Here, there, not quite everywhere

24th November 2006 at 00:00
Suddenly rageh Omaar is everywhere: in the papers, on Question Time, and quite possibly at a venue near you promoting his new book, Only Half of Me.

You may remember him on television for the BBC back in 2003, when he popped up in Baghdad reporting on the Iraq War. You could not help but note that he was not John Simpson or Kate Adie. Young, black, Muslim and - this did not do him any harm either - good looking with it, many wondered at the time if they weren't looking at the new face of the BBC abroad.

In the end it did not work out that way, as Omaar recently transferred to al Jazeera and will soon be seen fronting the new English language service.

My interest in the broadcaster and writer was tweaked when posters appeared in and around my place of work advertising a talk he was due to give on the new book, described as "about being a Muslim in Britain".

A couple of months earlier, I had interviewed a group of Muslim students at an FE college, several of whom, like Omaar himself, were part of the British Somalian community. They had strong views on many things, but two in particular stood out.

Firstly, they felt stigmatised as terrorists, or would-be terrorists, when in practice they were merely ordinary British citizens who happened to be Muslim.

Secondly, they laid the blame for many of their travails firmly at the door of the media, which they accused of fanning the flames of bigotry and only reporting the negatives about their community. "They are only interested in us when something bad happens," was how they put it.

Interestingly, Omaar made much the same points in recently published articles and extracts from his book. The overwhelming majority of British Muslims are, and would describe themselves as, "mainstream", he says, but you would never think it from reading the papers.

I mentioned the forthcoming talk to my students. Some of them were studying media, others were Somalies. From both angles, Omaar has written about the opportunistic way he got started in journalism. It seemed like a role model.

On the night, a little group was there waiting expectantly at the appointed hour, along with 40 or so others who had paid pound;8 a head for the privilege. I had tried to line up an interview afterwards, but his agent was lukewarm. Omaar wanted to get home to his family after. And what was the circulation of The TES anyway? she enquired.

It turned out the first print run of the book had already sold out.

"Perhaps I could line you up for a telephone interview when the paperback comes out?"

Sadly, at this point I have to qualify my opening remarks about Omaar's ubiquity. Everywhere he may be, but not that autumn evening where he was supposed to be. After a long wait, the event organisers apologised and handed us back our pound;8. The man who had talked his way into Kabul as the Taliban fell could not make it through traffic to the Wandsworth Civic Suite.

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