I heard this week that a friend of my youth, Bentley Angliss, died in Madrid in April.
It was with Bentley and his friends that I spent the last few years of safe haven while at university in London before we launched ourselves to our various fates in the ‘real’ world. We lived in a little Georgian house in The Mount Square, in Hampstead in London. We cooked and entertained and discussed many things. We did not quarrel and we practiced towards each other the British courtesies of our upbringing.
Bentley and his friends undertook my education in the European history of the decorative arts. For this alone I am indebted to them. I have only to step into a museum for my spirits to lift immediately (unless I see a Cy Twombly, of course!). He and some of his friends subsequently made this area their life work.
Bentley and I decided on a grand tour as a last fling. In the summer of 1973 we went from London to Paris to Bangkok to Kabul to Teheran. In Teheran, sated with the marvels we had seen, we went our separate ways to separate continents to separate fates.
I never saw Bentley again. Not many years later he distanced himself from many of the companions of his late youth. He was a man whom we loved: a veritable Adonis with his black hair and his height. Charming; intellectually ambitious; kind; open-hearted, witty.
July 1973: I boarded a plane at Heathrow Airport for Paris at the start of our grand tour. Air France bumped me up to first class because economy class was full. At the last moment, two men and two women boarded the flight. One man sat, window-side, next to me. His three companions were booked in economy class. As we lifted off, he kissed the cross around his neck and held it to his lips: a Lebanese Maronite. By name, Antoine Kamouh.
55 minutes later we were disembarking in Paris. M. Kamouh had immigration and customs controls waived for me and took me to his Rolls Royce parked at the front of Orly Airport. His chauffeur drove and M. Kamouh, playing a cassette of the Syrian-Lebanese poet Adonis, explained the poem’s meaning and asked me to remember how mellifluous Arabic can be. He opened a briefcase at his feet and gave me a gift: two or three wads of French francs. He dropped me off at the apartment of Bentley’s brother and asked me to come the next day to pay my respects to his mother: Avenue Charles Floquet in the 7th arrondissement. There in a magnificent apartment, one of whose walls was covered with objects of multi-coloured jade, I paid my respects to Mme. Kamouh and thanked her son for his generosity. The next day I flew to Bangkok.
I had promised Antoine Kamouh a cross of Ethiopian gold: the Lalibella cross in the featured image: the most famous of all the crosses of Ethiopian Orthodoxy. Its prototype is kept at the Church of the Redeemer in Lalibella, Ethiopia. It is made of gold or bronze and gold and is perhaps thirty inches tall. It dates from the 12th century and its symbolism is multiple.
For years periodically, I would remember that I had made this promise. Then I would forget.
Summer of 2006: I thought: I must make good my promise. Researching Antoine Kamouh’s address, this is what I discovered.
Antoine Kamouh was a banker and an arms dealer. He had run into legal trouble in connection with his banking activities. He sold arms to the Palestinians, to Biafra and to many African and Arab states. In October 2016, Le Monde reported that he was on the verge of signing a very large contract in the autumn of 1973.
November 1973: Antoine Kamouh stepped out of his tailor’s on the Rue Royale and was never seen again. Subsequent investigations showed that he had received death threats in connection with a specific arms deal in Libya. Despite a significant offer of reward by his family, he has never been found. He was 44.
Two vanished men. Their lives touched mine for good, for generosity, for serendipity. The trajectory of their lives, on the other hand, is for me in deep shadow.
Antoine Kamouh’s Lalibella cross is in my keeping.