Why we mourn Muham­mad Ali

Lesotho Times - - Leader - Hamid dabashi ashi

Min­utes af­ter the news of world heavy­weight cham­pion Muham­mad Ali’s pass­ing hit the headlines, an avalanche of obit­u­ar­ies and eu­lo­gies came down with a cathar­tic mo­men­tum — which is more a sign of peo­ple com­ing to terms with their own loss than the enor­mity of the news it­self.

there is no eu­lo­gis­ing Muham­mad Ali. there are not enough words, tears or sighs. usu­ally you feel a hole, an empti­ness in you when some­one so tow­er­ing like Ali dies.

But this time, i look in­side and there is a sud­den vol­ume in me de­mand­ing at­ten­tion. What is this? Where does it come from? What does this mean?

i was born in 1951, right in the mid­dle of Muham­mad Ali cen­tury. Why does he de­serve an en­tire cen­tury named af­ter him?

Look at the spectrum of pow­er­ful pub­lic fig­ures around the world that might lay a claim to it.

Half of them are mass mur­der­ers like stalin, Hitler, Mao, or those who dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and na­gasaki. they don’t get to de­fine that cen­tury.

Pu­rity of his soul But there are also sci­en­tists, artists, po­ets, nov­el­ists, drama­tists - each one of them with a le­git­i­mate claim on defining an en­dur­ing as­pect of that cen­tury.

Pablo Pi­casso taught us how to look, James Joyce how to read, Fanon how to fight, Che Gue­vara how to defy, Gandhi how to change, Kuro­sawa how to see. But none of them has an ex­tended shadow be­yond the light they had cast upon this world.

Muham­mad Ali tow­ers over them all be­cause he be­came the def­i­ni­tion, the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion, of our in­born in­no­cence - an in­no­cence we all lose as soon as we en­ter into a full con­scious­ness of the ter­ror we live as adults in a deeply flawed and en­dur­ingly un­just world.

All other loom­ing char­ac­ters of that cen­tury made a virtue out of their pres­ence in the midst of the trou­bles we lived. Ali bathed in the nas­ti­est stormy seas of our world with the pu­rity of his soul in­tact.

there is a rea­son we per­sist in ab­bre­vi­at­ing his name: From Cas­sius Mar­cel­lus Clay, Jr, to Muham­mad Ali Clay to Muham­mad Ali to Ali.

We need to wrap him lightly like a tal­is­manic as­sur­ance and carry him with us in­side so when we need him we can take him out and un­fold him for the whole world that he was.

in him, in his soar­ing in­tel­li­gence and in his beau­ti­ful mind, in his po­etry in mo­tion when he was in the ring, and in his re­bel­lious grace when out­side, we see the in­no­cence the world has so ter­ri­bly lost and so des­per­ately seeks.

Grace and po­etry He fought the most vi­cious dis­tor­tions of the very tim­ber of our hu­man­ity - hypocrisy, racism, mil­i­tarism - with a no­ble anger he tucked in­side his sub­lime sense of hu­mour.

even when he was punch­ing his ri­vals in the ring, he was do­ing it with grace and po­etry. He danced for his op­po­nent like a ballerina, sang for him like a lyri­cist, and be­fore they knew what hit them, they were knocked out.

He emerged from the depth of an en­tire his­tory of spite­ful racism and slav­ery in the united states to re­de­fine what it means to be Amer­i­can. there was the whole gamut of mil­i­tarism, racism, and con­quest on one side and on this side was Ali and all he rep­re­sented, con­test­ing what it means to be Amer­i­can.

He made the Civil Rights and anti-war move­ment in the us prover­bial to the world at large. Yes, there were Martin Luther King Jr and Mal­colm X.

But com­pared to Ali, they were provin­cial names.

From the heart of Africa to the depths of Latin America, from the Arab and Mus­lim world to con­ti­nen­tal di­vides of eura­sia — he first con­quered the heart of his fans and then sat down gen­tly like a car­ing gar­dener and planted the seed of jus­tice and fair­ness in­side those hearts.

the death of Ali does not leave a hole, but fills a whole spectrum of con­scious­ness we had be­come too fa­mil­iar with to see and sense.

His sud­den de­par­ture ig­nites and en­light­ens that space. We sud­denly re­mem­ber why we loved him, what he stood and fought for, and why and how we must mourn him.

Sea­son of na­tional sor­rows He was born in the sea­son of na­tional sor­rows and global de­spair, and he died in the sea­son of hate­ful politi­cians and op­por­tunist car­pet­bag­gers.

in be­tween, he graced the world with hope, with defiance, with speak­ing truth to power.

Civil Rights leader, anti-war ac­tivist, the heavy­weight world cham­pion Muham­mad Ali (1942-2016) has now joined eter­nity.

the bat­tle for white­wash­ing his de­fi­ant legacy has al­ready started in the form of obit­u­ar­ies that seek to sug­ar­coat and dis­tort his pow­er­ful, con­sis­tent, un­re­lent­ing anti-racist, anti-im­pe­ri­al­ist, legacy and make him palat­able to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of sub­mis­sive souls who take no for an an­swer.

But re­mem­ber him we must for who he was: a beau­ti­ful man, a soar­ing soul, a mag­nif­i­cent poet, a prin­ci­pled Mus­lim, a Civil Rights icon, a stead­fast anti-war leader, a world cham­pion, and a beloved Amer­i­can who sin­gle­hand­edly al­tered the im­age of what it means to be Amer­i­can. May his mag­nif­i­cent mem­ory for­ever shine beau­ti­fully upon our path ahead!

l Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Pro­fes­sor of Ira­nian Stud­ies and Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture at Columbia Univer­sity in New York.

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