The geo-politics of Malcolm X

Malcolm X is a powerful optic through which to understand America's post-war ascendance and expansion into the Middle East.

Mural of Malcolm X. Image credit Thomas Hawk via Flickr (CC).

“I have difficulty praying. My big toe is not used to it,” Malcolm told his diary on April 20, 1964 shortly after arriving in Mecca. Having recently left the Nation of Islam with their practices, he was still acclimating to sitting on his knees during prayer. Despite the pain, the following day he embarks on the journey to Mount Arafat, part of the hajj pilgrimage, joining “hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, all colors, buses, car, camel, donkey & foot. Mecca, he writes, is surrounded by the: “cruelest looking mts [mountains] I’ve ever seen. They seem to be made of the waste material from a blast furnace. No vegetation on them at all. The houses are old & modern. Some sections of the city are no different than when the Prophet Abraham was here over 4000 [years ago]—other sections look like a Miami suburb.”

Wandering among the pilgrims, he describes the rituals, the seven stones cast at the devil, the circumambulating of the kaaba, and observes,”This would be an anthropologist’s paradise.”

The diaries also provide a firsthand account of Malcolm’s travels in Egypt, Ghana, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia in 1964. There’s Malcolm crossing Tahrir Square to buy some lemonade at Groppi’s, a still-existing pastry shop; then he’s buying pajamas, picking up vitamin C tablets (because he’s feeling kind of “woozy”), going to the movies, and so on.

Malcolm X is a powerful optic through which to understand America’s post-war ascendance and expansion into the Middle East. His is the perspective of a ghetto-dweller who has transcended the borders drawn around him.”[A]s though I had stepped out of prison,” he writes, when he travels abroad. The diaries—several notebooks of single-spaced hand-writing—show an anthropologist’s eye. Malcolm comments on the landscape, the politics, cultural and religious differences, with humorous asides. When a friend arrives late, he quips, “Arab time!!” At one point, he observes, “The worst most dangerous habit among Arab Muslims is cigarettes. They smoke constantly, even on the Hajj.” There are also personal reflections on his mood, health and intense solitude. The words “lonesome” and “alone” appear on almost every other page. His thoughts on Saudi Arabia support the standard narrative that the hajj was transformative.

Yet the diaries show something else: when not in Arabia, Malcolm seemed to enjoy being away from his role as a religious leader, and away from religious strictures as well. Whether in Ghana, Guinea, Kenya or Egypt, he immerses himself in the cultural life of these newly independent states, and the younger Malcolm, the music aficionado, resurfaces, as he frequents night-clubs and dance centers again. In Nairobi, he goes to see his friend Gee Gee sing at the Equator Club, and then accompanies Vice-president Oginga Odinga to a party at the Goan Institute of Dance. (“The PM is a good dancer, remarkably for his age,” he writes.) In Guinea, he attends a wedding party, then goes to a nightclub and, “watche[s] some Americans from the Ship-hope try to dance.” He rejoices in seeing newly independent states shunt aside European colonial music and celebrate their own musical traditions. In Accra—accompanied by Maya Angelou—he attends a party at the Ghana Press Club and enjoys “Highlife,” which would become the country’s national music (Angelou 1986, 134). But it’s mostly in Egypt, which he saw as the bridge between Africa and Asia, a key player in the Non-Aligned Movement, that he spent the most time and experienced the most cultural immersion.

