I rarely agreed with Fatimah Ali. On most things, from politics to social controversies to dietary regimes (hers was healthy, mine is decidedly…not) my Daily News colleague and I found ourselves at opposite poles.
And yet, when she left the paper last year, I found myself missing her. Very, very much.
It’s not just because I’m a contrarian who likes to spar with people who share different views. I get that in my own home.
It’s not even that I admired her writing style, which was a mix of the philosophical, the pragmatic and the whimsical.
It’s because Fatimah was, as she called herself “The Real Deal.” Unlike so many other pundits who take a position because they’ve put their finger in the air to determine which way the hot air is blowing, Fatimah Ali believed in what she said, and what she wrote. She didn’t mince words, even when two of them-“race war”-got her into a whole lot of trouble with people who generally travel on my side of the political aisle.
I remember sending an email to my gutsy friend after that column appeared, telling her in no uncertain terms that I resented the implication that McCain supporters like me were racist, but that I admired her courage in telling it as she saw it. The response I received was grateful, gracious and ended with the word “Peace.”
The woman had courage. Don’t get me wrong. Writing a newspaper column is nothing compared to taking out some vicious Taliban warriors, battling a raging fire, policing the inner city or working in an ER. To paraphrase an old adage, Those who can do, Those who can’t gripe about it on their laptops. I plead guilty to that, too.
But it does take a measure of courage to put yourself out there, with your picture in the public eye, and challenge people with your comments and opinions. Like the picadors who do advance work for the matador by annoying the bull, some of the best op-ed columnists do the same thing: they prick at your conscience, and arouse your anger. The bull-our readers-can react very violently in response.
That’s what happened to Fatimah. And she not only kept her cool, she maintained a sort of transcendent grace, a quality that informed her life (If I had gotten 2000 racist and vitriolic responses to a column I wrote, I’d respond to every single email in a way that would quickly get me fired from this fine establishment. That Fatimah did not is a tribute to her character.)
The way she was able to deal with criticism reminds me of these lines from one of my favorite poems, Invictus:
Out of the night that covers me
Black as a pit from pole to pole
I thank whatever gods that be
For my unconquerable soul
Fatimah and I weren’t great friends. In fact, we never actually met, although we kept tabs on each other through our shared (and terribly missed) editor, Michael Schefer.
But I feel her loss. And I’m not alone.