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The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Changeling presents … Improbable Children of the Sand: Syrian Gazelle-Boy vs Saharan Gazelle-Boy *

* (restored)

 

This is supposed to be Syrian Gazelle Boy. Here he is in LIFE Magazine, 9 Sept 1946. He looks pretty cross. It might be because he is bound in a really desultory way – that always pisses me off. The ‘It tastes like heaven’ caption refers to some prune juice rather than Gazelle Boy. I think.

OK, so this kind of famous picture is obviously faked.

 

These letters to the editor of Oct 14 1946 point out that ‘Gazelle Boy’ has some rather obvious tan lines going on. Then there’s the whole fringe thing – I like the hairstyle, but I’m not convinced it was perpetrated by gazelles? Gazelles have these really flat teeth designed to grind up the kind of tough vegetation that their diet consists of – they’re not really up to cutting hair. ‘Gazelle Boy’ is some local kid with a casual approach to grooming posed by some bored photographers probably – or some kind of WWII desert soft porn.

There’s another missing photograph, obviously I can’t show it to you because it’s – missing. Jean-Claude Armen’s seen it – so has at least one other person, but I haven’t. You’ll have to take my word for it. Apparently it’s just like the one above, only much more authentic.

 

 

So this hoax photograph pretty much invalidates the whole idea of some superfast desert kid raised on gazelle milk and scrubby grass – except – I don’t know? There’s these stories …

A wild boy had been caught in the desert straddling Transjordan, Syria and Iraq. Amir Lawrence al Sha’alan, chief of the Ruweili tribe, was out hunting in this inhospitable region, whose only inhabitants were the staff at the British-run stations of the Iraq Petroleum Company.

“I was astonished to see what looked like a boy running amid a herd of gazelles we were chasing,” said the Amir. “I called to the occupants of the other cars to stop shooting. We were still far away, but could see that the boy was running as fast as the gazelles. We chased the herd in our cars for 50 miles (80km), during which time he kept up with them, bounding along with a half-human, half-animal gait. Suddenly we saw the boy stumble and fall. When we came up to him we found that his leg had been injured by a large stone. He looked up at us with fear starting from his luminous eyes and shrank from our touch, emitting cries like a wounded gazelle.”

The Amir tried to feed and clothe him, but he kept escaping, so he took him to Dr Musa Jalbout at one of the Petroleum Company stations, who later passed him into the care of four Baghdad doctors. Dr Jalbout said he acted, ate and cried like any gazelle, and had no doubt that he had lived all his life among the gazelles, being suckled by them and cropping the sparse desert herbage along with the herd. He was thought to be aged about 15.

Apparently speechless, he was covered in fine hair and ate only grass – although a week before Karim’s report he had had his first meal of bread and meat. He could allegedly run at 50 mph (80km/h), twice the Olympic record. He was 5ft 6in (1.7m) tall, “so thin that the bones could be counted easily beneath the flesh, yet stronger physically than a normal full-grown man.” (Amir Lawrence al Sha’alan, as reported in The Sunday Express, maybe)

In 1946 a wild child was discovered in Syria, with some gazelles, a boy apparently twelve to thirteen years old whose galloping leaps enabled him to move as quickly as his animals. It was possible to follow the running child through binoculars, but he was caught only after being chased by an Iraqi army jeep. Though he managed to maintain a speed of 50km/h, he was eventually captured and shamefully bound hand and foot. Tall and slender, with a bushy mop of black hair, powerful ankles and muscles like steel springs, the boy resembled the youths of the Koniagui tribe in Upper Gambia, who hunt with bows and run as fast as their dogs, forcing hares and even antelopes to run for their lives. The child was then entrusted to the care of peasants, who never managed to prevent his constant breaks for freedom. Still alive in 1955, he was taken into the charge of the country’s public assistance authorities, but he proved refractory to all education. In the course of yet another and quite spectacular attempt to escape, he jumped from one of the first floor windows of the establishment, spreading panic in the streets of Damascus with his giant bounds; it seems that his ‘educators’ had no hesitation in subjecting him to a sinister and revolting surgical operation, in which the Achilles tendons were mutilated to prevent him making further attempts to escape. (André Demaison, Le Livre des Enfants Sauvages, ed. Andre Bonne (1st edn.), Paris, 1953. Quoted in Jean-Claude Armen, Gazelle –Boy, (Trans. from the French by Stephen Hardman) London, 1974: pp 98 – 99)

