79. A Rare Dibitag Gazelle’s Skull

Northern Somalia, found as a skull in 1971
Size: skull 20 cm; height with horns 24 cm

A corpus of stories featuring the wisest of fools, Mullah Nasruddin, is familiar throughout the Near and Middle East, as well as Central Asia. There is a tradition that whoever tells one of his stories will then tell seven in a row. The same seems to be true of Shaikh Saud stories.

One day Shaikh Saud called Michael Rich and asked him to arrange a visit for him to the Natural History Museum in London. We arrived in a big limo, punctually at 11 am. Shaikh Saud sauntered up the steps swinging his beads, and greeted the Director and curators who had come out to welcome him. As we walked inside the Director asked if there was anything in particular that he wished to see. He particularly wanted to see their specimen of the ‘Dibitag’ Gazelle. A rapid conference among the curators determined that they had no such thing. ‘Oh, but you do,’ Shaikh Saud answered, ‘you are the only institution in the world that has one. It was shot by a British officer in Northern Somalia in 1913, but because it had a deformed horn he gave it to you.’ They led us to the area where gazelle specimens were stretched on glass-fronted mahogany frames and invited Shaikh Saud to try and find what he was looking for. He started pulling out the frames by their brass handles, one by one, until after a dozen or so inspections he found it. And there on the label was the information that it had been shot, and then presented, by a British officer in Northern Somalia in 1913.

What else would he like to see, the Director asked? Shaikh Saud mentioned a certain Central American crocodile. Yes, we have that, said the curators, and we trooped off to Crocodile Corner, where the long skin was pulled out in its frame. As we stood there in a semi-circle, Shaikh Saud pulled up his trouser-leg, and lifted his leg until it was nearly level with the skin. On his foot was a light blue crocodile boot. As his foot came down he said: ‘I’ve always wondered whether my boot-maker in Paris was telling me the truth about the type of crocodile skins he was using for my boots.’ A palpable shiver of disapproval ran around the assembly of curators. Shaikh Saud shook all their hands with his most charming smile, and walked out swinging his beads, delighted with the visit.

A year later we made our first trip to Japan, to visit the Miho Museum. Emerging from the hotel in Kyoto next morning where a line of cars was waiting to whisk us up the mountain, Shaikh Saud said he was taking a different car because he had something to do on the way. I protested, saying that in Japan being a minute late was seen as an insult, particularly as we were going to meet a Living Goddess. Entertain her until I arrive, I’ll only be an hour or so, was the answer. Exasperated, I asked what could be so important. He explained that he was going to meet the chairman of a major enterprise, which had made the most powerful zoom lens ever. Since the lenses inside cost $300,000, they had realised that the zoom lens was not commercially viable, and he was going to buy the single prototype. Why do you want it? My exasperation was growing. The reason, he said, was that with such a lens, he might be able to get a photograph of the ‘Dibitag’ Gazelle next time he went to Somalia. I expressed my disbelief. ‘I can’t explain to you what it means to me,’ he said as he shifted from foot to foot, ‘it’s like undressing a beautiful woman for you.’ He jumped in his car, and sped off.

On loan to the exhibition.