Interview: Malcolm X and the Sudanese

UPDATE 5/31/23: We were recently made aware of a correction needed in our interview with Hisham Aidi. We would like to note that it was not Khalil Muhammad but Aisha al-Adawiya who organized the 2015 event at the Schomburg Center and invited Hisham Aidi and Ahmed Osman, facilitating their introduction.

Ahmed Osman, a Sudanese development economist who met Malcolm X in July 1963, would go on to play a critical role in Malcolm X’s life and death — drawing him to Sunni Islam, organizing his hajj to Mecca, and even speaking at his funeral. The new documentary Malcolm X and the Sudanese tells the story of their friendship and provides a fascinating window into Malcolm X’s connection to the Sudan.

Sapelo: What’s this project about?

Hisham Aidi: The documentary is about Ahmed Osman, a Sudanese gentleman in his late 70s, who in the summer of 1963, was strolling through Harlem with a friend and walked into Muhammad’s Temple #7 — and chanced upon Malcolm X speaking. During the Q&A, Osman protested Malcolm’s Nation of Islam theology — they debated, then became fast friends, and corresponded regularly until Malcolm’s death. 

Osman would go on to play a critical role in Malcolm X’s life and death — he helped draw him to Sunni Islam, organized his hajj to Mecca, helped arranged for a Sunni Muslim burial; and after Malcolm X’s death, he arranged for Betty Shabazz to go to Geneva, Beirut and then Mecca to evade the media glare and political storm.

Osman’s story is fascinating. He’s a development economist who spent much of his life working in African development; he’s also one of the most influential people in Malcolm’s life, and yet he’s barely known. We even found the audio of the eulogy Osman gave at Malcolm’s funeral as a 22-year old — he was introduced by Ossie Davis!

Osman’s story is fascinating…he’s also one of the most influential people in Malcolm’s life, and yet he’s barely known. 

Sapelo: How did you meet him?

HA: By chance. As you know I worked on Marable’s Malcolm X project for many years looking at Malcolm’s impact overseas. In early 2015, I wrote a short piece on Malcolm’s book collection and his time in France. (The collection is archived at the Schomburg.) Khalil Gibran Muhammad then invited me to a panel for the 50th death anniversary, and I found myself sitting next to one Mr. Osman. I was incredulous, “You’re the Ahmed Osman from The Autobiography? You exist?” He laughed. Afterwards, we went for dinner at Africa Kine around the corner. 

And as Osman spoke, I was struck by his humility, his grace: he’s a brilliant and disarming man. One of the first things he told me was that in August 1990, he was based in Kuwait, when Iraq invaded. So he fled with his family, leaving all his papers behind, including his correspondence with Malcolm. (He was actually supposed to be a consultant for the script of Spike Lee’s film on Malcolm — but he was driving across the desert when Lee was finalizing, so they couldn’t reach him.) Anyhow, Osman asked me if I could locate Malcolm’s letters to him in the Schomburg archive — and I did.

I told him that his story would make a great documentary, and I recorded many interviews in early 2015, but I had no idea how to make a film. Then, I connected with Sophie Schrago, anthropologist and filmmaker, who has done a number of shorts on urban art, hip hop in Asia, social movements in India; and she put the idea into effect.

Sapelo: Malcolm in the Sudan why Sudan?

HA: Well, I have a long-standing interest in pan-Africanism — especially Black American movements’ ties to post-colonial Africa. The history of African American expat communities in Accra, Ghana; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; and Algiers, Algeria; has been researched, but there’s precious little on Sudan. In Malcolm’s papers, I had noticed many references to Sudan and the Sudanese (in his diary, he writes “I never cease to be impressed by the Sudanese.”) He first visited Sudan in 1959. We searched in American and European archives for footage of Malcolm X in Sudan, but didn’t find any; but in the French television archives, I came upon footage of Malcolm X visiting Présence Africaine, the fabled Parisian bookstore founded in 1949.

 In Malcolm’s … diary, he writes “I never cease to be impressed by the Sudanese.”

