Friday, 13 July 2012

Magician Halts Algerian Revolt

It took place in 1850s French Algiers. Revolution brewed against French rule, a populist uprising fed and nurtured by Algerian shamans called Marabouts-an Arab religious sect who used magic tricks as proof of their power, and thus stirred the people to revolt.
From the time that the French first claimed Algeria as a territory, the unpredictable and impulsive native population meant trouble to those administrating it. Again and again for obscure, sometimes unstated, reasons the wild tribesman erupted in wild orgies of bloodletting.
Before the Arab incursions into North Africa in the eighth century, the inhabitants of the region had been pagan. Under Muslim influence, orthodox Sunni Islam became the faith of the larger number of the population, but within the larger body of Muslims a cult of holy men, Marabouts, developed their own variation of Islam. The Marabouts claimed baraka , divine grace, and the ability to perform miracles. While the more orthodox Sunni were located in the urban centers, the Marabouts were well-established in the rural and mountainous areas of Algeria and other parts of North Africa.
In 1856, the Marabouts, who controlled the will of the tribesmen by dazzling them with feats of magic, had all of Algeria on the brink of revolt. 
 
Marabout teacher, (pic Matt Probert)
The Algerian wizards were highly accomplished, and anyone who commanded their power was listened to attentively. Many of the locals were wholly certain that when a Marabout showed them magic it was the real deal. Tricks such as eating glass without suffering any injury (a standard geek trick) and healing wounds were common practice. Faced with these god-like powers, people were willing not only to sit up and pay attention to the magic itself, but also inclined to go along with what the Marabouts wanted – and what they wanted was the French out of their country.
 
In a wise decision the colonial administration decided to try to beat the Marabouts at their own game and sent for Robert-Houdin, who had been entertaining the courts of Europe and had gained a reputation as the greatest magician in all the continent.

Robert-Houdin was small in stature, but to the Arabs who had seen him perform, his magic was as powerful as any of the Marabouts. The diminutive Frenchman had gained his initial success almost immediately after arriving in Algeria. Disguised as an Arab, he and a native confederate stole into one of the magic-religious ceremonies. His professional eyes quickly saw through the trickery of the Marabouts, and he was convinced that he could easily duplicate anything which they had done in the ceremony. 
The next day the colonial administration announced that a "French Marabout" would put the native variety to shame. Curious, nearly every Arab around Algiers turned up for the show. 
Even though Robert-Houdin unmasked every Marabout trick which he had witnessed, the Arabs who had gathered to view his performance remained mostly unimpressed. Only when he produced a small box and called on a fiercely anti-French native to assist him did the little magician raise a murmur of curiosity and excitement from the crowd.
"Lift this box," he asked the man. The Marabout follower, who was broad through the shoulders with a thick, muscular torso, had no trouble raising the little metal box over his head. 
"Now," said Robert-Houdin, after taking the box from the man, "I will make you as weak as any of your wives,"
He then began an impromptu magic ritual, bringing his hands around the box several times, chanting incantations before placing the little box on the sand at his feet. 
"Now, see if you can lift it," the little magician said confidently. 
The Arab bent to the sand, grasped the box with both hands, and pulled. It would not budge. Surprised, he threw his strength into it, his strong back and torso straining against the magic box. But as much as he groaned and strained, the box would not budge. 
"By the beard of the prophet," the man exclaimed to those who had gathered, "I cannot lift it from the ground." 
Then, as if he did not believe what he had said, he tried to lift it again. But when he touched it a howl of pain came from his mouth and his body writhed in agony, as he was unable to release his hold on the little iron box. 
The night before, Robert-Houdin had buried a strong electromagnet in the sand, and when the native bent to it the first time, Houdin threw the switch which held the iron box to the ground with enough force to prevent any man from lifting it. The second time Houdin allowed the current to pulse directly through the box, giving the native the first electric shock of his life. 
Mercifully the magician released the switch, and the dazed Arab straightened up slowly. When he had recovered the full use of his senses, the man fled in fear from the magic box which had caused him such pain.
While still a very young man Robert-Houdin, fell in with a traveling mountebank named Torrini. This man impressed upon the young magician the difference between an exhibitionist and a showman. Torrini also taught Robert-Houdin the trick which was destined to make him famous.
Tonini had his apprentice mark a bullet with a scratch mark, then he apparently loaded a pistol with it and had Robert-Houdin fire at him from point blank range. To the young man's surprise, the bullet appeared between Tonini's teeth, easily identifiable by the scratch mark which had been etched into it. The older magician had switched hullets, substituting a metallic ball which shattered on contact with anything solid and had palmed the original marked bullet into his mouth.
Robert Houdin
The Marabouts had responded as hoped to Robert-Houdin's first performances in Algiers, but the core of the rebellion, forever moving across the desert sands, had not been present to become impressed by the demonstration.
Robert-Houdin resolved that he would seek out the most powerful of the Marabouts and discredit them with superior feats of magic. To this end he began a trek across the desert. traveling without a military escort, putting on shows wherever enough Arabs would gather.
For several weeks Robert-Houdin moved over the sands, finding only a few scattered groups of Marabouts to dazzle with his magical brilliance. Then, through an informant, he learned where the main force of the rebellion had gathered.
Traveling to the obscure desert oasis, Robert-Houdin was greeted by the chief magician of this particular Marabout group, who waved a pistol in his face.
"You will die tonight," was the hostile man's promise.
The little Frenchman seemed unperturbed. But the entire Arab camp had come under the power of this magician, and Robert-Houdin knew that he had little chance to escape alive if he failed to impress them.
Forever a showman, Robert-Houdin did not let his confidence slide. When he was threatened with the pistol again, he told the Marabout to remove the bullet then to give him the pistol.
Morbidly curious, the man complied, watching carefully as Robert-Houdin began going through a magic ritual, waving his hands over the pistol.
"Now put a mark on the bullet and shoot me if you must," he commanded the Arab magician. Once again the Marabout complied, claiming the pistol immediately after the Frenchman had dropped the bullet down the barrel.

