By Hannah Allam
CAIRO, Egypt — Most nights I cringe at the lineup of American movies that beam into millions of Arab living rooms via Middle Eastern satellite TV channels. Two recent examples of our cultural ambassadors were the red-haired killer doll in Bride of Chucky and the ditzy manicurist who falls in love with an alien in Earth Girls Are Easy.
But one sweltering September evening, I’d left the TV on as I tidied up my apartment here. I was startled to hear the Islamic call to prayer, the half-sung, half-chanted summons for Muslims to pause and offer thanks. For once, the ethereal sound was coming from my TV, tuned to a popular 24-hour movie channel, and not from the ancient mosques whose tall minarets dot the Egyptian capital’s skyline.
Spike Lee’s epic, Malcolm X, was playing to an Arab audience, right at the scene where Denzel Washington’s title character alights in the holy city of Mecca to perform the Islamic pilgrimage known as the hajj. Scenes of the controversial civil-rights luminary praying shoulder to shoulder with Muslims of all races were interspersed with excerpts from his ”Letter from Mecca,” the powerful note that Malcolm X wrote to his wife, Betty, about the awakening he experienced on that trip to Saudi Arabia in the spring of 1964.
Arabic subtitles crawled across the bottom of my TV screen, translating the heartfelt words of an American who had devoted his life to battling the racism, poverty and oppression woven into the fabric of his country, only to realize in Mecca that a broader struggle lay out there in the world, and that no nation or race holds the patent on injustice. That epiphany transformed Malcolm X from a militant preacher of black separatism into an international icon whose words transcended the artificial frontiers of race and class.
”In all honesty and sincerity, it can be stated that I wish nothing but freedom, justice and equality; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all people,” Malcolm X wrote in one part of the letter that made it into the movie version.
It’s too bad that the script didn’t include the entire text of the letter, which holds important lessons for both those who craft U.S. foreign policy and those who are on the receiving end of the decisions. Malcolm pointedly used the famous phrase from the Declaration of Independence, even though he often described the metaphorical shackles that still imprison many Americans. He was most American when pointing out his nation’s flaws.
He understood that he was able to write such missives only because of the freedom of expression. As a Muslim, he was able to practice his faith because of the freedom of religion. And when he felt those and other rights infringed upon, which they were frequently, he fought back with the steadfastness and courage so valued by Americans.
In the Muslim world, the ”Letter from Mecca” underscores the wisdom of a saying by the Prophet Mohammed: The pen of the scholar is more precious than the blood of a martyr.
Malcolm’s words tore through closely held stereotypes more effectively than any machine gun. Then, in Mecca, when confronted with scenes that didn’t jibe with his hardened worldview, he was humble enough to recognize that perhaps his hosts had lessons to impart as well. Hospitality is indeed a hallmark of the Middle East — it’s just not extended to those who arrive in tanks.
”America needs to understand Islam,” Malcolm X wrote, extolling the religion’s emphasis on peace and equality among all the tribes of the world. He penned those words more than four decades ago, long before 9/11, before the Taliban was uprooted, before Iraq was disintegrated in the name of democracy, before Osama bin Laden became a more famous Muslim than Cat Stevens.
It was before ”Flying While Arab” joined ”Driving While Black,” before secret CIA prisons, before cartoons lampooning Islam’s Prophet Mohammed touched off deadly riots across the globe. The letter came before the melodious names of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib started rolling off American tongues. And it preceded the Hezbollah guerrillas’ sticking ”Made in USA” signs in the rubble of south Beirut after Israeli air strikes.
Yes, we need the ”Letter from Mecca” now more than ever. We need its dissent, its self-reflection, its humility, its departure from the ”by any means necessary” rhetoric.
We need others to take heart in what Malcolm X wrote about his hope for a new generation of Americans, the ones whom he trusts to keep the United States true to its founding principles.
We need the open mind that Malcolm X described as “necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.”
-Hannah Allam is Middle East bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.
© 2006 Miami Herald (http://www.miami.com), September 19, 2006.