At any rate, in Sudan, Malcolm met Malik Badri, an educator who also became a close friend. After completing hajj in 1964, he flew back through Beirut to see Badri, who was then teaching at the American University of Beirut (AUB). Badri tried to organize a lecture for Malcolm at the university, but the president of AUB Norman Burns refused, saying that the AUB campus is “territory of the United States” and Malcolm X is “an enemy of the United States.” So Badri organized an event at the Sudanese Cultural Center in Beirut, and it was a full house, packed with students, journalists — even AUB faculty attended.

Sapelo: What does this documentary add to the field of Malcolm X studies?

HA: Well, I’d like to think it adds two things. First, we try to draw attention to the role of Sudan in Malcolm’s trajectory. He had a keen interest in the politics of Ghana, Egypt, Algeria and Tanzania; but the Sudanese angle, needs to be explored further. When Malcolm first visited in 1959, he already knew quite a bit about Nubia and was captivated by Al Mahdi and his role in defeating the British — so how did visiting the Grand Mosque of Omdurman, the Ahfad Women’s College (now known as Ahfad University for Women), and the museums shape Captain Malcolm’s Afro-Asiatic worldview? Also, we know, from David du Bois, that Malcolm’s time in Egypt, would inspire a community of African American expats, and eventually Egyptocentrism and Afrocentrism. It would be interesting to examine the impact of Sudan and Nubia on African American art. I mean we know of Abdul-Malik and René McLean’s Sudan-inspired jazz compositions, and Hamza El Din’s links to the Ansar community in Brooklyn. Hamza even recorded an album with the Ansaaru Allah Community of Brooklyn in 1988 — though Dr. Malachi York’s record label. But there’s a lot more to unearth; for example, the role of Sudanese as Arabic and Islamic Studies teachers in the Nation and Black Sunni communities in the US.

But there’s a lot more to unearth; for example, the role of Sudanese as Arabic and Islamic Studies teachers in the Nation and Black Sunni communities in the US.

A second point I try to make: in his biography, Professor Manning Marable says Malcolm X’s hajj experience — as life-altering and epiphanous as it was — was hardly “representative” because Malcolm was surrounded by elite “white Arabs.” Osman who organized the hajj down to the smallest details tells a different account. He highlights the role of the Black Saudis that Malcolm met. In particular, Muhammed Suroor Sabban, a poet, politician and Saudi Arabia’s second Minister of Finance. Sabban was a Saudi of African descent who took Malcolm under his wing, and appointed the Sudanese Sheikh Hassoun as his spiritual adviser. Malcolm was then interested in building branches of the Muslim World League and of Al Azhar University in Harlem. Hassoun would come to Harlem and stay at the Theresa Hotel building, where Malcolm had his office. On the day of the funeral, Osman went to find Hassoun; but he had gone into hiding, fearing reprisals. The documentary begins with Osman standing outside the Theresa Hotel on Seventh Avenue.

Sapelo: Does this documentary connect/depart from previous research?

HA: Well, I’m still researching pan-Africanism and the Orient; pan-Africanism and the greater Middle East. The protest movements in Algeria and Sudan are interesting because of the Nubian and Amazigh nationalism they’ve unleashed, the challenges they’re posing to the dominant narratives. That’s another reason I found Osman intriguing: his mother tongue is Nubian. The Nubian and Amazigh struggles are similar as they’re up against both Western hegemony and Arab domination. And as this revolution unfolds, I’m seeing a renewed interest among Sudanese youth in pan-African and revolutionary figures — Amical Cabral, Sankara and Malcolm. So yeah — Afro-Berber, Ifriqiyya, Arab Negritude, pan-Africanism, etc.

Hisham Aidi is a Senior Lecturer in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia. His most recent book, Rebel Music: Race, Empire and the New Muslim Youth Culture (Pantheon 2015), won the American Book Award in 2015. He is currently a scholar-in-residence at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, leading a research project titled “W.E.B. Du Bois and the Afro-Arab World.”

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