“Growing Up in Arabia West,” Part 2 (excerpt from “The Land of My Fathers”

…A few doors up the street on which I grew up, lived a quiet, elderly couple in a small, red brick house. In their backyard were a couple of pear and apple trees, which my childhood friends and I would occasionally raid. The couple lived next door to my friend, Percy Fox. Percy always called his elderly neighbor “Mr. Arman.” The kindly old man always wore a strange sort of woven cap. Sometimes, he and his wife, whose children had grown up and moved away, would occasionally baby-sit me. But, as a rambunctious teenager, I never had much interest in doing anything other than exchanging polite greetings on the street with the couple. I was simply interested to too many other things, like sports, music and girls.

 

DEARBORN, MICHIGAN- June 27,2008- Muslims at prayer in the Islamic Center of America mosque; Dave Krieger / Getty Images

It was not several years later, when I was sitting on the thick Persian carpets that covered floors of the Dearborn mosque, preparing to take my vows as a Muslim, that all of this came to focus. Mahmoud Salaam, my older brother’s close childhood friend (who had converted to Islam several years before) had brought me to the mosque. He was sitting at my left side as we faced Sheikh Khan. Then, out of nowhere, a familiar face was suddenly sitting at my right. When I turned, it was the kind, brown face of my old neighbor, “Mr. Arman.” It was then that I learned that the old man’s name was actually Seyyed Ahmed and that the cap that he always wore was actually a kufi. He had been a Muslim all these years and I had never even noticed it. I suppose I should have known long before. There had been plenty of clues. One was that he’d given Percy Fox a childhood nickname, which all the kids in the neighborhood would use — “Haji,” the Arabic honorific title given to those Muslims who had successfully made the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.

 

In 1958, the year in which I was born, Seyyed Ahmed became one of the first African-Americans to make the hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. He was a haji by the time the young boy next door, Percy Fox, was but a younger toddler. Mr. Ahmed and his wife routinely babysat the young boy, who was also their next-door neighbor. It is little wonder that he had nicknamed the youngster, “Haji.” It was a name we all repeated, never knowing its origins, its spelling and its significance.

 

Mr. Ahmed was there, sitting next to me. After I’d completed my vows as a Muslim, he was one of the first to shake my hands in celebration. He told me then, as we sat next to each other, that he had always known that I was going to become a Muslim when I was but a young boy. I moved to Washington later that summer, but on visits back to Detroit, I’d always stop by his home and talk with him about Islam. He was a very wise man, who talked in a sonorous voice, the kind of man who could use big words with big people, small words with small people. He talked to me softly, measuring each word. And he listened to me and answered each of my questions, no matter how inconsequential I thought they might be. I treasured the time I spent with him. He taught me much about patience and being a Muslim.

 

Seyyed Ahmed had befriended one Arab immigrant, who worked alongside him in one of Detroit’s many auto factories. He then converted to traditional Orthodox or Sunni Islam in the early 1930s, when few people in the United States knew anything about the religion. He told me about his conversations back then with a local man then known as Elijah Pool, who was originally from Georgia.

 

Poole would, of course, become famous as Elijah Muhammad, the eccentric leader of the Lost and Found Nation of Islam.

young elijah

At the time, the Nation was a small movement of perhaps no more than a few dozen followers in the Detroit area. According to Mr. Ahmed, he met Pool, who later added an “e” to his surname, had just after he had succeeded the mysterious founder of the Nation, W.D. Fard, and he wanted to inject a militant strain of Black Nationalism, as well as a peculiar mythology, into the teaching of Islam. Mr. Ahmed argued against this, telling Pool that this would be straying from the purpose of true Islam, which preaches the gospel of genuine brotherhood and tolerance. He refused to join Pool, who later relocated to Chicago.

 

While the Nation subsequently rose and fell on the career of Malcolm X, whom Mr. Ahmed also knew well and respected, my neighbor continued to practice his deen quietly and unobtrusively, with his family. He would later tell me that although many other African-Americans in my neighborhood would avoid him, my biological father would always speak to him, starting each conversation with the traditional Muslim greeting, “As-salaam-Alaikum (Peace be unto you).”

