be a tangible, living past only; and it is a shame the city doesn't have a dirham ($1 = 10 dirhams) for every travel-writer who's inaccurately called it "medieval." Here the contemporary jostles the very old—the man in flared slacks and leather jacket who listens to Madonna while seated beneath a Brooke Shields poster, spinning wool as it was spun six centuries ago. They speak of something as "new" here if it belongs to last week; "old" might be from last year, thirty years ago, or ten times that. To people living in a perpetual age of faith (one sees this throughout the Islamic world) time has little degree.

Thus old descriptions of Fez can seem current. Walter Harris, the Times of London correspondent in Morocco for his adult life, could write at the turn of the century, "There is scarcely a view of Fez that is not beautiful, scarcely a glimpse that is not sad. Its very colouring, or perhaps lack of colouring; its amazing alleys into which the sun never shines; its ruined mosques, rich in fast-falling mosaics and wood-carving, in rotting arabesques and grass-grown roofs; its damaged drinking fountains, from the broken tiles of which the water still splashes to where once a basin caught it, but now only to form a channel of mud in the narrow thoroughfare; its stately caravanserais with their galleries of arches and trellis of wood that has turned purple and grey with age; its garden quarter from which rise the modern palaces of the viziers, bought with the people s money and the people's food—all add a mysterious charm to a city that stands alone as an unspoiled example of former prosperity and existing decay."

Fez el Bali continues to crumble and be repaired. It survives due to a natural Moroccan genius for urbanism and a water support system that is still good after eight centuries. But no one lives there out of choice; its population is mainly country people who have not yet succeeded and can't afford the New Town. "How's Casablanca?" I asked somebody in a café. "Beautiful," he replied. "No medina." True Fezzis, local wisdom has it, have already moved to the Nouvelle Ville, or to Casablanca—for the profits, the good life, and the outward view.

One is endlessly astonished by the physique of the medina. Narrow lanes are spanned by wood beams that literally hold the buildings apart. Here you see a door, half-submerged by the ground as it swallows a house; there walls six feet thick that have lasted centuries. One day last year several old houses simply collapsed to rubble. Despite what the carpet-dealers claim, leading you into their restored mansions, most houses are a century or two old, not "Genuine 12th century, sir." A very few date back four or five centuries; the oldest tend to have ventilation slits in the walls, which are of old bricks fortified fundamentally with earth, and they often have beams protruding and studded cedar doors. Those that were once harem houses can be identified by a wooden appendage on an upper story, like a lantern cage, for the women to spy on whomever was down below without being seen.

Every other moment in the medina someone behind you yells, "Yellah!" (i.e. get moving) and you flatten yourself against a rough wall so a heavily-laden donkey can clip-clop its way past. Nowadays all the donkeys wear numbers, rather like license plates.

At every consecutive twist and corner of the ever-branching lanes through the maze of the medina, one is confronted by life out of some oddly unfixed past. A weaver works a great crashing loom with his feet, sending a small cradle of thread shooting through the sheaf of cords holding the flowering fabric while another man squats alongside and pulls like a sailor on the cross-cords. Wood-workers sit in small shops fragrant with the cigar-box cedar smell, spinning and shaping the wood with their feet. Great metal-decorating stalls resound as boys hammer, engrave, polish, and batter sheets of brass and tin. In what had been a fondouk (a caravanserai, or inn: there were once two hundred such, run by men dressed as women), men weave reeds into long sturdy floor-mats, while in the corners more bundled reeds wait, piled high. A bird market chatters in a dusty square—wooden cages with doves and carrier pigeons for sale. A bakery hums; more like a public oven, because each family brings its cakes or dough to be baked and picks them up later, so that through the labyrinth there is always the hot emphatic odor of fresh bread, wafting as it is hurried home.


The medressas were the university dormitories in centuries past, mainly for students from outside Fez. Classes were held around the largest mosques, but study went on in the medressas, really the equivalent of Oxbridge residential colleges. Now the important university in Fez is located in the New Town—which resembles Berkeley, California with its wide avenues and placid life—and the old medressas in the medina are empty, lovely relics. The Medressa Attarin (14th century) was the most beautiful: an enclosed world of delicate, undecorated marble columns and highly decorated tiled pillars, along with checkerboard flagstones, a circular marble fountain, and cedar lattices like wooden veils. The ornate plaster work was covered endlessly with a nearly Art Deco system of black looping script. Inside an anteroom an official guide was explaining to a group of French tourists how to bargain for a carpet.

The Souk el Henna—the spice bazaar, increasingly taken over by ceramics dealers—was a leafy square dominated by two great maple trees. Centuries ago it contained a madhouse. A gigantic scales, bigger than a man, stood in the shade. Merchants with immaculate stalls sold shampoo in the form of pebbles; mascara in its original rock form; poisons, aphrodisiacs, health potions, perfume extracts, essences of jasmine and musk, ambergris; and cooking spices by the hundreds in tiny bottles, all richly-hued and carefully-labeled.

Every morning it became customary, after Mustafa met me by the Palais Jamaï gate leading into the medina, for us to stop at the first café and fortify ourselves for the walk ahead with several teas. Moroccan tea is drunk from a glass, filled with hot water and thick with mint leaves: it is simultaneously soothing and exhilarating. One morning Mustafa set a deck of tattered, highly decorated cards before me. Some bore abstract geometric designs, others the images of horsemen, swords, fruits, drums, princes holding gold. The cards were numbered from one to twelve, but missing the eight and the nine. The game was complicated, with the usual borrowing and discarding; I 'd seen men playing it endlessly in cafés, passing long hours. It had twists and turns and a labyrinthine possibility of going on and on, and it made sense that so many people whiled away their days in the fumes of mint tea and cards.

In Fez's labyrinth there are mosques at every turn, three hundred fifty in all, remnants of days when the old town was divided more strictly into fifty "quarters": for brass-workers, coppersmiths, dyers, leather-workers, silk merchants, etc. Each quarter, corner, and cranny had its mosque, children's school, bakery, public baths, caravanserai, and fountain. I have never visited a city with such a subliminal sense of running water. Mustafa said, "People come here for the waters, you know." (Unlike Casablanca.) "Outside Fez, there are three very powerful springs. People come to them from all over North Africa. One is good for your kidneys, one for your skin, one for your entire body."


