empty of future, renew the sign: lucent paradox, ineluctable trace ...


The Dogon Stones

Last year I filled out a coupon from a newspaper and subsequently received a free copy of the 11th edition of The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World ... in the same act committing myself to buying four other books from the relevant source. Knew this was a mistake but wanted the Atlas ... love the Atlas. Took months of distraction to decide which among those available I would choose for my four purchases; meanwhile the junk mail quotient in my letter box increased exponentially. Because the original source misspelled my name, I can always tell when they've handed it on to someone else. All sorts of dubious people. Anyway, settled finally on a book for each for my sons - The Siege and Fall of Troy, Robert Graves' re-telling of The Iliad; The Wind in the Willows; - plus Brewer's Dictionary of Rogues, Villains, & Eccentrics (a disappointment); and The Life of Muhammad.

Have just started to read this last, by Ibn Ishaq, who was born in Medina about 85 years after the hijra of AD622 and died in Baghdad 66 years later. His inaugural biography survives only in a version edited by Ibn Hisham, who himself died about 60 years after Ibn Ishaq. The translation is by Hungarian Edward Rehatsek, made in Bombay and completed just before his own death in 1891. This voluminous work was, in its turn, edited by Michael Edwardes to make a slender, elegantly produced and written book of about 150 pages, first published in 1964. Somewhat to my surprise, I am enjoying it immensely. I love its mix of family and tribal history, folktale, hokum and divine revelation. Among the much I did not know about the subject is that the pre-Muslim Arabs of Mecca and Medina worshipped gods who were enshrined in stones. Nor did I know that the Kaba, which includes in itself a Black Stone that is thought to be a meteorite, predates Islam. You could perhaps say that the worship of stones has survived the advent of the Koran.

These disparate facts made me think of an encounter I was lucky enough to have, years ago now, with two remarkable stones from Africa. I knew, through my girlfriend at the time, a fellow called Ken de la Coeur. Ken was a Qantas steward who spent his time off in West Africa, buying all sorts of things that he would then bring back to Australia for resale. Anything from vast wooden canopied beds to tiny coloured beads made out of Venetian glass that had been melted down and then recast. Many of his things were rare and, since he had a good eye, all of them were beautiful. My girlfriend met him because she used to go into the shop he had on King Street, Newtown to trawl through that vast array. Ken didn't actually sell much, that wasn't really the point. Instead, he amassed a unique collection of West African art, mostly sourced from select dealers whom he'd got to know, and visited on his regular trips.

Ken loved the people of West Africa as much as their art, and it was probably from one of the men he met there that he contracted HIV. In time, he became too ill to keep the shop open, but he continued to run the business, such as it was, from his home in Redfern. After his last trip to West Africa, he held a soirée to which guests, mostly personal friends, were invited to come and view, perhaps purchase, his latest acquisitions. We were among the first to arrive at that event, and the last to leave. Very late in the evening, when there were just a few people still there, he brought out and unwrapped two stones that came, he said, from among the Dogon people of Mali. It is difficult for me describe the aura possessed by these two stones, one of which was male, one female. They were about the size of a small cantaloupe, ovid, reddish, one larger and darker than the other. I held them for a long time and did not want ever to let them go. Ken was asking a thousand dollars for the pair, far too much for me to consider buying them. In the end I did give them back and he re-wrapped them in their cloth and put them away.

Ken was from Melbourne. His family, whom I met at the wake, although they loved him, had never accepted that he was gay; and yet, when it came to his will, it turned out he left everything to them. Perhaps a worse tragedy was, he'd never catalogued his collection. His knowledge was extraordinary but most of what he knew wasn't written down. It was all in his head. You only had to point to something for Ken to tell you in detail its origin, provenance, significance and all sorts of other information about it. This knowledge went with him to his grave. As for the collection, the family gathered it up and shipped it to a warehouse in Melbourne. Later, I understand, it was broken up and sold. Most of it would have been represented only by the tiny cardboard tags, with Ken's fine calligraphy on them, that he would attach to his things. They would include a brief description, the location it came from, and a price - no more.

The stones, when I saw them, were not accompanied by any written description at all. They were probably, despite their size, of the kind worn in massive iron necklaces by Hogon or wise men; if so, they represented bones and were a source of power. I often wonder what happened to them, whether they were sold, or if they were thrown out or abandoned - after all, what use to anyone is an anonymous rock? Or perhaps not, perhaps the power that emanated from them meant that they have been acquired by someone who knows something of what they are. It is impossible to tell. I only had two things of Ken's: a small example of one of the afore-mentioned Venetian glass beads that he gave me, handed on recently to a dear friend for her fiftieth birthday. The other is a small bronze box, with three pairs of birds on the lid, facing each other, their beaks fused, that my girlfriend gave me. I do not know where the little card that came with it is now, though I may still have it. And yet there is a third: an indelible memory of the Dogon Stones.

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