Remona Aly
Monday 01 January 2007 emel

The Other Half: Rageh Omaar

Peering out from amongst the faces crowding bookstore shelves, from a grinning Gordon Ramsay, to the broody young boxer, Amir Khan, there is yet another addition to the outpouring of biographies. This one, however, seems to stand apart from the others. With the front cover showing two Muslim children wearing England shirts, it somehow beckons closer consideration.

“Only Half of Me” is an honest and insightful glimpse into the life and experiences of Somali born British journalist, Rageh Omaar. As I knock on the door of his West London home, I wonder why I have the feeling I know Rageh Omaar even before meeting him, but before indulging the sentiment, Rageh is standing in the doorway, and invites me in with casual familiarity. While I sip the warm green tea he has just brewed for me, and glance at the family photographs of his wife Nina and their three children Loula, Sami and Zakariyya, he asks what I think of his book with a look of genuine interest for my perspective. It is this sincerity that resounds in his book, drawing you in, and I suddenly realise why I am at ease.

Rageh recalls how his first sights of UK life, overwhelmed a little boy of five, and proved a stark contrast to growing up in the Horn of Africa. “My first impressions of arriving in Britain, apart from the obvious shock at the cold weather, was that there were so many artificial colours. Fluorescent Burger King and McDonalds signs flashed at me – very different to Mogadishu in the Savanna landscape full of natural colours.”

His parents, like many other Somalis, never expected to stay, and regarded their move as temporary exile from the civil war tearing their beautiful country apart. Their intention was to provide an education for their children, expecting the best as a middle class family of good standing. They sent Rageh, their youngest son of four children to school at Cheltenham Boys College, and days spent there were far from the bullying that might be typically expected, where Rageh’s best friend and roommate was a Muslim from Malaysia.

Those years of adjustment in the 70s were set against politically turbulent times embroiled with the Iranian Revolution, the mujahideen pitted against Russia in Afghanistan and the Lebanon War raging in the headlines. Living off London’s Edgware Road for much of his youth, Rageh’s formative years nestled into the cradle of these world events and nurtured within him a natural leaning towards politics and the desire to understand and explore. “I grew up in a household where everyone was talking about Ayatollah Khomeini and about Lebanon. I saw the consequences of world events literally on my doorstep – London is part and parcel of the political story around the world, so more and more Arabs were coming to the capital. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, I saw crowds on Edgware Road all talking about it. Naturally I wanted to experience firsthand events that were changing the world.”

For a young boy who had always been the object of change, having to leave his home amid civil war, and now witnessing events through news reports, Rageh no longer wished to be impassive. Instead of moving away from conflict, he firmly resolved to travel into those areas. The only way he saw this as feasible, was through journalism. Though Rageh had never formally studied journalism, he landed a traineeship at “The Voice” in Brixton and thereafter moved around from job to job, all the while saving up money to travel to Ethiopia in 1990.

In Somalia, civil war was at its height. It was here that Rageh’s association with the BBC began, as a freelance journalist for the World Service. Returning to the country of his birth some 17 years later proved to be a challenging test. “Because my background pointed towards the African and Islamic world, I thought it was a good opportunity to combine some journalism and go back to Somalia to find out what the situation was like. It was difficult to report in my own country about the struggles, but it was also very necessary. I learnt what it takes to travel, produce the work and get by.”

And his work did not go by unnoticed. A director at the BBC told the budding young journalist how impressed he was with his reports, and with his fresh new voice, and asked if Rageh was one of his trainees. “I just told him the truth – that I applied, but I didn’t even receive a rejection letter back!”

Rageh is perhaps best remembered for his reporting of the Iraq war. Every day at 9pm, millions of viewers tuned in to BBC1 to see Rageh standing on his hotel balcony in his famous red puffer jacket, or olive green combat shirt, and he gained the nation’s trust thorough honest reporting. How he got to report there is another story.

After studying Arabic in the University of Jordan for two years, Rageh was given a junior post in Amman in 1997 only a few years after the Oslo Accords. While the world’s attention was turned towards Jerusalem, Rageh along with a festoon of other western journalists, got posted there. “I spent my 30th birthday in Gaza with a Palestinian camera man. We were interviewing a group of Jews who had settled in Gaza. It was very surreal and weird for a 30th!”

Rageh soon started to get restless and dissatisfied with the concentration of western coverage on Israel/Palestine. “One of the biggest stories completely uncovered at the time was Iraq, four years after the first Gulf War when economic sanctions were at their height, and the humanitarian consequences on the population. I was determined to go there. There were so many journalists in Jerusalem, why did they need one more?”

