In October of 1964, I lived in Beirut, Lebanon. That was when Beirut was glorious, when its tiered apartment houses and office buildings stood unharmed beyond the white sands of the beaches; when the sky, and the mountains in the distance, and the Mediterranean close up formed peaceful layers of blue. It was Beirut when carefree families strolled on Sunday afternoons along the Corniche.
In 1964 I lived in the junior-senior girls’ dorm at the American University—Bustani Hall, a pebbled-concrete building cradled halfway up the bluffs of the campus, hidden from the beach road by the thick trees and bushes that tumbled down the hillsides to meet the seashore. I lived in a sunny room on the third floor, with Rowda, a cheerful, young Sudanese woman of medium height with happy eyes, who mothered me unrelentingly and called me “Sukr” instead of my name— Sukr , Arabic for “sugar,” because I was white.
I was one of the few Americans on campus, and one of the very few there alone, that is, under no auspices—at AUB because lucky family circumstances made it possible for me, the daughter of teachers and former sharecroppers, to be in what was then a peaceful, beautiful, bewitching place. The three thousand students on campus were predominantly Arab, and most of these were Lebanese, a charming dark-eyed, dark-haired people.
One warm morning, one of my Lebanese friends, a leader of the Muslim Student Organization and member of the student council, beckoned me into her room, which was just down the hall from mine. Her name was Azizah, and she was popular and beautiful. Azizah shut the door behind us and smiled at me. Clasping her hands together in front of her breast in a quietly excited way, she said, “I want you to come to the airport with me this morning. To meet our brother.”
I frowned, puzzled. “Brother?” I said.
“Yes,” Azizah said. “Brother. Our brother. Mine because he’s Muslim, and yours because he’s American.” She put her hand on my shoulder, still smiling. “Say ‘Yes.’ That you’ll come with me. I think you should know this man.”
At the airport, Azizah and I waited behind a glass partition and watched a tall black man go through customs. The jacket of his light-blue summer suit was crisscrossed by the dark leather straps of two camera-equipment cases. As he stood in front of the wooden table which held his luggage, he was a study in dignity and patience, a contrast to the impatient, overuniformed agent who jerked random fistfuls of clothes from one side of an open suitcase to the other.
Out in the corridor the black man smiled when he saw Azizah, and he set his suitcase on the floor beside him and grabbed the hand she reached toward him. Azizah nodded at me. “I’ve brought my friend,” she said. “Your fellow American.” And she introduced us then. “Meet Malcolm X,” she told me proudly.
“How do you do, Mr. X,” I said.
“No,” he corrected me. “It’s Malcolm.” He had stopped smiling, and behind his dark-framed glasses his deep eyes were somber and distant, only grazing my face as he looked past me beyond my shoulder.
On the way back to town, I sat in the back seat of the taxi with Malcolm X. Azizah sat in front with the driver, but she had twisted herself so that she faced backward toward us. “We expect a very big turnout for your speech tonight, Malcolm,” she said. “Everybody’s excited you’re here. People want to know about the Black Muslims, about the movement in America, and about your hajj .” I had been away from my country all told less than three years, but it had been too long. What Azizah talked about and the man she talked to were foreign to me.
The taxi stopped on a street of tall apartment buildings near the campus. Azizah turned a charming smile on us. “We’re invited to lunch at Mrs. Brown’s,” she said.
Mrs. Brown was a black American expatriate in her middle years. Sara, a fellow student from the university, was there, too, another young white American like me, but, unlike me, a political science major fresh from an exclusive New England college who knew what was what. “It’s a real pleasure to meet you, Malcolm,” she said. “A rare privilege.” He shook her hand and nodded, at the same time lifting his camera from his shoulder by its strap and handing it to Azizah.
Mrs. Brown’s Beirut apartment was one of those light, airy, marble-floored places well-to-do Americans lived in without fear in those days. Azizah, Sara, and Mrs. Brown sat on blue-cushioned chairs in front of the windows, while I sat on the matching couch with Malcolm X. His camera and a flash attachment lay on the empty cushion between us.
For a few minutes, we sipped iced juice from silver glasses and spoke of ordinary small things—the weather, good restaurants in Beirut, reliable cameras. Then Sara asked Malcolm X a question, and suddenly they were talking about white people and black people, and Sara was saying that she and I, because we were white, were responsible for most of the sins of the world, specifically the problems of black people. “I think you were absolutely right, Malcolm,” she said, “when you accused the white man of having the devil in him.”
And leaning forward to look in his face she apologized, not just for herself and her own particular ancestors, but for me and mine, too, while Malcolm X nodded and smiled.
Uncomfortable and awkward, I had wanted only to listen. But with Sara’s general apology, I began to feel words rising in my throat. Perhaps it had something to do with my Cherokee great-grandmother—her grandparents survivors of the Trail of Tears—or with my own parents’ struggle to get out of the cotton field of Oklahoma—it’s hard to say now, but when Sara finished, I said, “I’m sorry for what happened to you, Mr. X, but Sara doesn’t speak for me. I really do not think I’m any more responsible for your troubles as a black man than you’re at fault for mine as a white woman.” And pointing at my freckled arm I said quietly, “I didn’t choose this skin, but it’s the only one I have and I’m afraid we’ll both have to make do with it.”
Malcolm X looked steadily back at me for a long moment while I wished I were any place else on earth. And then I saw his mouth twitch, a quick pulling at the corners, less than a smile, but more—much more—than a smirk, and his eyes softened before they turned away.
Then the moment was gone. Azizah poured words like oil onto the awkwardness in the room, and soon the conversation was about Malcolm X’s pilgrimage to Mecca and his upcoming appearance at the university that night.
Later, I said good-bye and walked slowly and alone back to Bustani Hall through the campus, past the library and the chapel and the School of Pharmacy with the huge Chinese rose bushes in front.
Rowda was out; she had left a note on my desk telling me she would be out the rest of the day. It was only the middle of the afternoon, but I changed from my street clothes and boiled tea on the hot plate, and turned the radio on to the BBC in time to hear Big Ben’s deep chimes. After I listened to the news from London, I moved the dials until I heard Arabic music, and I stood with my glass of tea at the large window at the end of the room and watched the quiet sky over Beirut turn dusky to the tune of minor notes, wondering exactly what that oddly likeable man who did not like the color of my skin was all about.