‘Fury could be righteous’: How Malcolm X changed my life

Growing up between England and Saudi Arabia, Arwa Haider's conflicted sense of identity was galvanised by discovering the story of Malcolm X.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X
The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Image: Ryan McEachern/Penguin

Late ‘80s London, and the whole planet seemed to be changing. My teenage spirit was raging. I was a Baghdad-born schoolgirl, who’d landed in the UK as a baby with my parents, both Iraqi doctors. It had been intended as a temporary move, while Mum and Dad continued their post-grad studies, but stuff happens, as the saying goes – the Iraq-Iran war exploded; Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship (then endorsed by the West) grew increasingly oppressive – and we’d spent 13 years bouncing around mostly small British towns while my folks worked for the NHS.

My younger sister and I had a happy childhood, grounded by our strong, loving mother. She gave us a nurturing home wherever we moved, and a moral code that was rooted in her Islamic faith but felt universal: compassionate, inquisitive, tolerant. She shielded us as best she could from bigotry; as a little kid, I recall being startled by the thwack of stones thrown at our window, or being ushered away from strangers’ murky comments. Often, we coasted along because we were just tricky to place, but of course there were lifelong “where are you really from?” questions alongside a spectrum of racial stereotypes in prime-time entertainment, or the hints that you were “difficult” (for requesting your name to be pronounced correctly, or refusing pork at school dinners).

By 13, I was much more conscious of prejudice in the world, and fired up by the movements opposing it. There were very few lessons about this at my schools, where we sang hymns about Crusades, alongside weirdly perky tunes from the Boer War; even when we settled in the multicultural UK capital, colonialism was taught as a progressive force. Instead, music was my education: it blasted out against Apartheid and other atrocities (Nelson Mandela was yet to be released from South African prison), and it led me to a book that changed my life: The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

We coasted along because we were just tricky to place, but of course there were lifelong 'where are you really from?' questions

I was reading about the US hip-hop outfit Public Enemy in Smash Hits when they referred to one of their influences: the Black American Muslim activist Malcolm X, who’d been murdered in 1965. I was instantly intrigued; my mum couldn’t tell me more about Malcolm X, but she encouraged me to learn. It took time to track down his autobiography, an endeavour both frustrating and ultimately satisfying, like scouring record shops for a stand-out tune.

Eventually, we found a single copy on the “Afro Caribbean” shelf tucked upstairs at Tooting Library. I pored over the smart-looking portrait on the book cover, as though it were an album sleeve. I immersed myself in the writing – Alex Haley’s candid foreword (I’d go on to read Haley’s epic Roots), and Malcolm’s intensely detailed, sharply conversational account.

There was a lot to take in, but it gripped my young mind: the brutality of racism (including the murder of Malcolm’s father); the vivacity of Black cultural movements; the confrontation against white supremacy; Malcolm’s Harlem hustler past and his conversion to Islam (via the Black separatist Nation of Islam) while in prison; his ascent as a firebrand minister and his ultimate split from the Nation of Islam and embrace of Islamic unity. When I’d started reading, it felt bizarre that such a monumental figure wasn’t more represented in mainstream world history (Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic would go some way to changing this), but then it was evident in everyday life that Black culture and experience was continually co-opted and sidelined.

'I was a hot-headed kid; Malcolm’s fiery intellect appealed to me'

Malcolm X’s autobiography depicted a fluidity in Islam that chimed with my upbringing but also countered the stereotypes I faced elsewhere, which portrayed it as rigidly insular, reactionary and misogynistic. Strong women were significant throughout this account, which spanned the 1920s to the 60s – among them Malcolm’s wife Betty and his elder sister Ella, who funded his 1964 pilgrimage to Mecca, where he had his inclusive epiphany and returned as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (as he wrote: “I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colours together, irrespective of their colour”).

I was a hot-headed kid, in contrast to the calm strength of my mother and sister; Malcolm’s fiery intellect appealed to me, as did his wry humour and his ability to bare his flaws (right through to the last line of the book). As I discovered Malcolm’s disillusionment with his early mentor Elijah Muhammed, and the reshaping of his separatist stance, I also found myself embracing nuance rather than black and white arguments, and the possibility that fury could be a righteous, eloquent force rather than the scattershot rage I often felt.

The room that I shared with my sister was decorated with posters of pop stars and Malcolm X, hidden from the Wahabi censors

All of this held me in good stead soon after, when my family moved to the Eastern coast of Saudi Arabia, where my dad had taken a hospital job. This proved not an epiphany, but a year-long baptism of fire. I snuck The Autobiography of Malcolm X into our luggage, along with my Smash Hits Yearbook. Again, my experience of Islam was subverted (and I became uncomfortably aware of how whiteness is frequently coveted, and Black experience erased, in the Middle Eastern mainstream, as in so much of the post-colonial world) – but this time, my rebellion came in seizing my faith on equal terms, as my mum had encouraged and Malcolm X had demonstrated to revolutionary effect.

The room that I shared with my sister was decorated with posters of pop stars and Malcolm X, hidden from the Wahabi censors. I hadn’t previously viewed studying as “cool”, but Malcolm X presented it as empowerment – from reading Quran for myself, to Science, Languages, Politics. In class, I would learn to listen to my peers with contrasting worldviews, but I would also increasingly question authority when it made little sense (to the detriment of my Saudi school marks); I knew that, as a female, I was not destined to walk behind men, but alongside them as an educated equal, as Betty did with Malcolm.

I would grow up, and possibly mellow with age, but the force of his influence and idealism would stay with me – not merely to lower your gaze but to confront the scene; not to ‘know your place’, but to have conviction in your worth.

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