So Rageh began applying, but found the BBC was hated in Baghdad. An appointment with the cultural attaché at the Iraqi embassy in Amman proved hard to arrange, but when the meeting eventually took place, Rageh remembers the “look of surprise and astonishment on his face. He was of course expecting a white western correspondent as that is what the BBC meant to him. After that meeting he said he would send my application to Baghdad. No BBC correspondent had been there for three or four years.”

Rageh was soon on his way to a place that was destined to hold more meaning for him than he could have imagined. He was profoundly touched by his time in Iraq and developed a deep attachment, and respect for the Iraqi people. “Iraq changed me in many different ways. It’s an amazing, fantastic and wonderful country. Given the disaster that has befallen their country, I am amazed at how patient and resilient Iraqis are.” With this connection, was it difficult to be objective? “It’s always very hard to detach yourself from a place and a people you are reporting on. The fact that I am a Muslim helps with a different kind of connection with the Iraqis. As Muslims we are all linked to Iraq, because of the ties of Islamic history. We see things in very different terms, when they stormed Najaf, it was as if someone had come into your house and destroyed it. It doesn’t matter if you are from Indonesia or Somalia or Pakistan, there is that connection. ”

Meanwhile in the UK, Rageh’s popularity was on the rise, and when I mention the fan mail, he seems a little uneasy with embarrassment. “I was amazed by the fan mail. It was all very weird and overwhelming, and yes some were over affectionate! That whole episode – my being called the “Scud stud” was jokingly done in the media, and it was short-lived. At the heart of it, what I found really nice was that people from all walks of life, all backgrounds and faiths were very affectionate and warm. It was very humbling.”

Just one year following his return from Iraq, Rageh was to embark on another journey. Iraq had struck a profound chord in him that resounded with a distinct call: a call towards belonging. This journey was not about reporting back to the public, it was a personal voyage to retrace true identity amidst the empty “clash of civilisations” rhetoric that continues to engulf media and minds. The result of this search materialised as a documentary on “An Islamic History of Europe” presenting Rageh as both guide and searcher. “I had grown up in Europe, my home is in Europe. I wanted to explore for myself this untruth that Islam and the West have nothing to do with each other, that European civilisation is somehow utterly distinct from Islamic civilisation. But Islamic contribution is fundamental to western civilisation. Columbus travelled to the New World on maps drawn up by Muslim navigators. Greek civilisation had been brought to Europe through the Umayyads. At almost every single turn, Islam is part of European canons of civilisation, either founded or developed by Muslims of the seventh century.” The documentary shows Rageh visibly touched with his findings, the camera angle panning towards his eyes more often than not luminescent with awe as he gazes on the Islamic legacy in Europe.

For Rageh, his faith is inextricably entwined to his identity. “Islam is a fundamental part of who I am, to my outlook on life” he asserts unfalteringly. “What I keep stressing is that my fellow Britons are often presented with Islam only and purely as politics or religion. There is nothing of Islam as an identity, as a civilisation, of who we are, and that is what is important to get across.”

The repeated questions of identity and belonging seem to be ringing around Muslim ears, but according to Rageh, it is vital to find a voice for ourselves. “We as a community need to start asking questions about what the Muslim community is, what it is that binds us in Britain.” Being defined by other’s terms is a dangerous path to tread. The Muslim community is still cloaked in a veil of obscurity, seen by the mainstream only through the narrow eyes of the media. “Forty percent of people living in this country don’t know any Muslims, that statistic is full of journalists as well” Rageh remarks. “That’s when you get words like ‘Londonistan’ which is basically a fig leaf for ‘I really don’t know about Muslims’. I mean where is Londonistan? Is it Tower Hamlets, is it Edgware Road, Regent’s Park? It’s a hopeless, purile and totally non-descriptive label.”

The question of identity will always encroach Muslim communities as a negative force unless approached from a positive place, where identity is not limiting but encompassing. This reflects the all embracing nature of Islam, a notion that sits very comfortably with the UK as Rageh points out, “When you look at the history of this country, people have had multiple identities for hundreds of years. The spotlight is on us now as the Muslim community. But we have confidence that our lives are here, and things will change.”

And yet there are many challenges to face in realising that change. When I mention the word “ghettoisation” to Rageh, he acknowledges the emergence of ghettoes across the UK, where there is a concentration of Muslim communities, but he adds “there is also the ghetto of the mind.”

