They've come from Arkansas, Massachusetts and Alabama. From Missouri, Georgia and Pennsylvania. They're tourists, and they've gathered at the Lincoln Memorial this sunny afternoon, clad in blue jeans and striped shirts, white shorts and Las Vegas baseball caps, to pay homage to Abe Lincoln and see the statue erected in his honor. But Abe's giant statue isn't the hot item today. The hot item is that other giant. The one that's alive.
He stands on the bottom steps of the Lincoln Memorial, gazing out toward the Washington Monument while the tourists swirl around him in waves, lapping against his sides, posing for photos, smiling, cracking up, holding their kids up to him, asking for his shoe size. But Mohammad Alam Channa pays them no mind. He is a man of Allah. He is a man at peace. He is a man on a mission. He sees nothing of the people gawking at him. "It is very beautiful here," says the giant man of his surroundings.
Channa, from Pakistan, is about eight feet tall. His exact height is the object of some disagreement between his Pakistani American hosts and the folks at the Guinness Book of World Records. (Guinness recognized Channa as the tallest known man in the world at 8 feet 2 3/4 inches until it remeasured him in 1984 at 7 feet 10 inches. His Pakistani publicist insists he's grown to 8 feet 2 3/4 inches since.) Depending on whom you believe, he is either the tallest or the third-tallest known man in the world. He says he weighs 370 pounds, wears a Size 22 shoe and is 28 years old. He is about half a foot taller than Manute Bol, the Washington Bullets center from Sudan, listed at 7 feet 6 inches.
Channa was in Washington this week to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the independence of Pakistan and to raise world consciousness on hunger, homelessness and adequate medical care for all people, he said in Urdu. Channa speaks no English. Through his translator and host, Zahid Hameedi, producer of a Pakistani television show, Channa said: "I have come here to America in the spirit of friendship and good will. We have great respect for America in my country. We look up to America."
And America looks up to Channa. When he arrived the night before, his host placed him in the Sheraton Potomac Inn in Gaithersburg, away from the big city, because gawkers and onlookers tend to crowd hotel lobbies trying to get a glimpse of him wherever he visits. While the hotel did afford him privacy, Channa had to crouch in the cab of his host's Buick Le Sabre to ride in and out of town, an hour-long trip. For sleeping, he had to shove two queen-size beds together, lying diagonally across them, and even then his feet still hung off the edge. But that, too, he found endurable. His size, he says, is "Allah's gift."
The only unendurable part was an incident earlier in the day, when Channa was asked to pose for a picture with a group of people outside his hotel. Included in the group was a little girl, 6, who screamed and cried when her mother tried to get her to stand with the giant man. As the girl writhed and twisted away from him, you could see then, in Channa's eyes, which are not overly big like the rest of him, and his face, which is not so huge either, a glint. A tiny flicker of doubt, sorrow, recognition, hurt, disgust, perhaps with himself and his size, and then just like that, snap, it was gone, and he stared into the distance again. A mute, silent giant. A proud Moslem. Doing Allah's will. "I am duty bound by the teachings of Allah to help other human beings," he said. He said that a few times.
"I am honored to be here in America," the soft-spoken Channa said during a brief, very formal interview in the lobby of the Sheraton Potomac. "I find the Americans to be honest and openhearted people."
Openhearted as they are, they are also curious. When he arrived at the hotel, he caused quite a stir. He dispatched himself from the automobile as a plumber would remove tools from his toolbox: a leg first, then a foot, then an arm, and so forth. Passers-by parted as if he were Moses and they were the Red Sea, as the huge man and his small, proud entourage of Pakistanis strode through the lobby, clad in traditional flowing shirt and pants and topis, skullcaps of the eastern fashion.
Seated in the lobby, Channa offered a visitor a Coke. After the usual formalities -- honoring his guest and thanking him for honoring him with his visit -- he ordered a Coke for himself, which he grasped with hands large enough to cradle an infant.
"It is my duty, given to me by Allah, to help those less fortunate than myself. I cannot see any misery coming upon any human beings."
And the Sheraton Potomac could not see any misery coming upon him. Martha McKinney, assistant manager of the hotel, said Channa was such a fine guest that his three-day stay was complimentary. When he asked to have a pair of pants and a shirt ironed, the hotel's housekeeping department was glad to oblige. "It was quite a workout ironing his pants," McKinney says, stifling a smile. "Quite a workout. His shirt I could have worn as an evening gown. But we provide all services for our VIPs at the Sheraton."
Would that Channa found American food so easy to digest. The food wasn't spicy enough, and Hameedi's wife provided the rice, vegetables and kosher meat, all prepared in the Pakistani method, that Channa enjoyed. The American food -- omelets, coffee, cereal and juices -- just didn't cut the mustard with Channa.
He is the youngest in a family of nine children. Both his deceased parents were of average height, he says, as are his siblings. He lives in Sehwansharif, a village of about 25,000 in the southern province of Sind in the Dadu district, about 400 miles north of Karachi. He is employed as an attendant at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar and is an honorary public relations officer of Pakistan Television, and founder of the Alam Channa Trust, a three-month-old foundation designed to raise money for the poor in Pakistan and elsewhere.
Channa, who is not married, says there are certain inconveniences to being so grand. "Sometimes the ceiling is too low. Sometimes I have to join two beds together for sleeping, or there's no room in an airplane or a car.
"But these are small things. No one in the world is without problems. You face them as best you can. You do the best you can with what you have.