In an exclusive extra, AudioFile reviewer Mike Sangiacomo tells us about meeting Muhammad Ali—in Baghdad—in 1990.
I spent some time with Muhammad Ali in the most unlikely place: Baghdad in late 1990, just weeks before the U.S. and its allies bombed it in Desert Storm. I was there on assignment from my newspaper, THE PLAIN DEALER, and he was there to get hostages released. Both of us were there against the wishes of the U.S. Government, to say the least.
Ali’s mission to Baghdad was largely unreported at the time, but the story leaked out a few times over the years.
As a world-renowned Muslim, Ali was welcomed in the city of Bagdad, and through his power of persuasion, he was able to leave with 15 American hostages. You probably never heard about it—the story was kept quiet, though I reported it in my newspaper. My group was invited to spend some time with Ali in his room at the Al Rashid Hotel. When we got there, Ali was lying down on the bed. He looked drawn and tired—his Parkinson’s disease was taking its toll. His schedule in Baghdad was exhausting. When he was not in talks with leaders, he was entertaining Iraqi children, who followed him everywhere.
He sat up in his bed, half-clothed, and asked us to wait in the seating area of his room. I remember watching him struggle to stand up, a shadow of his former self. But when he emerged minutes later, he looked like a new man. He had put on a blue suit, white shirt, and a tie, in deference to his visitors. He could only speak in a whisper, his voice exhausted from days of negotiations. Amid the small talk and stories I have long forgotten, Ali asked to keep his private talks with Saddam Hussein a secret, at least until the hostages were released.
“We admire the man who has never stopped using his celebrity for good- the man who helped secure the release of 14 American hostages from Iraq in 1900,” Obama was quoted in USA Today. With all due respect to Mr. Obama, it was 15. I counted.
Ali surprised our group by asking if we wanted to see some magic tricks, something he also performed for the other “guests” (Iraqi code for hostages) in the hotel lobby. He even did his levitation trick. Ali’s mission to Baghdad was largely unreported at the time, but the story leaked out a few times over the years. George Bush and subsequent presidents ignored it until President Barack Obama talked about it this year after Ali’s death on June 3. “We admire the man who has never stopped using his celebrity for good—the man who helped secure the release of 14 American hostages from Iraq in 1990,” Obama was quoted in USA Today. And, with all due respect to Mr. Obama, it was 15. I counted.
In addition to sharing this story, Mike listened to Ali’s autobiography, THE GREATEST: MY OWN STORY for us and wrote, “It’s uncanny how much narrator Dion Graham sounds like Ali”. You can read Mike’s full review and listen to a sound clip here or check out what Dion had to say about recording Ali’s story below!
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