How a French Magician Defeated Muslim Wizards

HAVE WE FORGOTTEN problems elsewhere in the world-like Iraq? Things there are going from terrible to worse. What we’re doing isn’t working. So let me take you back in time to a situation where a colonial power-and make no mistake, that’s America’s role in Iraq-really thought outside the box. And this creative thinking allowed it to overcome an Islamic insurgency without bloodshed.

It took place in French Algiers. Not 1950s Algiers, where the French won every battle but ended up losing the war. This was 1850s 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.

The French colonial government figured: Why not fight fire with fire? So, they called Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, the Siegfried and Roy of his day, out of retirement. You probably haven’t heard of Robert-Houdin, but you’ve heard of one of his admirers. Robert-Houdin was so well-known that an aspiring teenage magician named Ehrich Weiss renamed himself after his hero-Ehrich took the stage name “Harry Houdini”.

Robert-Houdin was a Paris clockmaker with a lifelong interest in magic, but he didn’t become a working magician until the (comparatively) ripe old age of 40. For a late starter, he was very, very good. He was the first magician to perform in evening clothes rather than the until-then traditional wizard’s hat and robes, thus setting a style for magicians that persists to this day.

He not only set the style for magicians, he pushed their science-experimenting with electricity and magnetism when these things were barely known outside the laboratory.

During his stage career, Robert-Houdin never pretended to be anything but what he was-an illusionist, or “conjurer” as he called himself. In Algiers, though, thousands of lives were at stake, along with the peace of the empire. Talk about the role of a lifetime! So if the Algerians were willing to believe he was the real deal, he wasn’t going to disappoint them.

In his autobiography, Robert-Houdin writes that the government “hoped, with reason, by the aid of my experiments, to prove to the Arabs that the tricks of their Marabouts were mere child’s play, and owing to their simplicity could not be done by an envoy from Heaven, which also led us very naturally to show them that we are their superiors in everything, and, as for sorcerers, there are none like the French.”

If ever there was a “wizard’s duel,” it was Robert-Houdin’s adventure in Algiers. It would be his stage magic against the magic of the Marabouts-wizardry that ranged from eating glass without suffering any injury to healing wounds miraculously. It was the god-like tricks that gave the Marabouts their control over the population, the power to incite revolution against the French.

Robert-Houdin arrived in Algiers on September 27th, a traditional day on which local celebrations start. He stayed for several days of performances at a local theater. The word went out to local chieftains and Marabouts that a French wizard was there to challenge them on their own turf. French colonials were not allowed in the performance, making it all the more exciting-it was packed, standing-room only! The French scattered interpreters throughout the audience to make sure everyone followed exactly what was happening.

The magician remembers that at first he was met by total “silence, and the attention of the spectators was so great that they seemed petrified.”

Robert Houdin started with small tricks-producing coins from thin air, and then sending them “flying” across the audience to land in a crystal box over their heads, that sort of thing. Each trick was bigger than the last. Soon, he pulled a cannon-ball from his top-hat. Imagine the effect on restless natives when their enemy can make ammunition appear from thin air?

To press his point, Robert-Houdin stalked down into the center of the crowded theater. There, he brought out a silver cup which magically filled with sweetmeats. The crowd was delighted. Then he turned the cup over, waved his hand over, it, and it filled with boiling coffee. Nervous locals refused to drink it, at first. But soon, they were clamoring for more. He magically filled it over and over again.

Then Robert-Houdin called for the strongest man in the theater to come up on stage. Eventually, a volunteer stepped up. The magician brought out a small box with brass handles on it, which the strong man lifted with great ease. Robert-Houdin then commanded the strong man: “Behold! You are weaker than a woman; now, try to lift the box!”

The strong man tried … and tried … but he couldn’t budge it!

Enraged to the point of madness, the Algerian pulled at the box with all his strength. But at a wave of Robert-Houdin’s hand, the man’s legs buckled and he fell down, howling in agony. Finally, Robert-Houdin walked over and picked up the box, light as a feather. This incredible feat left the crowd astonished. The terrified strong man fled the theater in shame!

Have you guessed how the sorcerer did it? Electricity and magnetism, the same tricks which he had used in his professional career! The small box had a metal plate in it, and a very strong magnet was underneath the stage. At the flip of a concealed switch, the box became “glued” to the stage floor. At the flip of another switch, a battery sent an electrical charge through the brass handles, sending a painful shock through the strong man.

