I don’t know about you, but I spent the weekend beaming with pride at the fierce moral example set by a compassionate Scottish government when it freed the long-suffering Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the Libyan “terrorist” convicted for the 1988 Lockerbie man-caused disaster. According to a confidential report cobbled up by the house medicos, “Mr. Megrahi suffers from general debility. . . . His sleep pattern is disturbed. He appears tired and drawn. He has . . . reported a strong feeling of isolation — cultural, religious, social and language. He has a strong sense of family duty. . . . He simply wishes to return home to be with his family, including his elderly mother.”
Your wish is our command — last week, they sent him home to Libya to a hero’s welcome and a big wet one from strongman Moammar Qaddafi, a guy who looks like he’s seen La Cage aux Folles more times than Frank Rich. Yes, the man who deliberately murdered 270 people, most of them Americans, including 35 Syracuse University students, was sentenced to 27 years in prison, served seven, and is now home with his mother. That’s what I call Christian charity in action!
Now, until last week, I didn’t even know that Scotland had a government, at least not since Mel Gibson smooched Sophie Marceau and then was torn limb from limb with a smile on his lips as King Longshanks looked on with approval. But let’s face it, the poor former Libyan intelligence agent, allegedly terminally ill with prostate cancer, has suffered enough. The damp climate, the impenetrable Mike Myers accents, the haggis . . . It must have driven him half-mad.
Luckily, the doctors agreed: “His return to Libya would, we feel, not only benefit the patient, but would also be advantageous for the family. Mr Megrahi has several children of varying age. If he was returned home, his family could become more involved in his health-care needs. We would anticipate this would benefit them, not only in the short-term, but also when considering any potential long-term psychological impact.” Who knew, when Sigmund Freud was lounging around the Berggasse 19 in his smoking jacket, trying to figure out what women wanted and when, exactly, a cigar was only a cigar, that his work would have this kind of effect on Western society?
Indeed, it is a great day, not just for Libya but also for the entire Muslim world, to which our “Christian” president (who somehow can’t seem to find a church in Washington, D.C.) recently sent a televised Ramadan greeting “on behalf of the American people, including Muslim communities in all 50 states.” Yes, His Serene Highness Barack Hussein Obama II, Lord of the Flies and Protector of the Holy Cities of Honolulu and Chicago, has just nobly urged us to “seek common ground” with Muslims everywhere, including expanding “education exchange programs.”
Now, some of you right-wing lunatics may think that the education exchange programs that brought us Mohammed Atta and his band of merry men were plenty, thank you very much, and that BO2’s call for “increased cooperation in science and technology” hopefully means that next time they will actually land the airplanes we invented and manufactured, instead of crashing them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But surely not even the most paranoid conspiracy theorist among you can quibble with the president’s final wish to Muslims around the world: “May God’s peace be upon you.” And this just eight years since more than 3,000 Americans died in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania after the man-caused disasters of 9/11. Is this a great country or what?
I have to admit, at first I was a little uneasy at this blatant mixing of church and state, until I remembered that there’s no proscription against mixing mosque and state in the Constitution. As the former Barry Soetoro reminded us all in Cairo, Muslims have been part of America since Day One — heck, they practically invented the place. “It was Islam . . . that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment,” Obama said in June. “I also know that Islam has always been a part of America’s story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco. . . . And when the first Muslim American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Koran that one of our Founding Fathers — Thomas Jefferson — kept in his personal library.” I never knew that Jefferson was one of the Faithful; not only that but, as per Thomas Cahill’s book, I thought it was the Irish who saved civilization. You learn something new from the Dear Leader and Teacher every day.
Anyway, all of this talk about North Africa and Islam got me thinking about General Gordon and one of my great guilty-pleasure movies, Khartoum (1966). You remember — Chuck Heston as General Gordon, ramrod-straight and sporting a fez, and a blackfaced Sir Larry as the Mahdi, smacking his ruby lips and rolling his eyes, as if he were in some Islamic road version of Othello.
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.