A Moslem is required to pray five times a day, and in Morocco, more than in most Moslem countries, they generally do. Because in Morocco nazarenes (Christians) aren't allowed in mosques, in a sense a visitor is excluded from the dominant ritual of everyday life. The best you can do is peer in, and try to find what makes it individual. It may be something simple, like its proximity to a wool market, or a hammam (public bath). And try to be present at least once when the muezzin sounds, and the faithful come flocking to pray. To watch that concerted event, to hear the power of Allah calling over the centuries to his believers, to feel it in your spine: this gets you closer to understanding their world than any history.

I went into one old hammam during the men's hours (days are split between men and women). It was like a rough palace, with stone arches everywhere. Baskets of cedar wood waited to be burned—next door an old man was feeding the fires round the clock. The floor was tiled; fresh air sent steam rolling across, as it had for the last four centuries. Light streamed in from high portholes near the domed ceiling. Men scrubbed themselves down, always modestly dressed in undershorts. Any visitor should try a hammam. More effective than the shower at any hotel, after a half hour you emerge refreshed, your pores steamed open and your skin wide awake.

The heart of the medina was a series of souks (bazaars), from used book stalls to flower, fish, meat and vegetable stalls; to tailors and leather-dealers, to a man selling old orchestra uniforms and broken lutes, to antiquaires selling teapots, ornate lamps, and complicated dangling jewelry.

In the tanners' quarter I was given a sprig of mint to hold to my nose. Mustafa led me through a mud-brick wall to a courtyard where men and boys were washing animal hides. We followed stairways up. From the roof we looked down on a scene that resembled a child's paintbox: a hundred colors in great round tiled baths, reds and indigos and yellows and greens and all colors between, with boys and young men sloshing around and dipping and stamping the hides. In other baths they washed themselves clean. The white houses behind them were blinding in the sun, with yellow hides spread on the roofs to dry and the jumbled jigsaw-puzzle town rising geometrically all around, studded with occasional palms. The call of the muezzin went up, but the tanners kept at their work.


Moroccan cuisine reflects the country's tribal past as well as its importance as a trading destination, a link between Europe and Africa. Its national dish, couscous, probably has its origins to the south, in the Sahara; the spicy, hearty meat stews, cooked in clay pots called tajines, are likely Bedouin in origin; complex pastries, like the pastilla filled with chopped meat and sweet spices like cinnamon and cardamom, came from the Levant. And some of the sophisticated soups, or the more formal meat and chicken dishes, come probably from the Spanish influence.

The Palais Jamaï has for many years had one of the best restaurants for Moroccan food in the country (though its belly dancers seem lackadaisical in comparison with those to the south, in Marrakesh). I also ate splendidly at Lanmbra, a restaurant in a high-ceilinged private house going toward the New Town, run by an old and esteemed Fez family. An enormous back room was filled with a fine selection of Moroccan jewelry and antiques; the prices fair, with some real treasures chosen by expert eyes.


In Morocco you must learn to enjoy the atmosphere of theater that prevails. The search for a taxi, with a guide as intermediary, is likely to provoke a series of arguments. One driver must think about taking you ("We wait while he constructs a building in his mind," said Mustafa); another asks too much money ("Leave us tranquil!" Mustafa hissed). A third driver waves his arms at the first two, yells, remonstrates, goes over and shakes them by the lapels, pushes a fourth into the driver's seat and glares at you as you get in. You must learn to enjoy the fact that your presence, your simple desire to get from a to b, can cause so many disputes.

Fez is preeminent in Moroccan history as a center for artisans, especially in tile work and ceramics. At the ceramics quarter, several miles outside town, the ovens are caverns burrowed into the ground. One man descends, another hands in the potteries, and wood to be burned is brought in, then the man escapes and the oven is closed tight. After a day of baking and a day of cooling, the potteries are decorated, then baked again. In a workshop I watched a plate's progress. One man sketched in the patterns, an old man added the fine filigree work, then two young ladies filled in the colors.

Next door a shop sold the results: enormous bowls and plates for display on walls or low tables, pitchers, egg-cups, jewel boxes, vases, umbrella stands, amphorae, tajines, teapots. There was more originality and variation here than in the medina's shops, so deviously narrowed to reflect tourists' average tastes Still, the designs are all old. Their shapes alone are sometimes less traditional. They are beautiful, but few are alive.

In a tile workshop a boy took tiny, rough, already-colored tile-squares, drew lines dividing them into quarters, then handed them to older boys who accurately divided them with pickaxes against a shaping stone. Men then shaped the small squares into triangles or petals. To make a square meter of intricate Fez tile work can take from 900 up to 5,000 separate pieces.

At the Fez "Dar Batha" Arts Museum you can see, in the ceramics collection, the originals of the plates for sale in the souks. The chief difference is that the new ones aren't old, and the originals have more finesse. Other museum rooms house embroidered robes, inlaid wood chests, enormous oil lamps, and collections of musical instruments brought up from southern Africa by slaves: drums, lutes, zithers, violins, tambourines, and a simple cello. This is probably the best exhibition of Moroccan crafts in the country (though the choice of rugs is better in Tangier's museum), and it includes a magnificent exhibit of Berber jewelry.

To visit, though, wasn't easy. Twice I'd found the museum closed during its posted operating hours. This time the museum attendant chased me from room to room, barring the doors behind me, forty-five minutes before it was to close for lunch. He said he had to go pray, though the fact that I was the only visitor may have had something to do with his religious fervor. (He hadn't warned me of this when taking my money a minute earlier.) I have journeyed through some of the world's countries most closed to outsiders, but nowhere have I encountered people as inhospitable and disputative as Moroccans—among themselves as much as with any foreigner. To quote a 19th century traveler, "These people pray five times a day and act as if they never pray at all." Too bad that some Westerners visit Morocco and go away thinking all Moslem countries are like this.


I called upon a friend who's lived in Fez for two decades: the architect Jean Paul Ichter, a genial, bearded Frenchman with an agile face and a persuasive manner. Four years earlier, he'd run an international organization called Hadara, one of whose intentions was to save Fez. Ichter had attracted numerous architects and students worldwide to visit, examine the problems, and avail themselves of his knowledge. At that time he'd seen the problems of Fez as surmountable.