 

 

 

Mr. Ahmed also urged me to learn Arabic so that I could not only make my prayers more easily, but also so that I could read the Quran in its original form and interpret its lessons for myself. He told me that I had to learn Arabic in order to successfully make the hajj, even to ask fellow Muslims for food and water.

 

Hajj-Pilgrims

“The Arab is your brother in Islam,” Mr. Ahmad would often tell me. “Learn his language; it is the language of Allah.” He had taught himself Arabic. And he told me that learning the language was important for me to read and interpret the Quran on my own, as well as in making the hajj in Saudi Arabia. This I resisted, initially, because I felt that this was not Islam, but a drift toward Arab cultural chauvinism. While most Arabs are Muslims, most Muslims are not Arabs and I wanted to keep my faith and my culture separate.

 

Although I began to experience a feeling of brotherhood with many foreign-born Muslims, most were either new arrivals from Lebanon or Yemen (the latter traditionally considered near the bottom of the social pecking order within larger Arab world). However, most of my interaction with Arab-Muslims was distant. While many Arab-Americans had established communities near the mosque, Dearborn was a proud redoubt of Northern segregation that was, like most Detroit suburbs, virtually closed off to African-Americans.

 

 

orville hubbard

In fact, Dearborn’s long-time mayor, Orville Hubbard, was every bit as un-reconstituted a segregationist as any of the racist local or state government officials found during that era in America’s Deep South. The foreign-born Muslims, insular by nature, espoused no political solidarity with the Civil Rights movement that shook my hometown and the nation in the 1960s.

 

The immigrant Muslims were far different from the robotic followers of the Nation of Islam that I grew up around. Both groups of Muslims practiced the same religion, ostensibly, but the differences between the two sects of the religious community were so great, that they could not bring themselves to even pray together at the same mosque. There were simply too many ideological, cultural and religious differences that could not be bridged.

 

Then, there were several African-American Muslims who sought to essentially transform themselves into Arabs by studying the Arabic language, as well and adopting what they were led to believe was traditional Arab peasant dress and other cultural affectations. They adopted largely lower-class rural customs that had long ago been discarded by the majority of city dwellers in major Arab cities, with whom they had much more in common. More unfortunately, they developed attitudes towards non-Muslim African-Americans that were strangely intolerant and outwardly contemptuous, which were similar, in some respects, to those expressed by some Arab-Americans towards black Americans.

 

Some of them eventually became paid apologists for the most authoritarian regimes and movements (e.g. Sudan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc.) in the Muslim world, placing a higher premium on religious solidarity than either the truth, or their own ethnic and genetic heritage. These governments practiced the worst forms of racism – slavery and genocide. And it was a genocide in which some African-American Muslims sided with the perpetrators and not the victims. I saw nothing “Islamic” in sanctioning that. In doing so, they consciously ignored one of Islam’s greatest gifts, tolerance. I considered this phenomenon to be intellectually bankrupt and hypocritical.

 

NOI seal

Among the leading groups fostering this shift was, and is, the Nation of Islam, which teaches its followers that they are the descendants of “Asiatic black men,” the so-called “original man.” They were obviously dismissive of “heathen” sub-Saharan Africa (a confused and misdirected theme that is continued to this day by Minister Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam.

NOI fruit

I remember being told by one of Farrakhan’s supporters that most Africans, even those who were Muslims, were ignorant of true Islam and had been notorious for worshipping rocks!) I viewed the behavior of these self-styled “black Arabs” as bizarre and escapist, and had very little to do with them. Deep at the core of their new cultural affectation was yet another manifestation of self-hate, a bid to once more create as much psychologically distance between themselves and their hereditary homeland, Africa, while also attempting to completely embrace the attitudes of an alien and hostile community.

 

During graduate school, I met Algerian and Moroccan students, but our politics were decidedly different and this affected our friendships, which quickly turned sour. They seemed to be laboring under some stereotypes about all African-American Muslims being members of the Nation of Islam, or not being “real” Muslims at all. Most wanted nothing to do with the small group of African-American students. Instead, they chose to socialize almost exclusively with white students. Their pale skins made it far easier for them to assimilate. Most of the male students romantically and exclusively pursued white American women.

