Once Upon a Time in North Africa
What a difference a compassionate century makes.


Back in 1885, Charles George “Chinese” Gordon, a Scotsman, had the effrontery to mount a spirited defense of Khartoum and its trapped Egyptian garrison against one Muhammad Ahmad ibn as Sayyid Abd Allah, better known as “the Mahdi” (the “Expected One”). Sent to the Sudan to put down the Arab raiders who were enslaving real African Americans from Africa, Gordon found himself defending the lives of the Ottoman Turkish troops of the Khedive of Egypt, who were trapped in Khartoum and sure to suffer horrible deaths at the hands of the Mahdi and his army, who viewed them as degenerate apostates. Instead of submitting peacefully in a spirit of educational exchange and technological cooperation, Gordon, a general in the Royal Engineers who had served with distinction in the Crimea and in China (hence the nickname), decided to fight. Back then, troglodytic Scotsmen were stereotypically stubborn; even worse, Gordon was also a Christian evangelist and religious fanatic, which made him exactly the same as the Mahdi, fundamentalist-wise. (Lytton Strachey had a good deal of mocking fun with Gordon’s shade in Eminent Victorians.)

Defying calls from the British government for his return, Gordon dug in, holding out for nine months during a terrible siege that ended when the Mahdi’s forces finally overran the city. Gordon was struck down by a spear; his head was hacked off, presented to the Mahdi, and later stuck up in a tree so that children could throw rocks at it. Teachable moment: Never fight back, because you’re only going to die anyway.

The jingoistic Brit public, however, became unaccountably enraged and demanded barbaric Christian vengeance for Gordon Pasha. So when General Kitchener arrived in the Sudan on a punitive mission 111 years ago next month and engaged the Mahdi’s forces at Omdurman — the Mahdi himself having died in the interim — he killed more than 10,000 dervishes, wounded another 13,000, and took 5,000 prisoners. His own losses: 48 men killed and fewer than 400 wounded. What kind of a proportionate, measured response was that? Not quite finished, Kitchener destroyed the Mahdi’s tomb, dug up the body, threw the bones into the Nile, and kept the skull for himself as a drinking cup. Oh, there was a fuss when Queen Victoria found out about Kitchener’s trophy, and so the head was hastily popped back into a Muslim cemetery, but oddly enough, Omdurman was the end of the insurgency in the Sudan.

Luckily, today’s British government, under another Scotsman, Gordon Brown, is no longer willing to sacrifice its national principles in exchange for things like ending an insurrection that would have claimed thousands more lives and establishing peace in a whole region for a century. John Bull is properly ashamed of his old empire, ashamed of subjects like Gordon and Burton and Speke and Stanley, ashamed of his very existence. And so he slowly commits suicide as millions around the world cheer — not just in Libya but closer to Whitehall, in Finsbury Park.

What I don’t understand is how a movie like Khartoum ever got made. The imperialists are the “good guys,” the dark-skinned freedom fighters are the “bad guys,” and somehow we’re supposed to feel bad when Gordon gets what’s coming to him. I mean, can you imagine green-lighting a script that ends with a voiceover proclaiming:

The relief came two days late. Two days. And for 15 years the Sudanese paid the price with pestilence and famine, the British with shame and war. Within months after Gordon died, the Mahdi died. Why, we shall never know. Gordon rests in his beloved Sudan. We cannot tell how long his memory will live. But there is this: A world with no room for the Gordons is a world that will return to the sands.

Personally, I like sand. See you at the beach!

– David Kahane can’t understand how a movie like Zulu (1964) got made either. You can explain it to him via e-mail at [email protected], or via Facebook (look for the Soviet-era poster). But hurry — he’s off to Martha’s Vineyard to work on Rules for Radical Conservatives, coming from Ballantine Books in July 2010.