Between Muhammad Ali and Me

How the world’s greatest athlete became a symbol for British Bengalis in the ‘90s

Between Muhammad Ali and Me
Heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali as he leaves the Classic cinema in London’s Haymarket, after watching the film ‘Bangladesh I Love You’ in which he appears/Jan. 15 1979/Roy Chaplin/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Strange as it might seem, growing up, I used to think that young Cassius Clay — or Muhammad Ali — was Bengali. It made perfect sense in my 8-year-old imagination. Mother had read aloud the first biography I ever encountered in Bengali. Muhammad Ali had a Bengali name, and what was more, he, like many young Bengali boys, had his bike stolen and faced an officer determined to frustrate him at every step; of course he was Bengali. At the time, I had only visited my ancestral homeland once, but my own city, Stockholm, was filled with families who had fought a nine-month, bloody civil war on the side of Bengali independence, which began on March 26, 1971.

I grew up hearing stories that 3 million Bengalis had been killed, which I later discovered were not backed by hard facts and likely were conjured up by the nation’s first leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, also referred to as Sheikh Mujib. But when it came to nation building, facts didn’t matter — what mattered were the stories and feelings we told ourselves. My uncles told us that Bengalis were a nation of rebels and poets, but where Muhammad Ali sat in our story never ceased to amaze me.

Even though my mother is not a boxing fan, Muhammad Ali occupied a special place in her heart. In 1978, my grandfather had gone to watch him when he visited the capital following his defeat to the mercurial Leon Spinks. Bengalis fell in love with Muhammad Ali when he waved the green and red flag. But the truth was his visit papered over all the broken promises of its populist leader, Sheikh Mujib, who had electrified my uncles with his rousing speeches. Independence didn’t bring forth the “Golden Bangla” of Nobel Prize laureate Rabindranath Tagore; instead, it had spawned a military dictatorship by the time Muhammad Ali landed in 1978.

Mother had been on the rebel side because my maternal grandfather had supported independence. As he saw it, Pakistan, while a good idea, prioritized West Pakistan at the expense of East Pakistan. The economic and political disparity between the two, geographically separated regions, was glaring. When Sheikh Mujib won the national election, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, leader of Pakistan’s People’s Party, refused to recognize his victory, so Sheikh Mujib called for independence, although he came short of declaring it, and then a bloody war broke out.

Bob Dylan and others held concerts in support of East Pakistan’s right to self-determination; self-determination split my family in half. My paternal grandfather was arrested by the Awami League rebels for belonging to Jamaat-i-Islami, an Islamist party loyal to Islamabad. He, like many Bengalis, didn’t believe in secession. As he saw it, independence was downright disloyal. After all, Eastern Bengal had campaigned zealously for the creation of Pakistan, “the land of the pure,” a land where Muslims could supposedly live free and secure. Why would they want to become independent?

Independence meant that Bengal would have a dominant neighbor who was hostile at worst and competitive at best and would be encircled militarily. Being together would mean that it could keep India at bay. India would be too preoccupied with a war on two fronts to trouble the country. It wasn’t an irrational position to hold then. Independence was not inevitable, and there was no consensus on the issue at the time. And those who supported the Pakistani army in rooting out these “secessionists” saw themselves as patriotic and the rebels as disloyal traitors supported by India.

My maternal grandfather was on the opposing side. He was interned in Pakistan and lost his business and properties in the process. He escaped by joining the Tablighis, an Islamic proselytization movement. An uncle, an old Sufi dervish, was killed for breaking curfew. Mother, a young girl at the time, was whisked away from home because of the massacre of Hindus at the Ashram and the threat of rape as Pakistani soldiers allegedly attempted to extirpate the Hindu “gene” from their DNA. The war was deeply traumatic, but not all those allegations have stood the test of academic scrutiny, and they often ignored the massacres of thousands of non-Bengali Biharis killed by the rebels simply because they did not fit their narrow conception of ethno-nationalism.

Following Indian aerial bombardment, the Pakistani army surrendered on Dec. 16, 1971, to widespread euphoria. Bangladesh, a country of poets, experienced a cultural and national renaissance. I grew up with the notion that the Pakistanis had prevented me from reciting Tagore when historically and factually it had never been an issue. It was one of those bright, shining lies that had been fed to me out of the Bengali language movement that both Islamists and nationalists had campaigned for and then perverted.