 

[Now, to be fair, many of these Arabs had little knowledge or personal contact with sub-Saharan Africans. There are dark-skinned minorities within many North African countries, including Morocco, Libya and Tunisia, the descendants of immigrants dating back centuries to the once thriving trans-Saharan trade. But most of these dark-skinned minorities lived in outlying regions, not in the major cities. And there was still some residual mistrust and resentment by some North African Arabs against sub-Saharan Africans, such as the Senegalese, some of whom fought as conscripts and volunteers with the French colonial forces that fought to quell the bloody struggle for independence in Algeria and elsewhere. In addition, many sub-Saharan African nations had long cultivated diplomatic and commercial relations with Israel. Several had refused to join the various diplomatic, economic or cultural boycotts against the Jewish state after the ’67 Six Day War.]

 

Several years later, while reporting on a couple of rounds of the Middle East peace talks in Washington, I met several Arab reporters from Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. But I found most of the Arab reporters covering the talks to be cliquish, patronizing or distant. On the other hand, I became fast friends with two Israeli correspondents, Ori Nir then of Ha’aretz newspaper and Israeli Army radio reporter Oded Ben-Ami.

 

ori nir

Ironically, when I was younger, the whites with whom my family was closest to were invariably Jewish. My mother and biological father had several friends who were Jewish. These were friendships that had been formed in college and professional associations, when there appeared to be a close-knit and genuine Jewish-African-American social coalition. They invited us into their homes for holidays, both Christian and Jewish. I observed and participated in Passover Seder in Detroit and Washington. I ate matzo ball soup and other Jewish delicacies. But many of these Jewish families also fled Detroit when I grew older. And those who remained adopted the same racial attitudes towards African-Americans that other whites had.

 

But long before I was born, my family already had a personal connection to Egypt and the Arab world.

 

In some respects, I suppose that I was predestined to be intimately connected with Egypt. In the late 1940s, my mother and father had married and were attending medical school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. My parents would often be the only students of color in their classes. (My mother, in fact, was the second black woman ever to graduate from U-M’s medical school.) They physically and psychologically separated from their respective hometowns of Buffalo, New York and Richmond, Virginia. The fact that there were students of color made them feel even lonelier. So, whenever they noticed another black person or a person of color, they made an immediate attempt to befriend them.

 

In one of my biological father’s first classes at U-M, he noticed a tall, handsome young man with light-brown skin, who, in fact, looked a lot like he did. After class, my father introduced himself to the strange student, who turned out to be an extremely charming Egyptian from Alexandria named Emile Abdul-Malik. The two became instant friends. In fact, Emile became my biological father’s best friend. They were so close that my older brother, Peter, was given the middle name of “Emile,” in honor of the friendship between the Egyptian visitor and my biological father.

 

Always well-dressed in his trademark blazers and loafers, the suave and gregarious Emile was a perfect match for my biological father. He was a frequent guest at my parents’ apartment located on Ann Arbor’s Main Street, just over the old State Theatre in their early days as a couple of poor medical school students. From what I was told, Emile was a fun-loving rogue, who confessed a special weakness for blondes. He also had designs on my Aunt Marian, who was also attending the U-M, but who wasn’t even a “bottle blonde.” He never made good on his vow to make her his “next victim.”

 

My biological father, who earned his doctorate in microbiology, helped Emile with his studies. In fact, according to both of my parents, Emile may well have flunked out without my father’s help. After they both graduated from U-M in 1951, Emile returned to his native Egypt. According to my biological father, Emile took a teaching job in Khartoum, Sudan, which was being co-ruled by Egypt and the United Kingdom.

 

However, in 1953, Emile suddenly returned to the States and renewed contact with my parents. From what I have been able to piece together, Emile’s family, wealthy Copts, had extensive financial holdings. Shortly after the 1952 revolution, the new government began to nationalize industry and ordered the sequestration of large estates. Emile’s family was probably impacted by the new edicts and probably lost much of their fortune. As a result, Emile stayed in the United States. He married a white American woman and moved to New Orleans, where he taught for many years at Tulane University.