I lived in Damascus in the early 50’s. At that time I was teaching at Damascus College and the USIS. In the main Market, there was an extremely thin, wiry, tall boy who was called the “gazelle boy”. I was told that he was found in the desert running with the gazelles and had been captured by hunters in a jeep… at first the Syrian Authorities wanted to study him and refused to let American doctors or French doctors take him for study. When the funds weren’t forthcoming, the young man was left to live in the streets.

He supported himself living in the “Souk” near Hamidiyee taking handouts.. and people would give him about 25 cents (equivalent) to run alongside a taxi. I saw this several times… about l952- 54.

I remember the Gazelle Boy had long stringy dirty hair and clothes that were blacken with age and grime… he had a pointed face… really animal like… but one did not feel threatened by him.

I used to take him food when I went to the Souk (Hamadieyah Market) a very long straight street ending in a Mosque (now) but had been a church in the second and third century. (J Rocca, quoted at: feralchildren)

Syrian Gazelle Boy seems a kind of forlorn story now. Compare the picture – the pinkish one with the healthy guy running with the gazelles ( I don’t know where it’s from – sorry – maybe it’s the missing photograph?) with these other(s) degraded and hobbled, or not hobbled but reduced to performing circus tricks for small change. This space between the stories is roughly the same size and shape as Saharan Gazelle Boy.

 

 

There he is, nibbling some desert bush – untrammelled by a hairstyle.

I got this book the other day: GAZELLE-BOY – Beautiful, Astonishing and True – A Wild Boy’s Life in the Sahara. It’s written by Jean-Claude Armen, a kind of half-assed pseudonym employed by Basque poet, artist and anthropologist Jean Claude Auger

The book describes Armen/ Auger’s solitary travels in the Rio de Oro in 1960-1. He meets some Nemedi people in the middle of nowhere and after supper a boy sings and mimes this story about a fennec and a jackal:

 

 

Then he tells this cool story about a boy raised by ostriches. M. Armen/Auger is obviously keen – on the Nemedi boy and the wild child story:

“Noticing my intrigued look, the young Nemdai comes up to me and promises me a much greater surprise of the same kind, at a màrhala (stage) of one days march (nazir-at-yoûm)” (Armen, Gazelle Boy, p 53)

You can guess what the ‘greater surprise’ is, can’t you?

 

 

Yeah, you were right – it’s another Gazelle Boy. This next section of the book is pretty great, Armen heads off with his camel and his fennec and soon locates Gazelle Boy and the rest of his herd. He then spends a month or so hanging out with them, making his naive manga-ish drawings and these great diagrams about gazelle code:

 

 

It’s all really idyllic, trippy and magical – Gazelle Boy is completely integrated into his herd, he’s fairly clean, strong and well nourished, joyful to the point of ecstasy, and , most significantly, free. There’s a lot of blissed out watching, sniffing and licking going on.

Armen decides Gazelle Boy – who appears to be that generic mythical age of ‘about ten’ was probably Nemdai in origin, fell out of some camel held basket during the night as an infant:

“Moorish children travel in baskets placed on the side of the camel. In all probability, this one of mine fell from a camel at the rear of a caravan, during the night ( the torrid heat of the day would not have spared him). All it would have needed would have been a herd of migrating gazelles spending the same night in the vicinity, and a pregnant female in a nervous state or a female that had lost her fawn (through sickness or to a predatory jackal).” (Armen, Gazelle Boy, p 53)

Armen seems perfectly happy with his sketchy hypothesis – Nemedi kids are well advanced in the motor skills department apparently – an eight or nine month old infant could keep up with a herd of gazelles, no problem.