He'd also pointed out to me that most Moroccans, despite what tourists saw, were leading modern lives. (In fact Fez, or the Fez that visitors rarely see, is the second most important industrial center in the country.) He alerted me to beware the facile notion that the life one saw in the fantastic medina was really the Middle Ages. "People come here," he told me, "they see a veil or two, they realize how beautiful the medina is, and they assume it was always men working in stalls in darkness. People see the past as suffering. But it wasn't that simple, or that overworked." For centuries, he explained, the medina had held a proper balance: of merchants, craftsmen, wealthy, and servants, as well as the poor. Now it was only the poor.

At his architectural firm's office we spoke less optimistically of the future of the medina. I was saddened to see that Ichter had gotten little support, in the end, from the government, and Hadara was no more.

"For many decades Fez el Bali has been protected by its site. It’s set in a slanting valley, unlike Cairo or Damascus. They too had great medinas, but they were on flat plains, so they could be knocked down, built on, and expanded. Fez is protected, because there's little else you can really do other than the buildings that are there now. A negative repercussion of tourism would be if the medina, as in Marrakesh, became a victim of tourism, a kind of parasite. At the same time, it would permit you to recuperate some magnificent houses. The vulnerability of Fez is partly like that of Venice. Fez houses all rot if they're left empty for two years—because of the material, not the climate. A possible alternative is that Fez will simply collapse, overloaded with people.

"The truth," he continued, "is no one wants to be bothered with the medina. It's like an old man, bent over from the weight of what it has to carry. I'm a realist: you can't go backward in time. The craftsmen you see here, the tanners, the weavers, are all bettered by machines. They can't survive for long. There are many lovely mansions in the medina. Most are still reparable, but who wants to live there? Who would live there now, with money? These people want the same privacy or comforts as you or I. You mustn't look at the place with touristic eyes—I have no use for this impractical idealism. A city survives and thrives when it reflects a balance: so many poor people, so many rich, so many merchants, so many artisans. No young people want to live there, it takes too long to get in and out. The life there is too uncomfortable and unreliable.

"If we could open up the medina a little, so it didn't take a half hour to get into its center, but fifteen minutes, it might become again an attractive place for people to live. Remember,architecture dictates a social life. To give you an example, we paved one street in the medina and it changed totally the women's way of dressing-up, because suddenly they weren't walking in the mud, they could wear high heels. Then they began wearing shorter skirts. And they were able to window-shop, so the stores changed."


Fez el Djid, which dates roughly from the 13th century, was built as a political stratagem against Fez el Bali. It is the site of the present king Hassan's second palace (the capital is at Rabat) and of the mellah, the former Jewish quarter. On the edge of the mellah the "Israelite cimitiere", lined with pines and a few palms, was a blinding-white miniature village of elongated humps. Some tombs were recent, the elderly few who'd stayed on; most Moroccan Jews had left in 1956, with independence from the French. The main street of the mellah, parts of which Ichter had carefully restored, were of an entirely different architecture, belonging more to Cairo or Istanbul or even the Caribbean: wooden balconies and slant roofs; tall, intimate stone-and-wood houses on straight streets, with shops below. In the old days, most were jewelers'.

In solitary grandeur outside the mellah stood the palace, like a winking jewel on the edge of a sandbox. An enormous (810 hectare) property, closed permanently to the public, its ramparts are spiked concrete and its entrance, with imposing carved gates, is highly decorated with blue and green intricate tile work and marble columns. As modern Moslem palaces go, compared to those of Arabian monarchs its exterior design is so lovely that anyone well-read in Moroccan history might well wonder if a future inheritor of the throne might not level it straight away. It was a favorite photo opportunity of Japanese tourists, whom I rarely saw in the medina but were here posing in droves.

Just nearby, I was barred from entering an intriguing passage into a carpet weaver’s by somebody whose only role was to exercise this small power. Possibly he didn't want a journalist to see how expensive "antique" carpets are churned out for tourists—I had only an official letter of introduction from the king's government (behind those palace doors), after all. A fascinating aspect of travel in Morocco is that short of banging on people's doors, you aren't allowed anywhere you aren't expected to spend money.


The next day I went exploring in the Ziyat quarter of the medina, probably the wealthiest for the last four centuries. The greatest palaces hid behind the most unlikely walls. I saw one grand 18th century house with an enormous garden, rather like an Italian villa, with stone galleries and tall pines; characteristically there was more light in its interior patios than in the streets. It had been a palace, and inside was the most sumptuous decor I saw in Fez, even in semi-ruin. It was only a glimpse, for even with an introduction the owner didn't want to let me past the inner courtyard. (For these great houses the entrances were always on the side.) Nearby I ambled up the Slope of Smiles and down the Slope of Lions, so-called because one palace-owner used to bring his lion up the narrow way to drink from the fountain.

Another 18th century house lay up a dour garden path just outside the Ziyat quarter. We went through a semi-comedy of looking for the servant who could in turn locate the caretaker who produced, with reverence, a giant rusted key. Enormous, shadowy doors creaked back. Inside was an incredible uninhabited palace, arch after tiled marble arch, empty fountains, balustrades, carvings, and a decrepit grand piano in a salon lit by red peacock-shaped fanlights. The floors were Italian marble; in those days you could trade a kilo of Moroccan sugar for a kilo of Italian marble. This nearly abandoned palace was used extensively in the film The Jewel of the Nile. Mustafa had been a staff driver for the film crew.

Just outside the medina, a cinema was showing a film about Zorro in French, an Indian potboiler, and an American export called Death Mission. It struck me then, watching the crowd enter, that in fact the better part of the populace wore Western dress; it was only the ones in djellabahs (robes) that an outsider inevitably remembered.

I said, "The movies seem very popular."

"Not as popular as before," said Mustafa. "Now everybody has a TV set, and even if they don't have electricity, they run it off batteries."