 

Emile died a few years ago, but he had long been estranged from my biological father. According to my parents, Emile had essentially chosen to pass for white to avoid the pervasive racial segregation of the South. He was also accused of turning his back on my biological father, declining to give help in finding gainful employment to the man who had helped him earn his degree in the first place. My biological father considered Emile’s actions a deep, personal betrayal. The two men ceased all communications, although my biological father kept tabs on Emile from a distance for many years.

 

Although some of my family’s ethnic origins are from Madagascar, Ireland, and what is now Nigeria, my biological father looks very Egyptian. His physical appearance, from the color and texture of his skin, to his slightly kinky, dark brown hair, is similar to that of millions of Egyptians. This is also true from his facial expressions and the cut of his eyes. Years later, I noticed black-and-white photos taken of my biological father, as a youth would closely resemble those taken of young Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Only my biological father’s nervous gait and physical ticks betrays that his is not a “son of the Nile.” In fact, if he was not my biological father and I was to pass him on the streets of Cairo, I would most probably mistake him for an Egyptian, a Sudanese, or perhaps even Lebanese or Moroccan.

 

These slightly exotic looks came in handy when he lived in a highly-segregated Washington in the early 1960s, just after he had divorced from my mother. Some of his friends would tell me how they would all go to some of the local restaurants, where a waitress or a maitre d’ would initially refuse to serve my father because of his color. Ever the frustrated thespian, my biological father would subsequently feign ignorance and then strike up a conversation in perfectly accented French or German with his friends. This would invariably perplex the managers of the establishment. My biological father’s friends would “translate,” then explain that my biological father was not “Colored” or a “Negro,” but an “African diplomat.”

 

Fearing that they might be triggering some sort of diplomatic incident, which were far too common in those days, the convinced and unwitting waitress, or her manager, would usually comply. My biological father and his friends would eat their meals, and then laugh about pulling off their charade after they walked out of the restaurant. Some journalists, with the crusading black newspapers of this era, like George Collins of the Baltimore-Washington Afro-American, pulled off similar experiments and wrote about them.

 

A career government bureaucrat, my biological father traveled widely on business. He was comfortable living and working in other countries and cultures. He found his brown skin was often an advantage once he was outside American borders. Samoans and other Pacific Islanders instantly befriended him. They honored him with gifts and a ceremonial title for working tirelessly on their behalf so that they would receive U.S. government benefits.

 

When I was a child, I remember that my biological father spent considerable time working for the U.S. government in Panama and other parts of Central America. Because of his fluency in foreign languages, he was also called upon to work as an interpreter on temporary duty assignments in Europe. If he’d been white, or simply born into another era, he would have been a fast-rising star in the American Foreign Service, perhaps a senior State Department official or even an ambassador.

 

While my biological father’s relationship with Emile had long ago soured, he retained a strong interest and admiration for Egypt. He collected bits of Phaoraonic memorabilia in his travels. He always kept a small bust of the legendary Egyptian queen, Nefertiti, in the living rooms of the houses in which he lived.

 

My parents divorced when I was five-years-old. My biological father then went to live for a few years in Fairfax, Virginia and Cincinnati, Ohio, before moving once again to Chevy Chase, Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C. When I turned 11 years old, I went to live with him for one year. Chevy Chase was an all-white neighborhood and my younger brother, Paul, and I attended an all-white elementary school — quite a culture shock for two young black boys from inner city Detroit. The only time we had a chance to interact with other African-Americans was on the odd weekend, when my biological father drove us into Northwest Washington to have our Afro hairdos trimmed.