“We have been ghettoised and we have ghettoised ourselves for far too long. We have to seize the tools available to us to fight against it and you can see the green shoots of those efforts emerging. There are many community groups, role models in politics, art, music. We are one of the most diverse communities in terms of ethnicity, language, home nationalities. British Pakistanis, British Arabs, British Somalis, British converts, we all come under the banner of British Islam. Yet what are our common problems and issues? We still haven’t worked that out.”

Two issues that appear to be more pertinent for Muslims in the West is the often-time overwhelming sense of apathy and identity that leads to disenchantment over belonging. Rageh fully endorses a positive outlook. “There is every reason to be proud of our Islamic identity. We are Muslim and we are also British. This is our home. We may have our priorities, we have our sense of anger and hurt, but at the same time we cannot be apathetic. I’m not saying all our problems will be solved by going out to vote, of course not. The one thing journalism has taught me is that if you want to make your voice heard, either as a community or as an individual, your voice can be heard pretty quickly if you can determine the careers of politicians.”

And what does he think of political participation now? “I think it is pretty woeful especially at a time when politics, more than anything else, is central to what our problem and solution is. Largely because of Iraq there is a change – with parties like RESPECT, who have amazing Muslim women like Salma Yaqoob. Look at the borough of Ealing, 12,000 Somalis, but I don’t think more than 500 are registered to vote. We need to seize opportunities available to us.”

The Somalis are one of the newest communities to emerge in Britain and Rageh talks about the difficulties they have faced in being violently uprooted from their country. The lack of a fuller integration in Britain stemmed from the desire to return to Somalia, and the consequences of this has led to alienation, frustration, and under-achievement. Little is known about the Somali community, and this ignorance has only been exacerbated by films like “Black Hawk Down” which Rageh calls “a typical Hollywood-isation of history.”

“The whole idea of Somalis and the US involvement in Mogadishu and these disastrous lies was utterly irrelevant.” But even with the glam-propaganda trying to fuel people with fear, there is still evidence of the desire to understand, as Rageh remarks that people are tired of being “saturated with clichés”. Apart from his own experience in the UK, across the Pond in America, good things have been happening. “78% of mosques in America have been built in the last 12 years. The largest number of converts to Islam in America is in Texas. People who were in the army in the first Gulf war have converted to Islam. Isn’t that interesting? Doesn’t that lead to questions? Ridley Scott went from making “Black Hawk Down” to “Kingdom of Heaven”, so even what’s happening to Ridley Scott is indicative of how very slowly, this corner is being turned.”

It seems that Rageh has also been turning some corners. His departure from the BBC may have surprised some, but his move to Al-Jazeera marks yet another step in an ongoing journey. Though he assures me there is no love lost between him and the Beeb, he finds that the approach taken by Al-Jazeera is a vital one. “There is a sanitising of news. Even when I was at the BBC, I was aware of the ongoing debate between correspondents and news editors on how to present the news. We might find the pictures distasteful but they are essential so that we understand what is going on. Al-Jazeera doesn’t have a problem with showing the true effects of war and they don’t seem to have any limitations on reporting.”

Working with Al-Jazeera in dangerous areas has left Rageh with respect for his new colleagues, as he says they have been nothing but professional, and asserts that “a lot of mainstream reporting would not be aired if it was not for Al-Jazeera’s pictures.”

One particularly farcical anecdote happened on Rageh’s last few days in Baghdad, standing on the rooftop of the Palestine Hotel. “Al-Manar, a TV station financed by Hezbollah, were ten feet away from me on this rooftop. The marines came in the hotel, and I will never forget how their lieutenant was being interviewed by them, without knowing who they were. Here was a TV station run by Hezbollah, interviewing an American officer asking him how it feels to be in Baghdad. To me that captured the entire insanity surrounding the Al-Jazeera debate.”

And the criticisms of the Arab news channel? “I think the criticisms of Al-Jazeera are just insane. Even the ones making the allegations don’t believe in them. The American government on one hand is saying Al-Jazeera is a terrorist network, and then they send an ambassador to talk with Al-Jazeera officials. Broadcasting the channel in English is a great move and a fantastic opportunity.”

Rageh now presents “Witness”, a daily documentary series that airs independent filmmakers’ work – a first hand look into real-life experiences. This is entirely apt for a man whose book has opened up a window not only into his own life, but into the lives of other Muslims he encounters, and into the Muslim perspective at large. As he writes enigmatically in the prologue to his book, “Only half of me is the person you think I am,” and from what we have seen so far of Rageh Omaar’s life, it seems this journey is far from over.

This article originally appeared in emel magazine in January 2007, Issue 28.