One afternoon I braved struggling crowds—who were being kicked into line by gendarmes—and climbed a stairway to a rooftop perch overlooking the Bab el Boujeloud. Here, at the Blue Gate, I could see the great celebration of the yearly Festival of Fez, an event not put on for tourists. The night before there had been folk dances at the arts museum. Now, as the day waned, I looked down on a procession of barefoot dancers in spangled robes, hopping urgently; gold-braided old men on white horses; ranks of whirling drummers and tambourine-shakers from the south, with complex counter-rhythms; a hot clamor of jumping, shouting people with crowds pressing on either side of a narrow street that led from the arched gate into the medina's souks. Patches of the crowd followed each successive wave of pandemonium into the medina. Then a woman came, shaking in a trance, supported on either side as she jittered and shook, crying out, now falling, now hurling herself out of control. The crowd roared at her.

It was wonderful, from up on the rooftop, to see the obsessive streak in the Moroccan character en masse. I thought: These people are a little crazy. "'Some will pass out," said a man beside me. To pass out signified an intensity of experience, but no one could explain a deeper meaning behind the procession. People could gather and whip themselves into a ritualized frenzy, but with no ritual meaning behind the excitement. But wasn’t it the equivalent of our Thanksgiving Day parades?

Anybody who travels ponders, necessarily, what it is we carry away with us of a place, which is in the end all that matters. I regret not having seen Fez four decades ago, the Fez that Paul Bowles so eloquently captured; but those who see Fez in the next ten years are seeing a place that will soon be gone. It is a miracle it has survived as long as it has, and it surely cannot sustain itself very long into the next century. Places are as vulnerable to extinction as any impractical bird or fish. When I saw Fez the first time I thought it stranger than any dream: unpredictable, unexpectedly beautiful and haunting, with its labyrinthine turnings like the sudden shifts of an imagination asleep. To go back was like returning to a dream. For Fez has about it a deep power: to be there is less like visiting a place than like plunging into the human subconscious. It confronts you long after you leave. In waking or dreaming, turning an unknown corner, you find yourself wondering where you are, and realizing you are again amazed, lost in that secret dying city.

Monday, October 23, 1989

The Crazy Horse of Paris

Written for G.Q., 1989.

Her naked body is perfect: this is why you are here. In semi-darkness she lies just out of reach on a circular platform tilted toward you, a girl with long red hair and a hard, impudent body. She wears only a brief patch at her crotch; leather thongs at her breasts and hips exaggerate her nakedness. Smoke billows and climbs a pyramid of light behind her. She watches you defiantly as her dais revolves slowly; she seems bound to it by centrifugal force.

A filigree of laser light sizzles across her body. Somewhere a hoarse black voice sings a blues, but you are beyond the reach of words.

She tosses herself against the dais, pouts, snarls, her hair tawny against her white flesh. She rears up onto her knees, arches her back like a pacing panther whose fur has come up. You can almost feel the confident muscles in her long legs. Her hair streams through her fingers and turns to smoke as she writhes onto her back again.

Suddenly a greater voltage of lightning shakes her. She reaches down, pulls off the patch at her crotch. Bolts of electricity cross her body as the dais revolves faster. She spreads her legs wide as the dais turns her from you, closes them as it brings her back, now spreads again as she is whirled away, arching, taunting, open. . . .
 

The most invigorating music-hall in Paris, the Crazy Horse Saloon, isn’t really a music-hall at all. Cabaret-size, it calls itself erotic theater and boasts "the most beautiful femmes fatales in the world." Since opening in 1951, the Crazy Horse has become an institution in Paris nightlife and its lighting effects have been copied worldwide. Its origins lie partly in striptease, partly in a French talent for sensuality, but it has little to do with the Folies Bergere / Moulin Rouge tradition. Located on the swank Avenue George V, across from Yves Saint-Laurent and next to Balenciaga, its high style is very much its own, continually under the guidance of its founder, Alain Bernardin. Recently it reopened after two months of expensive renovations, an event the Paris press greeted with rare enthusiasm.

How to describe such a spectacle? For two hours one’s senses are blasted by variations on a single theme: eighteen naked young women with perfect bodies as individual as their faces, close to you yet not close enough, in tableaus that range from the near-trashy to the near-sublime. The tone is never leering, more a kind of holy lasciviousness. A show consists of group numbers and a dozen solos or duets, interspersed with a couple of comic acts to re-whet the appetite. Bernardin christens his dancers with deliberately unreal names like Zaza Vesuvio, Vanity Obelisk, Tipsy Tipperary, Lulu Paladin, and Tiny Semaphore. Bathed in enigmatic light, all-powerful in their physical glory, they become, as Bernardin puts it, "the most inaccessible puzzles of nude women in the world."

Past the street-level lobby guarded by doormen dressed as Royal Canadian Mounted Police; downstairs into the theater, its entrance covered with names of notables who’ve visited: royalty (Rainier, Onassis, JFK); singers (Callas, Garland, Jagger); artists (Man Ray, Johns, Ernst); writers (Williams, Greene, de Beauvoir); directors (Welles, Visconti, Von Stroheim, Fellini, Preminger); actors (Eastwood, Ustinov, Cooper, E. G. Robinson, Bergman, Brando, Sellers); athletes (Laver, Pele) and dancers (Nureyev, Serge Lifar).

The 420-seat theater is small, in sumptuous red with an art-deco aspect. The stage seems downright tiny, flanked by nude golden statues and hidden behind a glittering curtain. Signs everywhere proclaim "There is only one real CH." The crowd is mixed, about three men to every woman. The show is necessary to any young man’s education: a few very happy teenage boys accompany their parents.

At later performances I will try a seat up close. This time I stand at the bar along with mostly veterans and locals, as it affords the same view for half-price (with one drink, about $30; lower for innocents under twenty-six). On my right is a Swiss engineer who attends with clockwork regularity (1981, ’83, ’85, ’87), on my left one of the most beautiful brunettes in Paris, accompanied by a gentleman older and richer than either of us. A large proportion of seated clientele is Japanese, Italian, or American, but then so are most Paris tourists.

A siren goes off, louder and louder. Then trumpets, martial drums and the voice of a British sergeant barking commands. The silver curtain pulls open, and there they are: the famous line of proud-breasted girls in boots, white gloves, great black Beefeater hats and nothing else save tiny black triangular cache-sexes. (Velcro is really crucial to the Crazy Horse.) Lifting their knees high to military music, these soldiers march, salute and about-face; the audience applauds this inspiring sight. White horsehair tassels dangle suggestively between their legs, front and back.