 

That fall, after taking me for a haircut at a black barbershop on the riot-scarred 14th Street corridor, my biological father drove to a large newspaper and magazine shop on Connecticut Avenue in Northwest Washington. Shortly after we entered, my biological father leaned over to me and pointed out the cover of a current magazine, the type with oversized pages, full of glossy color photos. I don’t remember the title of the magazine, but I clearly remember looking closely at the cover photograph. I took a few steps over and bent down to get a closer look at the magazine, whose cover bore the large photograph of a man who looked strangely familiar face.

nasser 1970

He looked a little bit like the famous New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who I knew of, but I couldn’t quite place the name.  Yet, there was something strangely familiar about this man, I was sure that I had seen his large, handsome face somewhere before. He didn’t look at all like some white American politician, a Kennedy, LBJ or some senator. His skin was light brown, like my biological father’s, but something about him make me think that he wasn’t a black American either. Why couldn’t I come up with his name?

 

The closer I looked at this magazine; I immediately noticed the cover subject’s prominent nose, which was hooked slightly at the end. The square-jawed man also sported a thin mustache and was graying prematurely at his temples of his closely-cropped head of wavy, dark hair. What struck me most, however, was a pair of large, sparkling brown eyes that stared back at me, almost as though he were looking through me. He had the debonair good looks of an entertainer or a movie star. He was wearing a suit and tie, so I figured that he had to be a figure of some importance.

 

nasser binoculars

“Do you see this man?” asked my biological father. “Do you know who he is?”

“No, dad,” I replied. “Who is he?”

“He’s our president,” my biological father said evenly.

 

I was puzzled. The photo of the man on the magazine cover certainly wasn’t Nixon, Johnson, JFK or any American president I knew; I would have recognized any of them immediately. Back then, I would not have even imagined if it were possible for any black person to be president, or even prime minister, of any country around the world. I guessed that my biological father was playing a trick on me and when I turned my head back toward him, with a half-smile, I expected to see a smile on his face as well. Instead, my biological father was poker-faced, betraying not a hint of merriment. He quickly took me by the hand and we quickly walked out of the store into the blustery winds of the Washington autumn. I was still perplexed, not only about the identity of the man on the cover of the magazine, but my biological father’s suddenly serious demeanor.

 

After we got into our car, which was parked just down the street, I waited until my biological father started the ignition of his old Volkswagen station wagon before I asked him another question.

 

“Who was that man, dad?” I asked again. “You said he was our president.”

“His name is Nasser; he’s the president of Egypt,” my biological father told me tersely.

 

Nasser time magazine

I can’t recall the exact details of our conversation that day, but my biological father talked for several minutes about Nasser. Having lived through the tumult of the 60s and the assassinations of the Kennedys and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he felt that the country and the world were sorely lacking leadership. He clearly admired Nasser, even despite his own racial contradictions.

 

My biological father has always considered himself a “citizen of the world.” Fluent or conversant in five languages, he has traveled widely throughout Europe, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East (but never to sub-Saharan Africa). And he has always had a strong interest in foreign affairs. I had always thought him to be strictly a Europhile, but his attempt to imprint me revealed that this was not so.

 

“Nasser was the president of Egypt,” my biological father recalled. “I wanted you to know that he was one of the greatest presidents in the world. I felt very keenly about him as a great president because he was a nationalist who changed the world around him. We were all looking around for leaders in those days, a world leader.

 

“You don’t know what it was like to live under segregation. I was trying to make you think about being an internationalist. I was looking at the kind of leader we needed. I was looking for leadership. Nasser was a nationalist; he brought Egypt from under the British colonial yoke. He took back the Suez Canal.”

 

As I think back on the incident, it was a very advanced observation for an African-American adult to make during that era. Malcolm X, in fact, had publicly referred to both Nasser and Nkrumah as “my president.” But my biological father has never been a Black Nationalist. In fact, he has always been racially-conflicted, alternately despising or flouting his blackness. At times, he has even denied his racial identity, embracing the long-discarded term “mulatto.” Even though he is an African-American, he has rarely identified himself as such; he has internalized his initial rejection by white society during the Depression. To this day, he has no close black friends. For the most part, his self-hate has prevented him from expressing any of sentiments of racial pride, even to himself. But there must have been something special about Nasser for him to consciously make that huge spiritual and emotional connection…

Nasser charcoal

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