The sting in Sudan's tale of vanishing penises

I haven't really followed Sudanese current events closely since, oh, Gen Kitchener's victory over the Mahdi at the Battle of …

I haven't really followed Sudanese current events closely since, oh, Gen Kitchener's victory over the Mahdi at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898. But a recent story from that benighted land happened to catch my eye.

Last month mass hysteria apparently swept the capital city, Khartoum, after reports that foreigners were shaking hands with Sudanese men and causing their penises to disappear. One victim, a fabric merchant, told his story to the London Arabic newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi. A man from west Africa came into the shop and "shook the store owner's hand powerfully until the owner felt his penis melt into his body".

I know the feeling. The same thing happened to me after shaking hands with Hillary Clinton. Anyway, as Al-Quds reported, "The store owner became hysterical, and was taken to the hospital." The country's "Chief Criminal Attorney-General" Yasser Ahmad Muhammad told the Sudanese daily Al-Rai Al-A'am that "the rumour broke out when one merchant went to another merchant to buy some Karkady [a Sudanese beverage]. Suddenly, the seller felt his penis shrivelling".

The invaluable Middle East Media Research Institute, in its exhaustive coverage, noted that the penises of Khartoum were vulnerable not merely to handshaking. "Another victim, who refused to give his name, said that while he was at the market, a man approached him, gave him a comb, and asked him to comb his hair. When he did so, within seconds, he said, he felt a strange sensation and discovered that he had lost his penis."


Tales of the vanishing penises ran rampant round the city, spread by cellphones and text messages. Sudan's Health Minister Ahmad Bilal Othman said that the epidemic was "scientifically groundless", and that it was "sorcery, magic, or an emotional problem".

The Attorney-General Salah Abu Zayed declared that all complaints about the missing penises would be brought before a special investigative committee, though doctors had determined that the first plaintiff was "perfectly healthy". The evidence wouldn't stand up in court. Or rather ... oh, never mind.

By now you're probably saying, "Oh, come on, Steyn, this Sudanese penis thing is all very well, but you're supposed to be a columnist. There's some big geopolitical argument behind all this tittering at shrivelling manhoods, isn't there?" Absolutely.

For one thing, a week after the Malaysian Prime Minister told an Islamic summit that their "enemies" the Jews control the world and got a standing ovation from 56 fellow Muslim leaders, it's useful to be reminded that the International Jewish Conspiracy is comparatively one of the less loopy conspiracies in the Islamic world. That said, they'll probably figure out a way to pin the disappearing penises on some or other agent of Zionism. After all, according to reports in Middle East newspapers, Israel laces Arab chewing-gum with secret hormones to make Muslim men hot for Jewish babes who turn out to be Mossad agents.

Come to think of it, remember those stories in The National Enquirer after 9/11 about Osama bin Laden being, ah, somewhat under-endowed in the trouser department? He spent much of the 90s in Sudan. Who's to say some Zionist didn't sneak up and shake his hand while he was on a shopping trip to Khartoum? It is, in that sense, the perfect emblematic tale of Islamic victimhood: the foreigners have made us impotent! It doesn't matter that the foreigners didn't do anything except shake hands. It doesn't matter whether you are, in fact, impotent. You feel impotent, just as - so we're told - millions of Muslims from Algerian Islamists to the Bali bombers feel "humiliated" by the Palestinian situation.

Whether or not there is a rational basis for their sense of humiliation is irrelevant.

One of the things I'd feel humiliated about if I lived in the Arab world is that almost all the forms of expression of my anti-Westernism are themselves Western in origin. Pan-Arabism was old-school 19th century nationalism of the type that eventually unified the various German and Italian statelets. Nasserism was transplanted European socialism, Baathism a local anachronistic variant on 'tween-wars Fascist movements. The Arabs even swiped Jew hatred from the Europeans: though there was certainly friction between Jew and Muslim before the 20th century, it took the Europeans to package a disorganised, freelance dislike of Jews into a big-time ideology with the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Mein Kampf and all the rest. Even Islamic fundamentalism, though ostensibly a rare example of a home-grown toxin, has, as a practical matter, more in common with European revolutionary movements than with traditional expressions of Islam - an essentially political project piggybacking on an ancient religion to create the ideology of choice for the world's troublemakers.

There's something rather sad about a culture that has to import even its pathologies. The telling detail of the vanishing penis hysteria is that it was spread by text-messaging. You can own a cellphone yet still believe that foreigners are able, with a mere handshake, to cause your penis to melt away.

Aside from its doubts in its collective manhood, Sudan is no laughing matter. Two million people have been slaughtered there in the last decade. The Christian minority is vanishing a lot faster than that fabric merchant's wedding tackle. Osama certainly found the country fertile ground for his ideology: Sudanese mujahideen have been captured as far afield as Algeria, Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan. An economic basket-case with a 27 per cent literacy rate has managed to find enough spare cash to export revolutionary Islam to many other countries. And they've got half-a-billion dollars' worth of state-of-the-art Chinese weaponry from Iran.

A handshake-fearing guy with a cellphone is one thing; what happens when the handshake-fearers have cellphones and a suitcase nuke? It's at the intersection of apparently indestructible ancient ignorance and cheap, widely available Western technology that the dark imponderables of the future lie. In 1898, after Kitchener slaughtered the dervishes at Omdurman, Hillaire Belloc wrote a characteristically pithy summation of an advanced society's built-in advantage: "Whatever happens/We have got/The Maxim gun/And they have not."

But the dervishes have cellphones now. Those and some dimestore boxcutters and a couple of ATM cards were all they needed to pull off 9/11. And there are plenty of people out there willing to help them get the cheap knock-offs of the 21st century's Maxim gun.