The story of Egyptian jazz dates back to the Harlem Renaissance, when African-American musicians who had settled in Paris, ventured east. In December 1921, Eugene Bullard, the Georgia-born military pilot, drummer and prize fighter, traveled from Paris to Alexandria, Egypt. For six months, he played with the jazz ensemble at the Hotel Claridge, and fought two fights while in Egypt (Lloyd 2000, 79). A decade later, the blues singer Alberta Hunter followed suit, singing in Istanbul and Cairo (Shack 2001, 43). The trumpeter and vocalist Bill Coleman would live in Cairo from 1939 to 1940, leading the Harlem Rhythmakers/Swing Stars. As Islam began to take hold in American cities and within jazz circles, Muslim jazz musicians would journey to Egypt. In 1932, an African-American Muslim with a saxophone turned up in Cairo, saying that he was working his way to Mecca (Berger 1964). With America’s post-war ascent, jazz would spread around the world carried by servicemen, Hollywood and Voice of America broadcasts. In 1958, the bassist Jamil Nasir, trumpeter Idrees Sulieman, and pianist Oscar Dennard traveled to Tangier, where a VOA relay station would broadcast Willis Conover’s Jazz Hour to listeners behind the Iron Curtain, where they recorded an album. They then went on to Cairo. In the Egyptian capital, the thirty-two-year-old Dennard would fall ill and die from typhoid fever; he would be buried in the city, his grave a regular stop for visiting jazz musicians.

All to say, by the time David Du Bois arrived in Cairo in 1960, there was already a local jazz scene and the State Department had launched its jazz diplomacy tours aimed at countering Soviet propaganda. Du Bois and his friends—with the support of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture—would try to create a music culture different from that sponsored by the US government. The Egyptian government was also leery of the jazz tours, and turned back “jambassador” Dizzy Gillespie at Cairo airport in 1956 following the Suez War.

This was the buoyant cultural moment that Malcolm X encounters when he arrives in July 1964. Egypt is flourishing culturally, a regional leader in music, cinema and literature. Malcolm’s diary entries from Egypt confirm the events and personalities described in Du Bois’ novel. David Du Bois is working as an announcer at Radio Cairo, and lobbying Egyptian officials to have his father’s books—especially Black Flame Trilogy—translated. (Black Boy by Richard Wright was the only work of African-American literature available in Arabic, he would write to his mother in November 1960; he wanted the government to translate Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun and Langston Hughes’ primer on jazz.) The local jazz scene was feeding off musical trends in the US, as American jazz artists wrote compositions in honor of Africa and Afro-Asian solidarity. Malcolm would soak up the scene in Cairo and Alexandria, attending weddings and concerts, socializing at Cairo’s elite social clubs, sailing down the Nile to the Valley of Kings. It’s in Cairo that he meets Fifi, a Swiss woman who works for the UN, and who is quite smitten by him. All along, of course, he is networking with regime officials and scholars hoping to build a branch of Al-Azhar in Harlem.When he travels from Cairo to Saudi Arabia for hajj, he is struck by how culturally barren the kingdom is compared to Egypt.

The diaries in effect show a man who has landed smack in the middle of the ‘Arab Cold War’ of the early 1960s, which pitted Nasser’s Egypt and her socialist allies against Saudi Arabia and the conservative monarchies backed by the US. As part of the Non-Aligned Movement, Nasser had stepped up his rhetorical attacks on American-allied monarchies in the region, through Radio Cairo, denouncing the royals for their social conservatism and alliance with the West. Music was at the heart of this propaganda effort, as top musicians were enlisted to sing the praises of ‘our destiny’ and ‘historical leader.’ And the expat jazz artists were solidly on the Egyptian side. One of the musicians, saxophonist Othman Karim, would set up the Cairo Jazz Quartet and record a track called “Yayeesh Nasser” (“Long Live Nasser”) (Du Bois 1964, 47). Karim would go on to collaborate with Salah Ragab, a young drummer and major in the Egyptian army, who would become Egypt’s most famous jazz musician, working with Sun Ra and Randy Weston.2 When Malcolm X arrives in Cairo, he negotiates this cultural tug of war, hanging with the ‘bros’ but also listening to jazz with Morroe Berger, a Princeton Arabist, expert on Black Muslims and organizer of State Department jazz tours. This contest is subtly rendered in Du Bois’ novel. Both Ragab and Karim make appearances—as characters named Salah Janin and Muhammad X—performing at the Cairo Jazz Combo.The Saudis would soon respond to Nasser’s cultural diplomacy, creating a radio station with religious broadcasts. In 1964, they launched their own ideological offensive, setting up the Muslim World League, to mobilize various Islamist groups to counter the spread of socialism and secular Arab nationalism.”

Further Reading