In Cairo, an Expatriate Black American Recalls Malcolm X

Article excerpt

WHEN Malcolm X made his third and last visit to Cairo in 1964, he was alone. Besieged at home by the Nation of Islam, the extremist black Muslim group that he had broken with, he was to spend almost two months in Cairo before embarking on a lengthy journey through Africa.

He arrived in Cairo without fanfare. But when word spread, young black Americans keen to speak with a representative of the struggle they'd left behind, sought him out. Many of them were former members of the Nation of Islam, weary of its anti-white racism and failure to play an active role in the struggle for black rights. Before Malcolm X left the city, they had agreed to establish a chapter of his new group, the Organization of African-American Unity.

In the early 1960s, young black men from cities like Chicago and Philadelphia made their way to Egypt, many of them seeking not only African but also Islamic identities. The Egyptian government provided meager scholarships to Al Azhar Islamic University. One of those blacks was Akhbar Muhammad, the son of the Nation of Islam's leader, Elijah Muhammad. For most of the students, living allowances were negligible. Some, in order to make ends meet, played gigs in Cairo jazz clubs.

One of those expatriates still lives in Cairo. David Du Bois is a visiting professor of journalism and Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, but resides for most of the year in his adopted home of Egypt. He is author of the novel, And Bid Him Sing," a story of black American exiles in Cairo in the mid-1960s.

In 1960, Mr. Du Bois arrived in Egypt as a traveler. Later he became a journalist. He was following in the path of his grandparents, missionaries in Liberia, and his parents: His father was the revered black rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois, one of the first names in the Pan-African movement.

Du Bois recalled his reactions after arriving by boat in the port city of Alexandria: "I fell in love with Egypt. I got here and discovered that everybody looked like me, and I looked like everybody else. I was accepted as a human being without any reference to the color of my skin. It was an overwhelming experience. I found myself invisible."

Unlike other black expatriates he befriended in Cairo, Du Bois was not religious. Many were new arrivals who came to study Islam at Al Azhar. As Du Bois now says: "They came here in search both of their African and Islamic roots, but they approached Egypt as an African country."

He met several times with Malcolm X and remembers a "calm and cool" figure.

When asked by Du Bois if people needed religion, Malcolm X replied that religion - whether Islam or Christianity - was a means of putting "blinders" on the minds of those who might otherwise stray from good and moral lives.

Malcolm X, traveling without any administrative support, took up offers of help from the sympathetic expatriate community. …

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