In Rouge Et Noir, two incandescent girls in black or red wigs, gloves, and throat ribbons take turns provocatively balancing across a leather armchair with stirrups. Bananas is a group number in silver porcupine wigs: a funky golliwog’s cakewalk, a nude rain dance, a toy waddle, done with high energy. Now Jailbirds, to urgent string music powered by bongos.

Vertical black bars front the shadowy stage. A sultry redhead struggles, drapes her legs around the cage and arabesques at the audience. A brunette lies on a black altar and grinds her swelling rump against the bars. A blonde girl caresses her. Each girl broods to her own tormented rhythms, twining herself around or throwing herself percussively at the bars, trying to escape. The cage is whacked furiously as the naked bodies hurl faster and faster, pinioned, scissored around the bars, straining as the music ends. The finale is a swaggering strut to horns: eighteen girls in blonde, black, or blue wigs, wearing characteristically only black gloves, g-strings, garters, and stockings; leaning, swinging, sliding their buttocks down illuminated firemen’s poles. By now their incendiary attitudes seem normal. Is there gentle sarcasm in the lyrics?

You’re not too short
You’re not too tall
You’re not too round
You turn me on.

The Swiss engineer, so help me, sings along.
 

Alain Bernardin is a tall man with doubting eyes, thinning hair, and the long face of a bloodhound. At seventy-three, fit, calm, he looks a good twenty years younger, with the tanned health one associates with aging movie stars. He has three children by a former wife, but in 1986 he married Lova Moor, a blonde dancer and longtime star at the Crazy who has published a star’s autobiography, Ma Vie Mise A Nu ("My Life In the Nude"). Its preface is by Alain Delon, who was involved with another dancer, Rita Cadillac, for years.

We meet in the modem, red subterranean offices of the theater. Bernardin is dressed casually, in a black shirt with streaks of color like the lighting effects in his show. Since the beginning it has been all his: his design, his property, his "mistress" who has made him very wealthy. His staff call him "Le Boss." He chooses the girls and trains them; he estimates he has baptized 250 by now.

"I am looking for a cannon," says Bernardin. "An aggressive girl, who doesn’t have fear in her eyes. A sparkling, brilliant, bewitching sorceress. One in fifty. After thirty-eight years, I can recognize her in a second. First, she must have marvelous breasts. Then she must have trained already as a dancer. And she must be a ‘good girl’. I don’t find them, they find me. We have girls from all over Europe, from South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, even Hungary and Romania. We almost never have American dancers. Many, many English. English girls are all out to leave Mama. Many Russians, Czechs, and Poles. Polish girls are crazy, but they have strong temperament and personality. They’re great onstage. Offstage, they’re golddiggers. Our youngest dancer is eighteen , the oldest is twenty-nine. I want to provoke the public by putting them in the path of these cannons. If you give them their cleaning woman, they won’t come. They want a dream money can’t buy, inaccessible because of me—Pygmalion. And I try not to fall in love with my Galateas."

For his corps of twenty-four dancers, Bernardin takes five new girls a year; over a hundred audition. They average about five years in the show. Afterwards, he says, a few become singers or dancers on TV. Others marry. Stripping, he points out, encourages ideas of domesticity.

"When I was eighteen I worked at the Ritz Hotel in London. Then I was in the army. After the war, I opened a small, successful restaurant. In those days the girls at, say, the Moulin Rouge were not moving, not dancing, not teasing. They stood there with silly things like the Eiffel Tower on their heads. I had a shock of an idea: to bring burlesque to Paris, not in an American style but in a French style. Not a seventy-year-old doing a striptease but girls of eighteen, sportives. Originally I wanted a Wild West saloon, with a country & western orchestra and lassos. In 1950 I sold my restaurant and rented this place. I had one girl at first but at least she moved. After a year I understood I had to have five girls. Success was immediate. I designed the costumes, the dances. Even now I design everything.

"In 1958, by accident, I invented a lighting for the nude. In those days we projected each girl’s name on the curtain. One night the curtain opened too soon, so the slide got projected on the girl. This way nudity can be artistic, the light clothes the body." Bernardin is proud he can pay his dancers "twice as much" as the other Paris spectacles. They earn between $30,000 and $45,000 a year; the CH maintains savings accounts for them. Renovations have brought the place up-to-the-minute: three tape decks, controlled by computer, in turn control the lights. Backstage, most dancers have their own tiny "loges" festooned with pictures, letters, personal effects. There are showers, a spaceship-style lounge with TVs that function as monitors, also an extensive room for daily rehearsals run by choreographers Molly Molloy and Sofia Balma.

"Salvador Dali must’ve come twenty times. He used to say, ‘The Crazy Horse girls are all virgins.’ One evening he arrived, and Andy Warhol was here. Dali said, ‘Tonight the omens are not good.’ He turned on his cane and left. Elvis came one night, brought by a mutual friend. He said, ‘I’ll come only if you give me a girl for the night.’ So the friend had to loan Elvis his fiancee.

"Rostropovich came, and spoke Russian with several dancers. Balanchine visited all the time. Bob Fosse kissed the carpet. Woody Allen used the Crazy Horse in What’s New, Pussycat? Gypsy Rose Lee told me, ‘We weren’t like this. We weren’t beautiful, we weren’t young, we were actresses. It took us ten minutes to remove a glove.’" A sloe-eyed brunette tripped in, shot him an intense look, then disappeared into the coulisses. "A new girl," he said. "French. About half are French. French girls aren’t as serious as the others. In England, nightclub work is considered a profession. In France show business isn’t taken seriously, not even theater. French talent never goes in the direction of cabaret. And it’s a very difficult form to master. Everyone thinks it’s easy because it looks easy. They don’t realize how long it takes to perfect."

He has a reputation for protecting the girls with military strictness. It’s forbidden for the dancers to meet anyone within two blocks of the theater; security is extensive. "There’s a bad reputation, because outside France, the cabarets are bordellos. Frenchmen ask me how many girls are at the bar. I tell them, ‘If I wanted to run a bordello, that’s a profession too, but I run a theater.’ Everybody knows there’s no question of meeting the girls.

