As part of a publicity tour for his new book, Only Half of Me: Being a Muslim in Britain, Rageh Omaar was at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford (UK) on the evening of 29 June 2006.
Having happened to have seen him a year or so previously at a similar kind of event following the publication of his first book Revolution Day, a fairly critical appraisal of his time as on-the-spot reporter in Baghdad during the 2003 Iraq invasion, I was intrigued to find out how he had changed. His new book, which examines issues of identity for Muslims in contemporary Britain, certainly marks a change in style and tone, being less journalistic and more contemplative and rich in sources.
I’m not sure exactly what it is, but – like so many others – I really feel I like Rageh, as I like a friend. In a brief conversation the other day, a colleague of mine suggested there is something very ‘ethical’ about Rageh Omaar – not necessarily (and perhaps inevitably as a TV reporter) in that he always must manage to be ethical and impartial etc, but yet somehow through all the machinary of the media to still express his pains to be ethical, to be responsible on all sorts of levels. Only Half of Me certainly does not betray such a sentiment, in fact it makes explicit the ‘process’ of questioning, rather than attempting all too easily to throw up ‘answers’ to the problems discussed. It is this kind of modesty and reflection that is surely distinctive of Rageh’s style. As I came away from the talk, a young guy, with whom I’d struck up a conversation with prior to going into the talk, saw me again in the crowd. He gave a litle smile and suggested it might have all been too ‘middle of the road’ – Rageh is all too nice and gentle. I think perhaps he has a point, but equally, Rageh is not afraid to express a direct opinion. When asked during the event in all frankness whether he felt the war in Iraq had been justified, he dithered for a moment (and you expected he was going to duck the question like any MP would), but he did not retreat. Rageh stated clearly he felt the war had not been justified, and importantly explained his answer with great precision, avoiding all the usual grievances (such as the 45 minute claim and the lack of weapons). Instead he made a very accute point about the lack of awareness on behalf of certain western leaders regarding the status and heritage of Iraq in the longview and how this ignorance has in many respects made for a terrible blindspot, giving no means, for example, to have predicted the significance and effects of having waged war in the country.
With all seats filled, Rageh came up onto the stage at the venue in the National Museum still with his jacket on. Taking this off and casually placing over a chair (as if he’d just come home from a day’s work), he proceeded to give a ‘reading’ from his new book without barely reading a line off the page – no doubt all his training and experience as a journalist filing to camera, he stores his thoughts up in his head. And it is not perhaps that Rageh has a huge amount to say, but what he does say is very well placed – there is a great sense of contextualising information in a brief form. However, given the scope of the book, which examines Britishness and Muslim culture and identity, and given the cultural diversity (and at times its tensions) well known of the city of Bradford, I thought it surprising that during the extensive Q&A session that followed no one seemed to want to explore the key issue of the book, encapsulated – controversially perhaps – in the title ‘Only Half of Me’. The title of Rageh’s book was what really drew me to the event and what stuck in my mind as what had been most ignored.
Perhaps one of the most memorable questions – emblematic of the nature of the audience’s interest – came from a young women sitting near the front. Why, she asked, had Rageh chosen to leave the BBC and was this due to reasons of disaffection? As a final and crucial rider, she noted how she had always felt a certain pride in seeing someone like Rageh up on the screen, a British-Asian role-model. Has Rageh let his community down? Inevitably Rageh had to take a deep breath before making his considered response. He calmly noted he had not left the BBC on bad terms (and indeed is still making various documentary programmes with the Corporation), however he had felt the need, as he put it, to take control of his of own destiny. There was – he himself admitted – something a little corny about such an idea, but nevertheless, the need to take control – not least editorial control – of one’s work is undoubtedly a fundamental point of interest for Rageh. And no doubt makes for a compelling case that the last thing he is doing is letting his community down – though of course interrogating further just who his ‘community’ might include is a another very interesting and open question. A question we might suitably have explored that evening, had it not been for the overriding interest in Rageh’s former role at the BBC as Baghdad correspondent.
At one point, in answering yet more questions about reporting in Iraq, Rageh gave a wonderful description – along the lines of situationalist Guy Debord’s notion of the ‘society of spectacle’ – of the media as a great echo-chamber. Whilst a statement of fact as issued by a solider as he advances to his destination, declaring, for example, no resistence has been met along the road to the target, gives us an accurate report of the scene, once it is then re-iterated by a commander in the media-centre designed specially for the awaiting media (all desperate for some ‘news’), this simple fact is transformed into the starting filament of a major news story. As Rageh mentioned, he lost count of the number of times Basra fell. In 24 Hour News, he explained, there is a terrible flaw, the speed of information means very little can be checked and verified, and even if it is later found to be inaccurate, it hardly matters as the story has moved on elsewhere anyway. I could only feel Rageh chose to step out of this great echo-chamber only to find it encased in another. As he acknowledged a number of times, he has been given a ‘platform’ following his break as a prominent BBC correspondent. Yet that same platform does potentially restrict not what he can say, but what he is heard to say. I think it is going to be fascinating to see how his new book is taken up in the wider debates going on now about Muslims in Britain and about cultural values and identity in general in the post-September 11 world.
At the very close of the event – and really with far too little time for an adequate response – a non-Muslim mother asked Rageh a stark question: what should she say to her young son (of 10 years old) who is asking her questions about his Muslim friends at school and the kinds of representations he is seeing on the television? Rageh – who acknowledged the upmost importance of the question – rather lost his way in reply. I sensed he wanted to say he had no answer (and that was what troubled him and what brought him in all seriousness to the venue on this day), but given that this was the very last question and given that he was all but asked for a take-home perscription, what could he do but feign an authoriative response (curtailed due to the lack of time)? I really would like to know what ‘other’ answers might be possible and I suspect many more in the room (Rageh and the mother who asked the final question included) wish to know too. Rageh’s new book is certainly not to be read in isolation, I just wonder where the next venue for the debate it urges is to be located (and on whose time)…