I first met Muhammad Ali in the late 1960s as a teenager bagging groceries in a food store on Chicago’s racially divided southeast side.
I knew him as a TV celebrity, of course. But when he walked into the store, he became something more.
He would come by almost weekly and always single me out me – the darkest-skinned, only Arab employee – as the person he wanted to carry his groceries to his brand new, burnished gold Lincoln Mark II.
He was always accompanied by his Palestinian bodyguard: a short, heavy set man from the village of Beitunia, near Jerusalem. The Palestinian community in Chicago was small and tight-knit, and the bodyguard’s sister was a friend of my mother’s.
The other clerks would wonder why Ali always seemed to go out of his way to have me carry his groceries.
We wouldn’t really speak, but each time he would tip me a dollar and say “Salam Aleikum”. I’d reply, “Aleikum as-Salam,” and return to work. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t Muslim – the child of Palestinian Christians from Jerusalem and Bethlehem – because Muhammad Ali seemed to speak to and for all Palestinians, regardless of their religion.
He was one of the first American celebrities to champion the cause of the Palestinians; speaking out not only against the racism that black Americans endured but also the discrimination encountered by Arab Americans. And he did so at a time when that could destroy a career.
Following the Arab defeat in the June 1967 Six-Day War with Israel, anti-Arab propaganda had intensified in the United States. Of course, it was nothing new. The sentiment that pervaded the mass media was perhaps best reflected in the 1958 book by Leon Uris and subsequent 1960 Otto Preminger movie, Exodus. It portrayed Arabs as blood-thirsty child-killers and Israel as their victim.
Mohammad Ali was our counter-punch to that bias. And he didn’t pull his punches when it came to defending the rights of Palestinians.
In 1974, he toured Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. The visit alone was inspiring, but his words were even more so. “In my name and the name of all Muslims in America, I declare support for the Palestinian struggle to liberate their homeland and oust the Zionist invaders,” he told a press conference.
In 1985, three years after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Ali travelled to Israel to press for the release of Lebanese and Palestinians being held prisoner in occupied southern Lebanon.
Although the mainstream American media covered some of the controversies surrounding Ali, most notably his refusal to serve during the Vietnam War, it mostly ignored or downplayed his criticism of Israel and support for the Palestinians.
But it didn’t go unrecognised among Arab Americans.
I remember how, in the spring of 1971, my father ordered our family to gather around the radio in our living room as celebrity sports broadcaster Howard Cosell narrated the “Fight of the Century”. Ali was taking on Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden. We cheered as Cosell described each of Ali’s punches. And when Frazier was unanimously declared the winner, my mother almost cried. My father assured us that Ali would make a victorious comeback. And he did, defeating Frazier in January 1974 and then beating George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire – now the Democratic Republic of Congo – in October of that year in a bout nicknamed The Rumble in the Jungle.
By then, I was listening to Ali’s fights on my transistor radio while serving in the Vietnam War. There were only two other Arabs serving on my air force base. The Assi brothers were Palestinian Muslims and we punched the air in delight when Ali beat Frazier and then Foreman.
It wasn’t an easy time to be Arab. We had just come out of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and soldiers in our unit would constantly ask us who we’d “fight for” if the US attacked the Arab world. “We’re Americans,” we’d say, never answering directly.
After being honourably discharged from the US military, I launched a newspaper called The Middle Eastern Voice. Printer after printer refused to publish it. The only group willing to do so was the Bilalian News, which was owned by the Nation of Islam.
In May 1976, my newspaper was the only one to cover a visit by Sultan Bin Mohammed al-Qasimi, of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, who helped fund the building of mosques in Chicago. There to greet al-Qasimi at the airport was the now World Heavyweight Champion, Muhammad Ali.
Of course, as Ali’s success grew, he became more acceptable to mainstream America. But long before many others praised him as “the greatest of all time”, Arab Americans embraced him as their champion.