"In 1962 we did a Nazi parody. The music was a German military march; Bertha von Paraboum wore a feather boa and a g-string in the shape of a swastika. The French were shocked, the Americans were shocked, the Germans were shocked. We even got letters of protest from old Nazis. The publicity was enormous. Now everybody’s done everything, you can’t scandalize. Anyway, a porno show is boring, precisely because it leaves nothing to the imagination. I want a show of superb quality. I tell the girls to be like a painting by Modigliani. When I see them out there, I imagine making love to them. Everybody does, that’s the idea. How wonderful, no?"
 

Night. We are no longer in Paris, but rather an apartment in East Berlin. German voices drift up from the street through a blue window with Venetian blinds. A brief flood of pale light as the door opens, revealing a balance beam in the center of the apartment. A blonde with a ponytail enters, her face an impassive mask. She wears a white silk blouse, a black leather miniskirt.

She tunes a radio to a blaring trumpet, hot and slow, then begins a limber exercise against the balance beam. The radio bursts with static. Suddenly we overhear the crackling, walkie-talkie voices of two CIA agents on stakeout, filming her. Now we realize she’s a spy—one agent says, "No wonder politicans run their mouths when they’re in the sack with her." She tears off her skirt, runs her long legs caressingly along the balance beam to German ’30s music. Off comes the silk blouse. She’s in only a black g-string and shoes. A measured swagger against the bar. In her eyes we see only a concentration on her body’s movements. Does she know she’s being watched? Is she deliberately tormenting them? They have turned into cheap voyeurs, their words banal against her beauty.

And now the g-string too is torn off. Her hair comes undone as she throws herself violently along the exercise bar, whipping her body back and forth. Her big gulping eyes send out astonished looks, as if startled by her own fiery intensity. A smile of pride in what she can do; the music winds down. Languorously she collapses, hangs from the bar, a gentle amusement playing across her face.

She knows.

 
To see a performance makes one wonder, naturally and perversely,what these girls look like with their clothes on. Albert Camus spoke for many of us when he said, "It hurts me to confess it, but I would gladly trade ten conversations with Einstein for one first encounter with a pretty chorus-girl." Luckier than Camus, I meet with three star danseuses. All are well-spoken, smart, confident, and proud of the show; they are lovely without the public prettiness of models, with dancers’ long bodies and healthy energy.

Akky, twenty-four, Dutch, is the glowing blonde from the spy number. In jeans and halter top, her midriff bare, she seems conscious of her physical presence, and I would guess she is the best-travelled. She’s been at the Crazy two years. Both the other girls are British and twenty-one. Friday, with black hair pulled up from a no-nonsense practical face, wears a short skirt and high boots. She’s been dancing here for eight months, and has a winning brashness. Paula’s a freckled redhead with a penetrating gaze, her long legs in jeans. Having been here two months, she strikes me as the shyest.

Friday: Half of us have good ballet training, the rest have some jazz training. When I was young I wanted to be the good classical ballerina. Then I got interested in cabaret and show dancing.

Akky: Everywhere I auditioned for ballet companies—Holland, Germany, and France—I was too tall. So I started doing cabaret work.

Paula: I saw an ad for auditions in a trade weekly. I sent in a photo and Bernardin flew me over with five other girls. After seeing the show, I thought: Can I dance nude?

Friday: The audition’s always the same. You improvise to "Menergy," the gayest song ever. It’s bizarre and nerve-wracking.

Akky: It’s the only place I know where they have you improvise. You’re alone on stage, naked, and he’s out there. It’s not long. If you have the right style, they see immediately. We’re classier than any other nude show; some dressed girls dancing can be much more vulgar than we are. We don’t have to pull faces to be sexy, we have to be careful not to add too much. I don’t think about the fact I’m taking off my clothes. Onstage we feel protected by the lighting.

Paula: You can see only about the first couple of rows.

Friday: You feel completely dressed. You’re in full body make- up, and you’ve got lights, music, props. You become that number, you are that story. You’re not a girl onstage taking off her clothes.

I ask how they answer when people inquire what they do.

Akky: It depends who’s asking. There are a lot of frustrated people out there. Some guys, I see they’ve heard about the Crazy Horse on TV but they really have no idea. You can’t explain it. My parents have come to see it, and they think it’s fantastic.

Paula: I was in a restaurant the other day, talking to thisAmerican girl who was in Paris on holiday. She’d gone to the Lido, one of the big music-halls. She said to me, "I was shocked! Those girls are topless!" When I told her what I did, her face just fell.

Friday: I’m proud to work at the Crazy. I say, "I’m not a topless dancer, I’m a nude dancer." Dancing here makes you appreciate what you have and make the most of it while you’ve got it. I’ve always been very shy about my body. I was always the person who wore baggy clothes, I felt self-conscious at dance class. I really hated myself when I came to the Crazy. Subconsciously, working in the nude you put a check on your weight or your body.

Akky: I see these young American women dressed like little girls, in prim and proper clothes, with little-girl shoes, very fake. I promise you, these women have wilder fantasies than I’ve got.

On asking their full names, I realize they’ve given me their stage identities: Akky Masterpiece, Paula Flashback, Friday Trampoline. Bernardin is out to create mythic women; the names are a stage scrim you can see through but not pass beyond, an erotic barrier.



La Leçon d’Erotisme with Friday Trampoline

On a black stage, an enormous sofa in the shape of two red, ideal feminine lips. Friday in black negligee, black patent leather shoes, black stockings, black garter belt, one black glove, and a black crucifix around her neck (a characteristic Bernardin touch). Her raven hair magnificently foaming, one pouting breast exposed, at first she sits ladylike on the two red lips. Then, as a husky-voiced French chanteuse whispers about the art of seduction, Friday insinuates herself across the lips, making sly love to them.

Slowly she pulls off her negligee. Very slowly she turns so we can admire the superb back view. She waits, her body stretched out, a hand on her hip. Off comes the garter. She wriggles lasciviously, lets her body wink at us, knowing everybody is watching her tiniest gesture as the chanteuse explains "the erotic lesson." Slowly she rubs the length of her body in all kinds of gyrations, straddling those fortunate lips. Purring against them, she falls asleep.

Behind me, an Englishman said, "I want to be a student again."

