[Marxism] The Mahdi

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Apr 8 07:33:32 MDT 2004

Jon Flanders wrote:
> Last June Mr Sadr brought these irregulars together as the Mahdi Army.
> Mahdi is Arabic for "the promised one" or "divinely guided one", and for
> Shias, much more so than for Sunnis, is a figure equivalent to Christ's
> return on Judgment Day. One Islamic tradition speaks of fighters
> arriving from the east bearing black flags to slaughter unbelievers,
> when the Mahdi would appear. Various figures down the centuries claimed
> to be the Mahdi, the one familiar in Britain being the Sudanese leader
> who killed General Gordon. "The Mahdi resonates powerfully among Shia.
> It is hard to find a more powerful symbol of their suffering," Mr
> Hiltermann said. 

Colonel Gordon and the Mahdi

In the future--if there is a future--humanity will study the cultural 
artifacts of the United States and Great Britain just as scholars study 
Roman epic poems. To fully understand Empire, you have to study how its 
artists flatter their masters. Since Empire loses vigor from generation 
to generation, it is no wonder that Anglo-American late capitalism, the 
bastard offspring of Ancient Rome, has not produced a Virgil. Instead, 
in its dotage, it tends more and more to draw upon the movies to sing 
its splendors, with Rambo and Ronald Reagan standing in for the Aeneid 
and Julius Caesar.

When Great Britain met its first battlefield defeat in the colonial 
world at the hands of the Mahdi-led "fuzzy-wuzzy" and dervish, it was 
thrown into as much of a quandary as the United States was after Somalia 
militiamen caught the US Marines in a devastating crossfire. How could 
savage tribesmen armed primarily with sword and spear defeat the 
best-trained and best-armed military in the world?

To begin to grasp this imperialist trauma and, further, what drives a 
kind of neo-Mahdist revolt of today, there is no better place to start 
than "Khartoum," a 1966 British-American co-produced film that starred 
conservative icon Charlton Heston.

Written by Robert Ardrey of "Territorial Imperative" fame, "Khartoum" 
made its debut when the United States was engaged in a life-and-death 
struggle with its own defiant rebels, in this case believing in 
Communism rather than Islam. Of course, with Communism no longer a 
factor in world politics, it is no accident that malcontents across 
three continents are now returning to 19th century millenarian ideologies.

Striving for a kind of kitschy grandeur, "Khartoum" begins with a 
5-minute overture that superimposes the word "Overture" on a blank 
screen so the audience will understand that it is not dealing with some 
technical difficulty. Frank Cordell's overture has two motifs that are 
heard throughout the film. The "Gordon" theme is a second-rate "Pomp and 
Circumstance" march, while the "Mahdi" theme sounds like the standard 
camel-walking-across-the-desert music heard a million times before in 
films like "Lawrence of Arabia."

When the overture ends, the first images appear: silent pyramids and a 
gently flowing Nile. A narrator portentously states, "The Nile was 
always there." Indeed, Egypt and the Sudan--the two countries whose 
fates were intimately linked to the Nile--are timeless as well. These 
were lands of "mystery," where "the gods" were always a factor. It is 
out of this Orientalist stew of timelessness, gods and mystery that the 
Mahdi emerged. With this kind of introduction, it is a safe bet that any 
scenes dramatizing social and economic grievances would be left on the 
cutting floor. (It is sad to reflect upon the fact that producer Julian 
Blaustein had also produced the 1950 film "Broken Arrow," which was 
written by blacklistee Albert Maltz and which took a sympathetic view 
toward the American Indian.)

Once the legendary underpinnings are in place, the movie can cut to the 
chase. The first scene depicts the massacre of a 10,000 expeditionary 
force made up of Egyptian conscripts and their commanding officer, 
Colonel William Hicks. Sent to subdue the Mahdist rebels, this British 
version of General Custer meets an Arab version of Sitting Bull.

Perhaps for these British officers, there was little difference between 
the "Fuzzy-Wuzzy" and some North American Indians they once did battle 
with. General Garnet Wolseley, who would eventually head up an abortive 
mission to rescue Gordon from Khartoum, made the rounds across the 
British Empire, including Canada where he commanded the Red River 
Expedition. This was a force sent against Louis Riel and the rebellious 
Metis, composed of trappers and hunters with mixed Native and French 
Canadian ancestry. According to Robin Neillands:

"Wolseley's force made their way across the wilderness to Manitoba in 
canoes paddled by French-Canadian 'voyageurs'. The rebellion had 
collapsed before they reached Fort Garry but the 'voyageurs' were to 
enter Wolseley's mind again in the Sudan a few years later. During this 
expedition he began to gather around his headquarters a group of 
efficient and forward-looking officers." ("The Dervish Wars," p. 45)

In other words, counter-insurgency tactics learned in native Canada 
would come in handy in the Sudan. After Canada, Wolseley moved on to 
West Africa, where he fought the Ashanti from 1870-1873. By this time, 
he was the youngest General in the British army at the age of 40.

His higher-ups regarded Colonel Hicks, who was less skilled than 
Wolseley at colonial subjugation, as mediocre at best. Sent out to 
capture the Mahdi in September of 1883, he suffered from the sort of 
over-confidence that marked British participation from the outset. When 
the Mahdi offered him mercy if he surrendered, Hicks told him no deal. 
The film accurately depicts the British troops (including 100 
'cuirassiers', or cavalry, in anachronistic chain mail) deployed in a 
standard 'square' formation, which put horsemen and cavalry on the 
perimeter, and supply wagons in the middle. Weakened by many days of 
travel in the hot sun and short on rations, the British force was 
decimated by the sword-wielding Mahdists.

Since the film is entirely from the British perspective, the Mahdist 
fighters are seen as an undifferentiated mob of howling, 'jibba' (smock) 
wearing fanatics. In reality, the Mahdist army contained different types 
of soldiers, based on social and ethnic origins. The term dervish, 
derived from the Persian term 'darawish' or beggar, was applied across 
the board to the Mahdist soldiers. For example, an 'ansar' infantryman 
was armed with sword and spear. He came from the Beggara group of 
livestock-herding tribes, who were of mixed Arab and black descent. 
Riflemen were known as 'jehadiya' and had often formerly served in the 
Egyptian army. These tended to be blacks from the Hadendowa tribe, who 
were part of the Beja people and were called fuzzy-wuzzies by the 
British because of their butter-matted hair. For all of the racial 
preconceptions one might carry into this narrative, it is interesting to 
consider that blacks had most of the guns.

The British were shocked by the defeat of Hicks. In a speech to the 
House of Lords one month later, Lord Fitzmaurice said, "An Army has not 
vanished in such a fashion since Pharoah's host perished in the Red Sea."

full: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/fascism_and_war/mahdism.htm


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