One September evening in 1960 during a United Nations’ summit in New York City, Cuban leader Fidel Castro moved his delegation into Harlem’s historic Hotel Theresa to stay among African Americans: He felt they would welcome him. That same evening, Luqman Abdul Hakeem drove to the hotel – up Lenox Avenue in his Volkswagen, with Malcolm X at his side. The Cuban flag hung over the building, where crowds of anti and pro-Castro protesters had gathered.
“We went up to his room and sat on a bed,” said Abdul Hakeem, holding a black and white photo of himself, Malcolm X and Castro sitting and smiling at each other. “He [Malcolm X] was part of the committee that welcomed him [Castro] to Harlem. Malcolm was considered a grassroots leader. He was very popular in Harlem.”
The meeting marked a turn for Malcolm X in his attempt to internationalize the African-American struggle and build ties with third-world countries.
To Abdul Hakeem, now 83, the event was one of the first steps in a long personal journey that would lead him to move to Morocco, where he has lived for 32 years, raised a family and runs two Aikido dojos. The move fulfilled his desire, shared by some Muslim African-Americans, to return to a country that’s majority Muslim.
“I didn’t want my children growing up in that racism in America,” he said.
The Aikido master himself grew up in Flushing and in Bayside, Queens, often in fear of being attacked or murdered, he said.
“It was a white neighborhood,” he said. “We were shot at. My house was attacked.”
The concerns and fears Abdul Hakeem had back then are very much the same in today’s America, where Islamaphobia is on the rise in the wake of attacks in Europe and the US. According to the FBI, anti-Muslim hate crimes have increased significantly in the past year.
As racial violence escalates, at the hands of police, white supremacists and others, many wonder if the country is repeating the same mistakes of the 1960s, and laying the ground for more chaos. Former President Barack Obama has called the violence “symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities” in today’s America. “All of us, as Americans, should be troubled by these shootings, because these are not isolated incidents,” he said.
Such disparities were what drove Abdul Hakeem to leave the country of his birth for Morocco. African Americans began traveling to Morocco and Algeria in the early 20th century. Interest increased during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, when writers like Jessie Fauset and Claude McKay, who were based in France, came down to North Africa, and wrote about life in Algiers and Tangier.
In the 1930s, jazz musicians and African-American converts to Islam spent time in Morocco – artists like Juice Wilson, Jamil Nasser, Idrees Suleiman, Oscar Dennard, Ornette Coleman and others.
Malcolm X also traveled to Morocco. He visited Casablanca, in May 1964, when he was touring different African states. He spent only two days in the city, but the welcome left its mark on him. “They were very race-conscious, proud of the Black Muslims, and thirsting for faster ‘progress’,” he would write about the Moroccans.
According to Hisham Aidi, author of Rebel Music: Race, Empire and the New Muslim Youth Culture, a 2015 book that looks at the influence of Malcolm X on youth movements in Europe and the Americas, Morocco became a destination for African Americans after the 1970s due to the Black Power movement.
“Politically, Malcolm X had a greater affinity for the non-aligned, third-world politics of Algeria, Ghana and Egypt, than for Morocco’s pro-American, Sufi-inflected diplomacy. But inspired by Malcolm X – and Fanon – Black “powerites” settled in Algeria, while Morocco drew African Americans more interested in Sufi Islam and Maghrebian music,” he said in an interview.
“After 1972, once Algeria renewed relations with the US (cut off since 1967) and expelled the Black Panthers, you saw more black artists like Pharaoh Sanders, Ted Joans and even boxer Muhammad Ali gravitating towards the kingdom. Luqman Abdul Hakeem was part of that latter wave.”
Luqman was born a Christian in Cleveland to parents who weren’t particularly religious and moved with his family to New York as a child. Later, he studied at New York Technical University for a few months before joining the Navy. He became a Muslim in 1953 after his older brother, Abdul Hameed, converted. They attended a mosque on 116th street and Lenox Avenue, where the minister was the young and charismatic Malcolm X.
“He was very dynamic, very sincere. A very good man. I was very impressed with him. All of us were,” he said. “His intelligence, his dedication, his speaking ability. He accepted Islam when he was in prison. He changed his life around. He was a brilliant speaker. Even people who didn’t like him had to admit to that.”
Today, Abdul Hakeem prefers to let the past rest and rarely discusses his time with the Nation of Islam. Zain Abdullah, an associate professor of Islamic Studies at Temple University who is working on a book on Malcolm X, understands Abdul Hakeem’s reserve.
“His reluctance [to speak] comes [from the fact] that the nation was a multi-faceted organization,” said Abdullah. “The organization had its secrets, too. People want to make sure they don’t divulge something that may not be right. People are also still very emotional about Malcolm X. Many members were extremely close to him. The kind of abuse that people went through [in America] and the struggle was really deep and visceral.”
These days, Abdul Hakeem has left the civil rights struggle behind. Every day, he exercises and watches CNN and YouTube to keep informed about current affairs in the United States. He has been married four times, twice in the US and twice in Morocco, and has 15 children. He still lives between the two houses that he built for his two families in Sidi Maarouf, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Casablanca. He keeps in touch with his friends from the Nation of Islam, welcoming some to visit in Morocco, even helping some to meet their Moroccan wives.
Abdul Hakeem was unimpressed by Barack Obama’s election to the White House.
“I don’t see presidents as having any power,” he said. “They do as they are told. What has Obama done for African Americans?”
When asked if Malcolm X would have made a better president. He shrugs.
“Of course he would have,” he said. “But that would have never happened.”