 
Another back view, less admiring, from a former soloist. Having started at age nineteen, she recently left after two years. Driven, smart, confident, she now runs her own successful small business. "To dance at the Crazy changes you. Bernardin’s strategy is to make girls feel like stars, even though they’re only dancers. When you’re given the ecstasy of being a star at twenty, this makes problems. You don’t become confident. You lead a double life. You’re strong onstage, offstage you’re weak. You depend on the show to feel beautiful. The dancers end up wearing enormous amounts of make-up in the daytime without realizing it, because they can’t bear not being looked at.

"The soloists are hated by the others. They’re not paid more, but they’re less likely to be fired by Bernardin, who can fire you at any time; five minutes late and you’re fined fifty francs. Everybody’s scared of him because he can send them packing. I never felt badly treated myself, but he knows these are weak girls. I suppose he feels loved with all these women around.

"You become a night creature. After dancing and a cold shower you don’t feel sleepy, even though it’s two or three in the morning. It’s hard to be in a relationship with a man who lives by day, so you end up going out with other people who live by night. Men are very aggressive because they know you’re a Crazy Horse girl. I ‘lost’ two years of my life this way, even though I did become adult very quickly. The dancers stay there a long time because they’re afraid of leaving the life of the night, and frightened of the normal life of the day. The dancers who stay on feel old and they’re very hard on the young girls who arrive. And the waiting-around kills you.

"After the Crazy Horse factory, what’s left? Only huge egos. They dream of becoming actresses or singers but it never happens. They’re not dancers; three hours’ practice every day and any girl can do that. They end up as luxury courtesans, or married to some dismal older man. At first I liked being in a spectacle, and I was paid enough to live in Paris on my own, but I had problems for a long time after."

 
Her naked body is perfect, lying like a sacrifice on that tilted platform as smoke billows. Can this be the shy Paula I interviewed? Suddenly she pulls off the patch at her crotch; the audience holds its breath as her dais revolves faster and lightning engulfs her. As the platform turns her away from the audience, she spreads her legs wide, teasing. A thousand eyes are fastened on the tufts of her pubic hair, emphatic in the weak smoky light, on her strong legs as she brings them together, opens wide again but never at the moment when the dais turns her to us. She tosses her head once, darkness closes in too quickly on her. The image of her lies burned on that darkness for an instant, then she is gone, gone, gone.

Friday, July 14, 1989

Othello’s Cyprus

Written in 1989 for Travel & Leisure magazine

"History in this island," wrote Robert Byron in 1937, "is almost too profuse. It gives one a sort of mental indigestion." And recent history—the 1974 division of the island into south (Greek) Cyprus and north (Turkish) Cyprus—is incomprehensible unless you have spent time there. (My family has kept a house in on the northern coast for nearly three decades.) As in most Levantine disputes, the outsider finds his feet sinking rapidly in complex explanations. Better to walk through the past, which is Cyprus's treasure and glory.

Few islands ride so firmly the twin tides of mythology and history. Aphrodite slipped from the sea near here, and her bed has rarely been cold. The island has been Cypriot, Persian, Roman, Byzantine, Lusignan, Venetian, Turkish, and British. Now it is Cypriot once again, which is to say divided. Until this century the island’s wealth came from copper—the word comes from Cyprus. In 1191, Richard the Lionhearted conquered and married not far from where I take my coffee every evening; a thousand years earlier, Antony presented this island to Cleopatra.

These are facts. A better story is that during Venetian days, according to Shakespeare, Othello the Moor strangled his lovely Desdemona just up the coast.

The play's principal setting, "a seaport in Cyprus" can only be Famagusta, in what is now Turkish Cyprus. During the three centuries of the Lusignans (a dynasty of French Crusaders), Famagusta had become one of the wealthiest towns in the world, prospering in the wily hands of competitive Genoan and Venetian traders. It probably resembled somewhat, in character, the Beirut of two decades ago, a little too knowing for its own good. (One wealthy merchant ground up jewels to use as a powdered spice at his dinner table.) In the 14th and 15th centuries it was the only safe, deep harbor that remained Christian in the Levant, and it got rich selling the East to the West.

Under the brief Venetian rule, from 1489 until the Ottoman invasion of 1570, Famagusta became the island’s capital. In the play Shakespeare aptly conveyed the military nature of the Venetian domination which brought the island to a rapid decline, abetted afterward by the Turks.

A visitor today finds a magnificent jumble of medieval ruins within, in Colin Thubron's words, Famagusta's "formidable and perfect heart. More complete than Istanbul or Antioch, stronger than Fez, Jerusalem or even Avila, this prince of walled cities dominates the port and on its landward sides, where the bastions go muscling into the meat its ramparts lift more than fifty feet from the living rock." (During British rule—like the Venetian, eight-two years, 1878-1960—a 1930s guidebook depicts golf played "over the ramparts," though the course demanded "an accuracy of direction which makes up for the comparative shortness of the holes.")

As in Shakespeare's tragedy, the old walled city still has the feel of a defensive environment; in places the walls are twenty-seven feet thick, with occasional cannonballs embedded from the Ottoman siege that lasted six months and ended in the Venetian garrison's annihilation.

The bridge through the Land Gate passes over a moat that follows the walls. These were the early days of cannon and sturdy, round towers. Ports like Famagusta (or Kyrenia, up the coast) were virtually seaside castles, defended from naval attack by great chains slung across the harbor mouth. Entering Famagusta through the Land Gate, you enter the mentality of that age, the fear of invasion while living in a walled city. The tragedy of the jealous Moor, commander of Venetian forces on the island, is pervaded by fear of the enemy getting in, and of course the enemy does get in—the enemy who's a friend, who has already entered, who is already intimately within, in the form of Iago.

Before approaching Famagusta from the point of view of the play, one should keep in mind that Shakespeare was writing about very recent history, since the tragedy dates from 1604. Its portrait of the Venetian and Turkish struggle for control of the Mediterranean stands up, and an unanswerable question is how Shakespeare got this aspect so right. One of the late plays, it is as rooted in place and politics as Shakespeare's English histories, but probably much more accurate. The difference here is that the physical setting (which Shakespeare never visited) has survived. The true setting of the play is not just Famagusta but a siege—or a besieged—mentality.

