March 8, 2007

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Three Empires on the Nile: The Victorian Jihad, 1869-1899, by Dominic Green (Free Press Books, 2007, 266 pages)
By Eric W. Saeger news@hippopress.com

The notion of Sudan, Darfur and much of the rest of northeast Africa serving as chewtoys to be fought over by feverishly religious factions isn’t a 21st-century anomaly but a tradition going back centuries. Thus goes one of the ironies found in Dominic Green’s latest fleshing-out of non-pop history (he last pored over the life of Queen Elizabeth I’s physician and would-be assassin, Rodrigo Lopez, in 2003’s The Double Life of Doctor Lopez), but that’s just to start.

The publisher’s hook here is that the 30-year period in which the region changed hands three times is a mirror image of the travails of present-day Islam. And so it is, to a point. The cast of characters includes the Muslim messiah disillusioned with a sleazy Western/Ottoman alliance and turned to radicalism (Mohammed Ahmed, the self-proclaimed Mahdi, or prophesied redeemer of Islam, portrayed by Laurence Olivier in the film Khartoum); the greedy, bumbling tyrant (Khedive Ishmail) and the well-meaning but violent occupying force (the British Empire).

Green’s taken it upon himself not to relate sterile matter-of-facts in sequential order but instead weave a fiction-style novelization of the period from the smallest bits of minutiae. As with his last effort, he’s largely successful — bet you didn’t know that the khedive and his hated eldest son “stood next to each other embarrassed and silent” at formal parties. He’s still apt to blurt out the odd ten-dollar word that gets you scrambling for the nearest microwave-sized dictionary, but that’s kind of endearing; undergrads who’ve been tasked with writing about the Suez Canal won’t ever fear that the whole thing’s about to turn into a pompous, wordy mess. Scholars of the period are the types who’ll get the most out of it, of course, with lots of wizzer new points to argue about over flavorless pastries and such. B