Robert-Houdin then moved on from stunts that were merely “amazing” to “miraculous.” He told the crowd he had a “magic talisman” that would protect him-and he pulled out a mere apple.

An outraged Marabout leapt to the front of the audience and threatened to kill Robert-Houdin. The magician calmly gave the man a cavalry pistol and let him inspect it to make sure it was a real gun. Then he gave the Marabout ammunition and told him to mark the bullet, and load the gun, and he did so.

Telling the Marabout to aim for the heart, the magician stood calmly with the apple on the point of a knife in front of him, and waited for the shot. “Aim straight for the heart,” he told his would-be murderer.

The crowd watched in hushed silence. The Marabout aimed and pulled the trigger. Robert-Houdin presented the apple to the crowd-the bullet had lodged harmlessly in it. The frantic Marabout inspected the bullet-it was the one he’d marked!

Of course, Robert-Houdin had palmed the pistol ball and it was his gun, so you know it was a trick. But the crowd was starting to BELIEVE. The Marabout grabbed the apple and refused to give it back, certain that he possessed a talisman of great power.

The miracles continued. The French wizard made one of the rebel leaders appear to bleed-not from the rebel himself, but from his shadow. Then he made an Algerian youth disappear from a table top! In a panic, members of the crowd ran from the theater.

Robert-Houdin put on a second night of miracles. He got the same results. And then came the toughest test of all.

The French wizard was summoned to be the guest of Sheik Bou-Allem-ben-Shenfa Bash-Aga, a desert warrior. The Sheik had his own Marabout who was determined to prove the Frenchman a fraud.

Over dinner, Robert-Houdin delighted the Sheik and his family-and infuriated the Marabout-with simple conjuring, making coins fly across the room, making the Marabout’s watch seem to appear (Robert-Houdin had pocketed it earlier in the evening).

Finally, the Marabout challenged the French wizard to a duel-confident, probably, that the Frenchman would die without his apple “talisman of invulnerability” to protect him.

Robert-Houdin and the Marabout loaded the pistols together. Then the Marabout grabbed a pistol and shot at the Frenchman without warning. Robert-Houdin smiled at him-he’d caught the bullet in his teeth.

Then it was the Frenchman’s turn. He pointed his gun at the wall, not far from where the Marabout was standing. He fired. The wall dripped blood. The Marabout tasted it-it WAS blood!

And with that, the first Battle of Algiers ended before it began. I won’t reveal the secret of Robert-Houdin’s last trick. It’s nice to leave a little air of mystery.

The point of this story is that creative thinking opens doors to alternative solutions-if the bad guys think God is on their side, prove to them-beyond a shadow of a doubt-that God is on your side. Maybe George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld need to think of Iraq in terms other than “Us” and “Evildoers.” Maybe they need to get more creative.

I’m not saying magic is the answer, although maybe Penn & Teller, would be up to the challenge. But the key to seems to be being smarter than your opponent. And I’m afraid that that’s not in the cards for America in Iraq right now. If anything, the magician’s deck of cards seems stacked against us.

Black Bear
April 23, 2006

Headline(s) of the Week : “The housing bubble has popped” ~ Bill Fleckenstein, MSN Money
“Doors Close for Real Estate Speculators”
“After Pushing Up Prices, Investors Are Left Holding Too Many Homes” ~ Washington Post

Quote of the Week: “For the second time in less than a year Asia’s No. 2 economy outmaneuvered the world’s biggest on the yuan. Last July, China announced a negligible 2.1 percent increase in its currency’s value versus the dollar. This week Hu, on his first official U.S. visit, didn’t budge amid Bush’s concerns an undervalued yuan is costing the U.S. jobs.

“The White House spin machine, not about to concede the point, is working overtime to argue the U.S. got the better of the nation most likely to challenge its global dominance in future decades.

“As proof Bush bested China, U.S. officials point out that Hu didn’t get a state dinner, that China spent billions on U.S. goods, that Hu said he ‘understands U.S. concerns and will continue to take steps’ on the currency issue (Hu didn’t mention the yuan in a speech to U.S. business leaders hours after meeting with Bush) and that there’s little likelihood Beijing will suddenly dump its vast holding of Treasuries.” ~ William Pesek