But, as my mother says, poets rarely put food on the table. So, what good was it to recite Tagore when the new country was friendless? While many countries recognized the new nation, they were cautious about the new charismatic leader, Sheikh Mujib. He was a socialist and too friendly with Moscow at the height of the Cold War. The U.S. supported Pakistan to counter communist China, the Saudis wouldn’t even look at the new nation, and for all his talk of democracy, Sheikh Mujib had turned the country into a one-party dictatorship by the time of his assassination in 1975. It left the new nation with few friends to speak of.

So, when Muhammad Ali, the greatest athlete who ever lived, visited the new nation, it was uplifting for the people and, of course, a propaganda victory for the government. This was the golden age of heavyweight boxing; this was the age of Frazier, Foreman, Norton, and Holmes. The country didn’t care that he had turned up having been beaten by Leon Spinks; all they cared about was Muhammad Ali and the compliments he lavished on this green country.

Consequently, when my mother emigrated to Sweden, some of the first stories she read to us were of the life of Muhammad Ali. In Sweden, the Bengali diaspora was bourgeois and pro-independence. Some, such as my tutor, were veterans who had lost limbs fighting the Pakistanis. Those who stayed loyal to Pakistan were seen as devils when, in reality, most were simply ordinary citizens who made the conservative choice and preferred the status quo to the uncertainties of revolt.

The ‘80s were hyper-nationalistic times, and I’d sit listening to men in their 30s discussing the need to expand Bangladesh so that it incorporated West Bengal and the cultural heartland of Bengal, Kolkata. Some of them sounded like brown Freikorps (Free Corps, or mercenaries), cursing the Jamaat-i-Islami leader Ghulam Azam and speaking of expanding Bangladesh’s lebensraum to Kolkata. Those were times when family members would refuse to recite the masterful verses of Muhammad Iqbal because of the language it was written in. They felt Urdu could not take primacy over the language that thousands had died for.

But the myth of Bangladesh started to fall apart when we joined my maternal grandfather in London. He had been in the United Kingdom since 1919, during the days of the Raj. In London, my best friend was a British Pakistani, which caused my mother much awkwardness since his mother was oblivious to the events that had passed in East Pakistan and would communicate in Urdu, not understanding the significance. My mother would reply in English.

Bangladesh’s independence was, and remains, a taboo topic in Pakistan, and much of it is blamed on Indian political machinations, the Pakistani army, Bhutto, and the Cold War. As for me, I realized that Kolkata was not an intrinsic part of Bengal but was established by the British as a trading outpost for the East India Company. Bengalis had not given the British tea; rather, the British had taken tea from China and planted it in the foothills of Sylhet and Assam. And, of course, the biggest shock was my discovery at 11 that Muhammad Ali was not Bengali! It felt like a punch in the ribs from George Foreman.

As I entered my teens, those myths unraveled further. Siraj ud-Dawla was not that valiant prince who met the pugnacious Sir Robert Clive at the battle of Plassey, was betrayed by his ministers, and defeated by Clive, but a lecherous rapist and, like his opponent, a pretty awful human being. And of course, I met the descendants of Ghulam Azam in the U.K. who were good people and painted a very different picture of the man I had only heard of as the devil incarnate.

I had to reassess that post-independence propaganda I had been fed.

Like many British Bengalis, I was struggling to navigate my multiple identities. Who was I, exactly? In the 1990s, many British Bengalis were experiencing a political awakening and a sort of disquietude, perhaps due to the everyday racism they experienced walking home from school. Maybe it was due to the obstinacy of their elders — unwilling to let them into the decision making — and, of course, world events. The conflict in Bosnia in 1992, unlike Iraq, didn’t seem far away; it didn’t appear slick and bloodless; it hit home. Pictures of helpless Muslims in Europe shocked and traumatized a whole generation of Bengalis the way Syria is doing now.

And then there was the issue of Saudi petrodollars, which pumped out Wahhabi pamphlet literature to all and sundry with imaginative titles like: “The Difference between the Heterodox and the Orthodox.” It shaped the worldview of a new generation who thought their fathers had lost their way, with strange practices that, to them, seemed heretical. British Bengali youths rubbished the achievements of their elders. The resilience and patience with which they secured their place in a new and often hostile society were taken for meekness. Young Bengalis tried to school their fathers on their perceived deviance, pressuring them to abandon their Quranic amulets and their mysticism and “grave worship.”

