Tuesday, 7 February 2017

The Greatest Last Punch


Salman Siddiqui talks about his father Hamid Siddiqui's meeting with the late boxing legend Muhammad Ali.
My late father Hamid Siddiqui with Muhammad Ali prior to his press conference in Kuwait in Jan. 1972.

It is January 1972 and Muhammad Ali, the legend, is replacing a Cross chain pendant around the neck of an Indian woman with a small Quran one in Kuwait.
“Mary Lobo is now a Muslim,” the Kuwait city-based Daily News, for which my late father then worked as a journalist, splashed on its main page as it reported on Ali’s visit to the tiny oil-rich gulf state.
News clip from Daily News, Kuwait, dated Jan. 11, 1972.

The daily also prominently displayed a picture of a beaming all-smiles Lobo along with Ali, who was dressed in a white half-sleeve shirt sporting a massive yet stylish tie, during a small conversion ceremony held at a fancy hotel.
46 years later, as the world mourns the loss of The Greatest, my family rummaged through my father Hamid Siddiqui’s long forgotten briefcase to retrieve his old news clips from that forgotten time, which in many ways not only offers a glimpse into the past but also makes one wonder about how much the world has changed for the worse since then.
But why did Lobo convert and rename herself as Mariam Abdullah, very much like how Muhammad Ali changed his name from Cassius Clay in his early 20s, forgoing his “slave name” after he embraced Islam.
“I am deeply impressed by Muhammad Ali and I wanted to be one with him. This is the reason why I embraced Islam,” she told my father, according to the news report.
Also, she said that she had been living with an Iraqi family for eight years, a time during which she came to respect Islam.
“I greatly admire Muhammad Ali and his efforts in preaching and elevating the name of Islam. Because I love Muhammad Ali so much I seized the opportunity to embrace Islam,” she said, which sounds all matter-of-factly and simple but it makes one wonder whether Ali would have been able to carry out a similar feat in this post 9/11 Islamophobic world.
Also, would Lobo still have respected Ali and wanted to convert from Christianity to Islam and change her name to Mariam had she been born in this polarized, hate filled era, where even innocent heroes get maligned out of sheer ignorance and fear of the other.
I would have loved to ask Mariam that follow up question as a journalist myself, but alas, I don’t even know if she’s still alive or did she ever return home to her native India. But it would have made for an interesting conversation had I the chance.
Also, would the mainstream media still have revered Ali as a hero like they are rightly doing now if he had said and done the same things in these Islamophobic times or would they have said something on the lines of: “he was The Greatest, but…”
Apart from converting a Christian woman to Islam during his then visit to Kuwait, Ali also engaged in some fundraising for a mosque and an Islamic university in the U.S.
According to my dad’s report on Ali’s press conference, the Champ revealed that the gulf state’s top sheikhs, including the emir, crown prince and prime minister “promised to give their full support and financial assistance in building a mosque and Islamic University in Chicago.
“We are trying to build an Islamic University in Chicago, for which we need money. I am only one man and I can do only so much financially through bongo. We need help from Muslims all over the world,” he had said.
But while building a place of worship is certainly not a crime, no matter what religion you belong to, Ali’s words in our era could have been misconstrued in so many ways because of the various vague financial anti-terrorism laws now in place today across countries all around the world.
Again, it makes me wonder if Ali could have pulled off such a feat in this post 9/11 world.
Also, when Ali said in 1972 “We want to build up an Islamic society in America”, would the presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump spared the legend had he repeated the same words in 2016?
Would Trump-sympathizers in America called Ali a closeted ISIS supporter or something even worse had he continued to make similar speeches today? One shudders to think what new depths of Islamophobic statements would have emerged in the West had the larger than life figure repeated these not so oft quoted words in our era.
Ali converted to Islam in his early 20s and was only 30-years-old when he visited Kuwait in January 1972, which was an interesting time in his career as a heavy-weight boxer.
The picture with my father at the press event in Kuwait from Jan. 1972 was taken just a few months after he lost “The Fight of the Century” to Joe Frazier in March 1971.
Ali, who looks a bit weary here, had been out of the ring for almost three years due to his stance on the Vietnam War before his boxing license was finally restored in 1970. This young man would go on to take his revenge from Frazier later in Jan. 1974, two years after this picture was taken.
About his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, Ali said: “They wanted to drag me into the Vietnam War but as I found it was against the teaching of the holy Quran I refused to join the army, for which I had to pay the heavy price.”
While the heavy price he paid for not fighting is well documented, what would have happened to Ali had he done the same thing in another time, say for example had he refused to join the 2002 war in Afghanistan or the Iraq invasion of 2003 under George W. Bush’s presidency? Would people in the U.S. still have hailed him as their champion?
In that leaflet from the past, Ali had also made it clear that he was out there to achieve something bigger than just boxing feats.
“I am trying to prove with my deeds that I believe in Allah and in the homeland of Islam, I am sure, we can do away with all our troubles with our firm belief in Islam. All Muslims are brothers and your enemy is my enemy and my enemy is yours.
“The Zionist groups are dominant in America and it is very difficult there to say the truth,” Ali said.
Yes, he indeed mentioned “Zionist groups” at a time when not everyone would automatically get labelled as anti-Semitic. Also, 46 years since he spoke those words, it is still not easier for anyone to say the truth.
While Ali’s services for the black community are well known, especially in terms of empowering them and making the whole world realize that they too like other races are beautiful, especially when he said “[I’m] extra pretty”, he had objected to the black Muslim label coined by the Western press.
“There are white Muslims, black Muslims, yellow Muslims and brown Muslims; similarly there are white Christians. But nobody calls a Christian black or white.
“The Zionists and imperialists use this term for us to divide Muslim unity. Let me tell you that in the eyes of Allah, Muslims are equal and brothers, there is no colour discrimination,” Ali said.
And yes, he used the word Zionist again. But, more importantly, 46 years since he spoke those words, it’s important to ask ourselves whether our world is becoming less racist or more xenophobic with each passing day. Also, isn’t the notion of Muslim unity a joke today?
Even in death, what’s inspiring to see is that Muhammad Ali is still trying to show the true colour of his faith. 
Thursday’s funeral ceremony in Louisville was perhaps the first time many American non-Muslims and people from around the world saw how the Muslim community pay tribute to their dead. It’s been reported that Ali and his family had planned for such an event for years.
I guess he was trying to show to the world that being a Muslim or coming from a Muslim culture does not equate one with extremists or those who are filled with hate for others.
On Friday, as the man of peace goes to rest after his final farewell call, I hope the world will remember this last punch from The Greatest in the face of all hate mongers.

First published in Samaa website: https://www.samaa.tv/blogs/2016/06/the-greatest-last-punch/