This is the public "dragons" display at
Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin's house in
Blois, which has been turned into a
museum. The "dragons" move in and
out of the windows in a theatrical display.
A statue of Robert-Houdin is at lower right.
"Now you will die," the Marabout repeated his promise. 
He pointed the gun at Robert-Houdin and discharged it at point blank range.
Blood spurted from the magician's chest, and Robert-Houdin staggered, nearly falling. Then, miraculously, he regained his balance and spat the marked bullet from his mouth, so that it landed at the feet of one of the most important sheiks. The desert chief picked up the ball and found the mark which the Marabout had scratched into its side. 
''This is real magic," the sheik told the Marabout contemptuously.
With the Marabouts discredited, the rebellion in Algeria fell apart. Robert-Houdin had received the recognition he craved by doing his former master, Torrini, one better. He had loaded the hollow metallic cartridge with blood so it would splatter when it hit his chest. To the Arabs, the "French Marabout" had powers which exceeded any of their own.
The scroll Robert-Houdin received in recognition of his services is still on display in the American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Missouri. He wrote this and many other tales into his memoirs, The king of the conjurers (1859). The book became required reading for many aspiring magicians, and for one of them its effect was profound.

Young magician Erich Weiss, who was born in Hungary but whose parents moved to Wisconsin when he was four, was so impressed by the French conjurer’s feats that Robert-Houdin at once became his hero, to the point where he even based his stage name on the French master – and thus was Harry Houdini born. Robert-Houdin died in 1871, but he has been truthfully referred to as the father of modern magic.

So, that’s how one retired magician averted a war in Algeria in 1856 – a case of brilliant conjuring versus supposedly real magic. But some of you are probably feeling cheated – what about the real thing? 
 
(The above story has been pieced together from three sources. Brad Steiger, an article from Fortean Times, and finally from Whiskey and Gunpowder.
 
 POST SCRIPT (from flixist)
 
There's a line from David Hughes's Tales from Development Hell that captures the whole absurd process of failed film development: "This [script] is perfect. Who can we get to rewrite it?"
The first movie covered in the book is all about Smoke and Mirrors, a historical epic about the real-life illusionist Robert-Houdin being sent to Algeria to debunk a tribal leader with divine powers. It was stage magic combined with Indiana Jones and Lawrence of Arabia. A pitch like that has lots of possibility for adventure, swashbuckling, and grand theatrics. There's the the clash of illusion and magic to explore, as well as the contrast between logic and invention. There's a problematic colonial aspect to it too that makes the story messy (in the good way, I think), and two males leads that would have been fine foils for each other: the introspective illusionist Robert-Houdin, and Darcy, the dashing Legionnaire with a wooden hand.
Smoke and Mirrors was a hot property when the first draft hit in 1993, but then after years and years of rewrites, recasting (Sean Connery was interested at one point and got some rewrites, then ditto later on with Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones), and so on, the film vanished. Almost 20 years after that first draft was the hottest thing around, Lee and Janet Scott Batchler still think the movie may yet be made.
The fitting title of that first chapter: "Disillusioned."

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