The year was 1978. In the month of February, still a mild chill persisted in the sunny mornings. This is the time Muhammad Ali visited Bangladesh. I was in the 12th grade at that time, that will be local 2nd year of Junior College. I remember Muhammad Ali to be a great healer of souls if not permanent but a temporary one. Bangladesh was liberated in December of 1971. The country’s adored son Sheikh Mujib who was “Father of the nation” lead the nation till his assassination in August of 1975. In the last years of his rule, he had declared a one party state, assuming all powers in his hand and the country was left with only four daily newspapers, all of which were government owned.
In the hills of halted economic activities, 1974 saw a famine where scores of people had died of hunger and malnutrition. With the killing of Mujib in 1975, the country witnessed a series of military coups and counter coups. Then army General Zia came to power in April of 1977 through a backdoor coup.
Whole Bangladesh and its institutions were shaken by BKSAL, the one and the only legal political party, the military coups and the counter coups that followed each other. The country and its people were all wounded and scarred internally if not externally.
Muhammad Ali’s visit to Bangladesh in such a time was timely and soothing to the nation, a nation in need for such consolation and redemption so badly. I remember Muhammad Ali going from town to town and wherever he and his wife Belinda went, a huge crowd waited for them singing and chanting. For days the radio played Ali songs, “Muhammad, Muhammad Ali, He is a black mountain, He says to all I am A-l-i…..”
One such morning of his visit we got to know in the college that he will be visiting port city of Chittagong. He was supposed to take the road near our college. Several of my friends and I immediately left the college campus abandoning the classes and joining the crowd. After few hours of waiting and chanting finally we saw the motorcade of the champion coming down the winding road. Muhammad Ali and his family were in the second car just after the lead car and they kept their windows rolled down and waving at all the people crazy for them alternately looking right and left. The motorcade was slow and my plan worked out perfectly: I had an old English book on Islam and Prophet Muhammad, quoting and analyzing extensively on the various comments and opinions of Western intellectuals on Islam and Prophet Muhammad. I had written up a letter addressing Muhammad Ali and one letter addressing his son inviting him to be my pen pal. As the motorcade moved slowly, I slipped in the book with the letters inside and noticed it falling on the floor of the moving car.
Whether they picked it up or not or even looked at it or not were not known to me. But I returned to the college dorm with a satisfied mind that I had delivered what I wanted to in whatever way I could. With the glimpse that I had on Muhammad Ali and his family and the way they traveled keeping the window rolled down in a dusty pot-holed road of a poor third world country, I realized the love we Bangladeshis had was not just one sided, Ali loved us back immensely in return. This is the day I realized Muhammad Ali was not just the ferocious fighter he was, he was just not the dramatic emotional exploiter of boxing; he was a great lover too. He was lover of the poor, the downtrodden, and the destitute. Our country and people whose souls were shredded into pieces by this time with the poor governance, nepotism, dictatorship, famine, coups, counter coups and the legacy of blood that haunted us since the independence were in great need for such an unconditional love. We needed the love; our souls were crying for it. Muhammad Ali did this for us. Ali was great in deed.