After about a month the gazelles head off somewhere on urgent gazelle business – Armen/ Auger limps back to human civilisation starving, dehydrated and covered in cuts and sores, but really, really pleased.

Back in the Basque country Armen/ Auger relates his ‘discovery’ to his old boss at the Institute Français d’Afrique Noire, Professor Théodore Monod. You can check out his letters here.

The crux of the whole Saharan Gazelle Boy story lies here, I think, in the authors expressed intention not to publicise his amazing discovery:

“We agreed not to let this discovery become generally known, for what was at stake was the safety of a creature still too fragile to defend itself against the enterprises of men, well intentioned or otherwise.”(Armen, Gazelle-Boy, p 80)

Armen/ Auger is intentionally separating his gazelle boy from the host of other stories about feral children. He is basically suggesting that by removing a child from it’s adoptive animal parents and subjecting it to the invasive gaze of ‘civilisation’,we aren’t necessarily doing it any favours.Although Armen/ Auger is some big romantic, Rousseauian proto – hippie, I can’t help but admire his touching attempts to undermine the most fundamental of all western capitalist precepts: that society is necessarily a clear-cut hierachy, with the white, western, industrial world right at the top and gazelles somewhere near the bottom.

Armen/ Auger returned to the Rio de Oro two years later and re-established his relationship with the boy and his herd, this time somewhat impeded by the nearby presence of a French military captain and his aide-de-camp. I don’t know why the author led the military to his gazelle boy – their protestations that they too are merely curious seem implausible to me but whatever – Armen/ Auger ends up in some pursuit and capture situation very reminiscent of those detailed above in the Syrian Gazelle Boy stories, with the boy clocking up some impressive speeds of about 50 km per hour (Usain Bolt’s estimated maximum speed is 44.7 km per hour, if you were wondering.) Armen/ Auger heroically wrestles the controls of the military jeep away from the captain and Saharan Gazelle Boy escapes into the desert.

A further attempt at capture is reportedly made by American NATO officers in 1966. They spot the boy and return with two helicopters, a net attached between them, but despite repeated attempts, the boy again evades capture. This is the last sighting of Saharan Gazelle Boy.

 

 

Neither of these gazelle boys has a particularly rich cultural life outside of their initial stories – although you’d be pushed to find a Middle Eastern homoerotic poem which doesn’t make some kind of gazelle/boy analogy I guess.

I found this theatre piece: The Wild Child which juxtaposes the story of the Saharan Gazelle Boy with that of Victor, the Wild Child of Aveyron, (you know, the one in the Truffaut movie?)

“Based on true accounts of children raised by animals and “rescued” by humans, The Wild Child combines the story of a scientist attempting to civilize a feral child with the journey of an artist into a stark desert where she encounters a wild boy living among gazelles . Masks, shadow puppets, song, life-like bunraku puppets and original sound composition combine to create this rich and rewarding performance. The four-actor ensemble switches between characters, gazelles, and puppeteers before the audience’s eyes, as the tight walls of the Doctor’s closet dissolve into the spare beauty of the desert.”

 

 

And there’s a musician from Kansas who calls himself Saharan Gazelle Boy but I can’t really see the relevance of this name choice.

So who wins? I know I presented this as a kind of contest, but I’m not that sure now, what criteria I should judge it on. Saharan Gazelle Boy wins, hands down, if we’re comparing evasiveness and retention of freedom. If we compare acquired gazelle super-powers, it’s a pretty even match and if we want to contrast authenticity …? Syrian Gazelle Boy is generally regarded as a pretty piece of fakery – maybe one with a background in some sort of skewed mythical reality but really, just a hoax. Saharan Gazelle Boy on the other hand is often presented as the real deal.