A first impression on entering Famagusta is that time has braked here somewhere around 1930 and, a few steps later, around 1530, and a few steps after that, around 1230. Narrow streets of modest stone houses give way suddenly to a square with the ruins of a dozen churches jumbling the view: Orthodox, Carmelite, Armenian, Nestorian basilicas, chapels side-by-side of the Knights Templar and Hospitaller, Latin and Franciscan shrines, all the bickering Christian orders from centuries ago, sometimes in hybrid Gothic Byzantine style, many ruined and half-rising, half-toppling hundreds of feet above the commanding walls. Because the old walled part of Famagusta was occupied in this century almost exclusively by Turkish—rather than Greek—Cypriots, its nature has probably changed less than anywhere else on the entire island.

As H. V. Morton, following the steps of St. Paul (a Cypriot) wrote, "Medieval Famagusta is one of the most remarkable ruins in the world, and it could be made one of the wonders of the world by one millionaire in search of immortality." Sadly, much of the damage came about in the mid-19th century when the Victorian builders of Port Said darted across the Mediterranean to lug back the stones of entire churches to build their wharves and hotels.

Dominating the square is the magnificent Cathedral of St. Nicholas, probably the greatest Gothic (14th century, French) building in the Mediterranean. Though it is used now, since Ottoman times, as a mosque, outside this is visible only via the tiny minaret crowding one high corner.

An odd historical footnote: knowing that the Greeks believed that Aphrodite died on Cyprus, the academic-minded Venetians unearthed a Roman sarcophagus and declared it to be that of the goddess herself, whom they believed to have been an actual ruler of the island. The so-called Tomb of Venus was placed in front of the cathedral, where it stayed until 1878 when the British put their dead high commissioner inside and moved it to an Orthodox cemetery.

A brief walk seaward leads to the massive walls that still defend the city. These walls, originally Lusignan, were widened and fortified by the Venetians. The carved stone lion and lion cub that guard the Sea Gate are pre-Venetian, and used to be credited by the locals with miraculous powers. The Sea Gate, with its raisable portcullis, is a masterpiece of military engineering that may owe something to Leonardo Da Vinci's visit to Cyprus in 1481. And, following the walls, one comes to the passage into the Venetian Citadel ("Othello's Tower") and the world of the play.

The principal character is Shakespeare's invention, but the play was set amid true historical events, and the Citadel was the military quarters of the Venetian Empire in Cyprus—the setting of the tragedy. The carved marble plaque above the entrance to the tower shows the winged Venetian lion of St. Mark, an image which is probably the most surviving aspect of Venetian rule. It still turns up on local carved chests.

This is probably the moment when the gatekeeper with the key to Othello's Tower, who has been negligently drinking coffee across the road, will come running up apologetically, let you in, and offer to show you the very room where Desdemona was strangled. It is perhaps worth paying a tip to hear the story returned to a word-of-mouth tale by someone who has probably never read it or seen it performed, since it might thus resemble its original form.

You enter the Citadel via a grassy courtyard piled with Ottoman and Venetian cannonballs and several old cannon lying this way and that. (King Lear was performed here a few years ago—mysterious choice.) The Citadel itself is a fortress of exposed stone staircases running everywhere, rather like the many anxious levels of the play, the soldierly quarrels and furtive messages. Unusually for Shakespeare, there are few scenes with more than two or three participants; it is action of an enclosed, claustrophobic impulse. Architecturally it would sit well here in the small rooms, the narrow staircases.

Othello: I shall not dine at home.
I meet the Captains at the Citadel.


The question arises, naturally, of where Shakespeare got the figure of Othello. The plot, or its bones, were lifted from a superficial version of the tale by an Italian writer name Cinthio, who names none of his characters save Desdemona. The Othello character is peanuts, a captain—not the general of Cyprus—but still a Moor. This begs the question of whether there was an actual, living inspiration for Othello via Cinthio.

There are two theories generally cited. One centers around Cristoforo Moro, a Venetian governor on Cyprus who in 1506 lost his wife just before leaving the island. This theory supposes that Shakespeare mistook the man's name to mean "the Moor," and is most satisfying to the notion that "black Othello" need not be dark-skinned. But Cristoforo Moro wasn't arrested, and apparently had nothing to do with his wife's death.

Recently another candidate has come to light, a professional soldier named Francesco de Sessa who was known familiarly as "Il Capitano Moro." He was neither Moorish nor African, but apparently very swarthy, thus the nickname. He remains a more likely candidate, perhaps, since he was not only a captain but also got arrested for some crime or other while on Cyprus in the Venetian Army.

It is possible, of course, that Cinthio knew of both men. Or got them confused.

In any case, Othello as we know him is Shakespeare's invention, and the master stroke of Shakespeare was to place this man wracked with jealousy and doubts in a tenuous military situation ("The Turk with a most mighty preparation makes for Cyprus.").

Mounting the walls brings the sea-world of the play into focus: the enclosed city seen from above, the sea which represented riches and great danger everywhere around.

For do but stand upon the foaming shore,
The chidden billow seems to pelt the clouds. . . .


The lesson of Famagusta's walls, its Citadel, its winged lions, is that it is indeed very distant from Shakespeare, or Shakespeare as we have come to know him. To us Shakespeare represents rarefied thought: a supple, muscular language in a theatrical world of sumptuous decor and gestures. What remains of Venetian Famagusta is far from that; any echoes of Shakespeare here are mostly our imagination. The walled medieval fortress still protects the half-ruined town, but seen from the ramparts of "Othello's Tower," it is a military bastion, obsessive in purpose, a place where thousands of men died bloodily, the very edge of the European Mediterranean and the beginning of the Middle Eastern Med. Its tone is almost anti-Shakespeare in terms of how we conceive of the poet. Yet this was a world closer to Shakespeare than our own; the play is saturated in subtle political and geographical thought.

The answer is not a production of the play in this Citadel, but a transportation of the Citadel's severity to a production of the play. We need to put aside any genteel ideas about what the settings and the atmospheres of our greatest playwright “ought” to suggest. Not in the name of historical exactitude—which is unnecessary—but to give life to a real world into which Shakespeare's imaginary world locks again and again. Otherwise, as Gratiano puts it near the end of the tragedy,

All that's spoke is marred.