Philobiblon: Cultural appropriation

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Cultural appropriation

I went to an interesting talk today (well yes it is 2am, but it's today in my terms) on Mahdism in Africa at the Britism Museum. (I love learning about things I know nothing about.)

The object highlighted that I found most interesting was a huge cylindrical slit drum, maybe 2m long and a good metre in circumference, carved, it seemed, out of a single tree trunk, that was taken from the forces of the Khalida Obdullahi (the Mahdi's successor) after the battle of Omdurman (Sudan) in 1898. This is a form normally used many hundreds of miles to the south-west in Central Africa, but was probably made by the black slave troops who eventually formed Mahdism's crack troops. (This was after the Mahdi had got over his aversion to firearms, which did not square with his "knightly" form of Islam.)

What is particularly interesting is that it is carved with Arabic script, "Islamising" it, and taking it from its pagan roots. There are also some "throwing knives" displayed beside it that have been through the same process.

Unfortunately the drum is not on the BM's website, but there are some fairly similar ones here.

There are quote marks around "throwing knives" because actually these were seldom if ever used for that purpose, or even as weapons, although they look like pretty effective ones, being instead symbols of rank and status. (Some early Europeans even called them boomerangs, but as you can tell from the pictures here, you really wouldn't want them whizzing back at you.)

A note in the gallery says: "Mahdism remains a vital political force in contemporary Sudan"; history isn't just for fun.)


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