[Marxism] The Mahdi
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."
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