Inna lilahi wa inna ilahi wa raji’un
Once, when I was a child, I got teased by another kid because I had brown skin. The kid told me my skin was the same colour as shit. I went home in tears, and for the only time in my life, I said to my parents that I wished I wasn’t brown. My father sat me down and told me to be proud of my skin and of being Muslim, even if other people put you down for it. I don’t know if it was connected, but soon afterwards he began to show me tapes of a charismatic, handsome black boxer from America, a proto-rapper who spat rhymes and cracked jokes, who drove a pink Cadillac, who stood up for his people and his convictions, all the while dancing on the canvas like no-one before and no-one to come. And he was Muslim, like us, and proud of it! And a poet! And he had even fought in Malaysia once!
I went to the Queanbeyan library and photocopied pictures of him to stick them in my school diary and on my wall. I could never be a boxer, but I could have that unfuckwithable attitude. Ali taught me to be brave, to stand up for myself, to fight for the underdog, and that even if society was against you, your conviction for what was right would be vindicated by history. That my brown skin was not the colour of shit — it shone brighter than gold. He taught me to be PROUD. It was this man who led me to studying Malcolm X and the Civil Rights Movement in my teens, and in turn to Public Enemy and Ice Cube and hip hop music. I owe so much of my life, my confidence, my personality, to him. Could he have ever known that he would have such an impact on a confused, spectacled half-Asian, half-white kid on the other side of the world? Who knows, but probably, because he affected so many of us around the planet, from Kuala Lumpur to Kinshasa.
I’m not even sure I believe in the concept of a “hero”, but if there was ever a hero in my life, it was Muhammad Ali. But all heroes are human. There were times when I read about the way Ali had treated Joe Frazier, taunting him with a cruelty that went past banter, and I didn’t like him. He could be a flawed human, like the rest of us, but most of the time he seemed superhuman, a radiant being who stood for more than just himself.
Even though it has been a long time coming, I am devastated. I did not cry when MJ or Prince died, but today I wept for the public figure that looms largest over my childhood, my life. I feel like I have lost a family member. Sadly, I never met him. I can’t tell you how many times I wished, that by some trick of fate, I could have. Maybe it’s presumptuous of me to say, but I doubt he would want us to mourn. Apparently, even in ill-health, he never wanted anyone to feel sorry for him, and he knew that he had lived a hell of a life.
On my 18th birthday, my mate Brendan gave me a book of Muhammad Ali quotes and marked a specific page. Apparently, Ali’s favourite story to tell his kids at bedtime was about a slave called Omar. The essence of the story was that even though Omar was a slave, he always had the heart of a king. In the way Ali acted and connected with people, especially poor and downtrodden people, he showed that he also lived by this attitude — seeing the royalty in everyone, no matter who they were.
A fighter, a father, a contradiction, a trash talker, a poet, a leader, a man of faith. The Champ, The Louisville Lip, The Greatest. In life, he danced and danced on ‘em. He will dance on in our memories.
RIP Muhammad Ali.