It was summer of 1992. Bosnia was burning and genocide was engulfing large segments of Bosnia & Herzegovina’s Muslim population and culture. It was ravaging and unraveling our multi-ethnic fabric.
Ali came out. Everyone who came within a radius of 10 feet was caught in some time warp, mouths open, eyes wide and smiles broad. If they were within eyesight, they had to come to touch him. He obliged all who wanted to shake hands, and even courageously looked to satisfy everyone who sought an autograph – his signature now an erratic scribble. (Bono also had the custom of shaking every hand and signing every autograph request. When Bono and I talked about it during a long night, I understood that Bono had been influenced by Ali’s commitment to deal with every individual he came across with equality, humility and leaving a piece of himself, be it a touch, word, signature or direct glance to the eyes with smile to inspire parity). Muhammad did not have to pose for all the cameras – he was like an album of humanity and divinity in soulful motion. Every flash only captured the icon even as it revealed a rapidly frailing man. He was at the United Nations though for another more ailing cause and people, Bosnia & Herzegovina was being ravaged.
We held a news conference. Muhammad could not speak very clearly anymore, but he tried. I was not certain if some savvy international reporters were exploiting the opportunity to reveal his rapidly sinking physical state or testing his coherence. Muhammad was there, and more. Perhaps it was his new reincarnation of “Rope-a-dope,” but he was not neither down nor out. He flashed his verbal jabs even if not crisply uttered. He knew Bosnia, the people and the cause. It was near to his intellect, as close to his heart. He never stopped being “The Greatest.”
We spent the afternoon together, some of it alone walking the UN corridors. Muhammad wanted to show me he still could surprise. He asked me to look down at his feet, and then positioned himself. He said: “My levitation trick”. The optical illusion he set made it appear he was floating slightly off the floor - his body and feet steady. Of course, Muhammad did not know that for me he had always walked on air.
I first met Muhammad Ali when I was still a young teen. He signed an autograph for me and the “People and Muslims of Yugoslavia.” When I asked him about when he would fight Joe Frazier again to reclaim his boxing crown, he went into a fighter’s stance to challenge my mention of his ring arch-nemesis, but the whole time a smile under the thin veneer of the growl.
We celebrated Martin Luther King Junior’s birthday yesterday. It is appropriate that today we recognize Muhammad Ali on his 70th birthday. MLK championed the cause of equality, and Muhammad Ali projected from a perspective of unyielding assertiveness. While carrying the title of the boxing champion of the world, he evidenced his strength through civil disobedience – by refusing to be a symbol for war and killing in Vietnam. Even then Muhammad help mold a new American patriotism by speaking out when he saw his country/leaders do wrong at home and abroad.
Like all great men, he was a contradiction but never a hypocrite. His ego was on exhibit. But so was an even greater humility. He did not preach about the bedroom but a reborn morality of treating fellow man/woman. He was one who has most helped shape the ideal of “global citizen,” even as he gradually become recognized as an American hero. No contradiction there.
For me – Muhammad Ali made Muhamed respected in the US even if not always embraced, and that was more than enough to thank and remember his Greatness for the rest of my life. But today, it is about his, Muhammad Ali’s life, already one of The Greatest to grace our globe and imagination – Again, Happy 70th. He showed us how to be Champion in the ring, be fighter against injustice, engage change through civil disobedience, be global citizen trendsetter, challenge disability and continue to age and contribute with enthusiasm and grace.
Above Photo from New York Times at UN
By Ambassador Muhamed Sacirbey
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