The Mahdis Revenge
December 30, 2003
know why Osama bin Laden spooks me so
much. He summons up memories of a movie I saw 38 years ago. I just
bought it on video and watched it again.
(You may recall Osama bin Laden.
Hes the Arab guy we thought we were going to war with in
September 2001, before we decided to settle for Saddam Hussein instead,
on grounds that he was a pretty bad Arab guy too.)
Anyway, the movie was
Khartoum, released in 1966. It stars Charlton Heston as Gen.
Charles George Gordon, sent by England to suppress a Muslim uprising in
Sudan in 1885. (Uprising is a quaint English word for unruly
natives who refuse to obey the white man. Nowadays we
prefer to say insurgency. Thats when the natives,
now called terrorists, refuse democracy.)
Anyway, the uprising is led by a
strange chap who claims to be the Mahdi, the Expected One
foretold in Muslim lore. Hes played with chilling, exotic charisma
by Laurence Olivier.
To say the least, the Mahdi
knows how to bring a Muslim crowd to its feet. He reads his Koran and he
has evidently graduated at the top of his Dale Carnegie public-speaking
class. He is not a man to be trifled with. Late in the film, he shows Gordon
a couple of severed heads of other white men by way of friendly warning.
You or I might have taken the hint and gone home, but no hero played by
Charlton Heston could do that. So Gordon winds up dead.
I think the moral of the story
was supposed to be that Gordon was a brave man who deserves to be
honored, but thats not what I got out of it. My own inference was
that you should think twice about going where youre not wanted.
But in 1966 we were still cheering movies about white men who went
where they werent wanted, quelling uprisings. Today, only
Republicans cheer them.
What Olivier somehow managed to convey, in only a few minutes
of screen time, was just this: a world. A world I didnt know
existed. A world as different from ours as the Amazon jungle, and as
dangerous to a careless intruder. (The less said about Hestons
performance, the better. He seemed about as British as Gene Autry.)
So when the World Trade Center
fell on 9/11, I felt dimly that the Mahdi was trying to tell us something.
Wed been poking our stick into his world long enough.
But were still there. And
more than a century after Gordons death, on April 3, 2003, the
New York Times informs us, Sgt. Jeremy Feldbusch of
Blairsville, Pennsylvania, with his platoon, was guarding the Haditha Dam
on the Euphrates River, near Baghdad, when a shell burst 100 feet
away and a piece of red hot shrapnel hit him in the face....
The inchlong piece of
steel, part of the artillery shells casing, sliced through his right
eye, tumbled through his sinuses and lodged in the left side of his brain,
severely damaging the optic nerve of his left eye and spraying bone
splinters throughout his brain.
Feldbusch woke from his coma
five weeks later, totally blind, with a lump of fat from his
stomach in place of his missing eye, so the hole would not cave in.
His sense of taste and smell are weaker now too, though he is acutely
sensitive to pain, and when the wind blows it hurts his skin. He has
seizures. His temper is short. He also has a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
His parents do what they can for
him. He still has his sense of humor and his penchant for wisecracks. But,
says the reporter, even in his dreams, he no longer sees. And he has
stopped trying to picture faces.
He was recently invited to speak
to a sixth-grade class. His mother told him the children would like
to see his uniform. Instead, he wore sweat pants.
The kids asked about various
things, the Iraqi weather and so forth. One boy asked Sergeant Feldbusch if
hed made any new Iraqi friends.
I didnt make any
Iraqi friends, he replied.