Auger/Armen’s story has a lot of holes though – his gazelle child was freaked out by the camera apparently, all we get are a bunch of cute drawings. There are many moments in the text when the reader (me) doubts whether Auger/Armen has ever actually seen a regular boy, let alone a gazelle boy – his description of the boy during his second encounter includes the phrase:

“…but the pubic hair still has the characteristics of childhood”

Which is sort of odd, I would have assumed ‘absence’ to be the primary childhood characteristic of pubic hair.

Wikipedia suggests that Serge Aroles, Belgian author of Les Enigme des Enfant-Loups (2007) tracked Armen/Auger down in 1997 as part of his wider research into feral children. Armen/Auger admits to Aroles that he had made the whole thing up – Gazelle-Boy was essentially a “book of fiction”. I tracked the passage down in Aroles’ book – and yeah,sadly – it’s there:

” En 1997, l’auteur, auquel je disais avoir enqueté sur les terrain l’année précédente, me confessa par téléphone avoir “fait une oeuvre de fiction” et avoir été supris de la naiveté générale qui en fit une histoire authentique”(Serge Aroles, Les Enigme des Enfant-Loups (2007) p 270)

I spent a really long time stalking M. Armen/Auger – you know, like the web was a desert, the author was a gazelle-boy, and I was a jackal, or an American tourist or something? Inevitably he proved to be completely elusive. I did make some super-dodgy new internet ‘friends’ though. I really wanted to ask him in person – whether he really saw a gazelle-boy, and also why he ate so much fennec shit? I’m just curious.

GAZELLE-BOY – Beautiful, Astonishing and True – A Wild Boy’s Life in the Sahara, Jean-Claude Armen, (1971)

L’énigme des enfants-loups : Une certitude biologique mais un déni des archives, 1304-1954, Serge Aroles, (2007)

www.feralchildren.com

Fortean Times: Wild Things “The Gazelle Boys are near the bottom, just above the Big Cat Boys.”

Want to learn how to run like a gazelle?
—-

 

*
p.s. Hey. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. I didn’t see ‘Barbara’, but it got very good reviews here, and the couple of friends of mine who saw it thought it was pretty interesting. Everyone, Mr. Ehrenstein pays Davidian tribute to Nancy Pelosi in his new FaBlog entry: Nancy Finds Her Inner Faye. ** _Black_Acrylic, Ho, Ben. Excellent about the driving lesson. I’ve been meaning to ask you how that was going. Nice that you have a potential test date and one that’s not too, too far away. Ace! ** Kat, Hi! Yeah, we’re super excited that Puce Mary is doing the sound/score for our film. We’ve had a couple of long talks with her about it, and she’s totally into it, gets what we want, and has thrilling ideas. It’s going to be very noisy film, as you can probably guess, unlike the super quiet PGL. She’s amazing and such an awesome person. Thank you a lot for the bandcamp link! I’ll get over there today. All of Paris — France, really — is having a gigantic transportation (and most of everything else) strike, as you may have read, so I’m stuck close to home for the next while. Excited! Everyone, The amazing artist and longtime DC’s commenter and contributor Kat has a music project under the name West of Eden, and here’s a link to the bandcamp page where you can check out and hear Kat’s sounds. Super highly recommended, folks! I love the mental and sonic image of you performing your music live. I hope that happens, obviously. Is it a matter of you figuring out how the presentation would work or ‘look’ best or transmit most effectively or … ? Great to see you, buddy! ** Right. Today’s restored post comes from way, way back in the blog’s history, and it’s pretty interesting, I think, and it was made by a long lost commenter and distinguished local of this blog who titled themself Changeling, and please spend your local Friday with it, won’t you? See you tomorrow.

6 Comments

  1. In Marty’s very first gangster movie “It’s Not Just You, Murray” his anti-hero invests in Broadway musical called “Love is a Like a Gazelle.”