So, unwittingly, some Bengalis discarded the myth of Bangladesh and their culture and replaced it with the myth of the black-flagged caliphate that the likes of Hizb ut-Tahrir were advocating. The Wahhabi puritanism also led some down a rabbit hole of absurd takfirism, and the hallowed saints of old like Abdul Qadir Gilani or Beyazid Bistami were replaced by the beatified images of Osama bin Laden and other jihadists.

Whatever inspiration one could draw from the Western tradition was channeled through the person of Malcolm X. Denzel Washington had just won an Oscar in 1992 for his portrayal of the charismatic, Black Muslim leader, and Alex Haley’s autobiography of Malcolm X was having an immense impact on Muslim youth.

But even though he was beloved of Muslim activists now and then, Malcolm X was not satisfying enough. Malcolm X was the epitome of the rebel described in Kobi Nazrul Islam’s celebrated poem:

Weary of struggles, I, the great rebel,
Shall rest in quiet only when I find
The sky and the air free of the piteous groans of the oppressed.
Only when the battle fields are cleared of jingling bloody sabres
Shall I, weary of struggles, rest in quiet,
I am the rebel eternal,
I raise my head beyond this world and,
High, ever erect and alone!

Malcolm X’s attitude might have worked in the ‘60s for African Americans, but for many Bengalis growing up in ‘90s Britain, that rebellion, while cool, was not relatable. The situation and circumstances were different. For Malcolm X, it was clear who the enemy was (though as he matured, this became less so). But for many Bengali Brits, this was unclear. Who, exactly, were they rebelling against? And more importantly, why were they rebelling?

The young souls, as the old timers would say, lacked shanti — inner peace. And why not? Many of us were second-generation inbetweeners, not of the East and not quite of the West. When we went home, they looked at us as Londoners, and here in London we were “Pakis” to the National Front, not even “Bangers.” We might have had degrees, but we hadn’t mastered our own identities. Malcolm X gave us a model for rebellion but not for what came after. Maybe we would have had an answer had he not been assassinated. That answer, strangely enough, is something Malcolm X’s old friend Muhammad Ali could provide.

In our bifurcated world, where on the one hand we were told the West hated us and on the other we were asked to pledge loyalty to the Queen, Muhammad Ali appeared to effortlessly reconcile his dual identity. There was no conflict between his Americanness and his Muslimness. He could have his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, wear the sharpest suit, and still insist on his star being on the wall instead of the floor so the name Muhammad, sacred to Muslims, wouldn’t get trampled on by anyone’s foot. He could beat Ernie Terrell black and blue and insist that he call him by his Muslim name — Muhammad, not Cassius. He demanded equality and showed us how to find inner peace. He went from abandoning his identity to rebelling, becoming a religious zealot, finding Islam, and stabilizing. Suddenly it was okay to go on that journey, it was part of the human experience; and many Bengalis, who had been on a similar journey, could come back down from their soapboxes without feeling they had sold out.

Muhammad Ali could lose his Olympic medals by refusing to serve in the Vietnam War, and yet negotiate with Hezbollah to release U.S. hostages. He could turn up in Israel to demand the release of Palestinian prisoners and walk away with 15 U.S. citizens held by Saddam Hussein. There was no contradiction between the two impulses. Serving people on earth was paying the rent for his room in heaven — that was his motto. When then-President Jimmy Carter asked him to persuade Muslim countries all over the world to boycott the Moscow Olympics because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, he obliged, saying, “My president has asked me to do so.” He did all such things without anyone being justified in calling him an “Uncle Tom” or a sellout.

Muhammad Ali could count Bob Arum and Billy Crystal, two New York Jews, among his close friends, autograph 300 pamphlets a day informing people about Islam, and then go to dinner with George Foreman, a God-fearing Christian and serial ring adversary. There was no contradiction in any of this for him. He was as Muslim as Mecca and as American as apple pie. When America was riven by a proposal by then-candidate Donald Trump to ban Muslims from entering the country, he spoke out without worrying about anyone questioning his loyalty to the country.

So, for me and many other Bengalis, Muhammad Ali embodied someone who could be authentically Western while expressing his faith without fear or censure. Muhammad Ali showed many second-generation inbetweeners living in the West how to be comfortable in their own skin. Even more satisfying was the fact that Muhammad Ali was in fact Bengali. He had been made an honorary citizen of the country in case, as he said, America kicked him out and he needed a second home. In turn, spiritually homeless Bengalis found a home in the legend of Muhammad Ali.

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