    Here’s Part One

    Here’s Part Two

  2. oh this looks really interesting.. thank you Changeling!

    sorry for the delay in replying Coop.. things have been a bit of a roller coaster of late.
    about the outdoors (or back country as i think americans refer to it).. for a while now i’ve been escaping to it to clear my mind and rooting myself in the simplicity of a simple shelter and the basics to survive.. i find it’s a great way to focus.
    it was kind of rekindled during a time when techno parties were often held in abandoned rural mills, industrial buildings & quarries.. and then later with a project i was helping a friend with. that’s why i was curious about your time in california which seems to have a more outdoorsy aesthetic to it than say NY or paris and if any of those trips into the countryside whether camping/hiking or raves had a residual effect on your published writing or life in general.
    i remember you going to antarctica and being blown away by that.. what an amazing environment to be in.. the colossal nature of it.. how small it must have made you feel! i’d love to go someday and experience that.

    well that wasn’t a very coherent reply & i can’t remember exactly what we were talking about but i know if i try to look back for it i’ll end up zooming off some rabbit hole and never getting this done. haha.. focus man.. i NEED it.
    so for now this will have to do and i look forward to any thoughts from you in the general (gigantic) ballpark of the subject. all the best Dennis X

  3. [ umm.. didn’t seem to publish so 2nd attempt.. ]

    oh this looks really interesting.. thank you Changeling!

    sorry for the delay in replying Coop.. things have been a bit of a roller coaster of late.
    about the outdoors (or back country as i think americans refer to it).. for a while now i’ve been escaping to it to clear my mind and rooting myself in the simplicity of a simple shelter and the basics to survive.. i find it’s a great way to focus.
    it was kind of rekindled during a time when techno parties were often held in abandoned rural mills, industrial buildings & quarries.. and then later with a project i was helping a friend with. that’s why i was curious about your time in california which seems to have a more outdoorsy aesthetic to it than say NY or paris and if any of those trips into the countryside whether camping/hiking or raves had a residual effect on your published writing or life in general.
    i remember you going to antarctica and being blown away by that.. what an amazing environment to be in.. the colossal nature of it.. how small it must have made you feel! i’d love to go someday and experience that.

    well that wasn’t a very coherent reply & i can’t remember exactly what we were talking about but i know if i try to look back for it i’ll end up zooming off some rabbit hole and never getting this done. haha.. focus man.. i NEED it.
    so for now this will have to do and i look forward to any thoughts from you in the general (gigantic) ballpark of the subject. all the best Dennis X

  4. I can’t wait to see/hear what you create together.. it’s a pretty dreamlike collaboration! Thank you so much for sharing my music.. As for performing.. it’s mostly technical barriers right now. Most of what I’ve put online is heavily processed and not really possible to recreate live. So I’m having to work out a new approach / new material that can be reproduced in some manner with the hardware gear I have. That’s somewhat limiting but also fun and challenging.

    This day is great. I missed it the first time around so good timing for me.

  5. As I’m sure you’re aware, here in the UK politics is unavoidable right now. The artist Jeremy Deller has tonight posted his new film about Parliament Square Putin’s Happy online and it makes for an essential, if somewhat depressing, watch.

    My Dad arrives in Dundee tomorrow and we’ll have a Xmas meal at the DCA that I’m very much looking forward to. We drive back to Leeds on Monday, into a country whose future is intriguingly uncertain.

  6. I thought BARBARA was quite good. Mathieu Amalric is a talented distributor.

    I didn’t know that you knew Adele Haenel or that she’s appearing in your TV series. That’s very cool.

    I got an MP3 of the actor reading my full voice-over this afternoon. I will try and listen to it over the weekend, and depending what I think, try to make arrangements for us to get together either in his house studio or the arts center where my editor works and record it before Christmas. I don’t know if his schedule permits that, but its my goal.

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