Only Half of Me: being a Muslim in Britain by Rageh Omaar

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In his postscript to Only Half of Me, Rageh Omaar, the award-winning British journalist born in Somalia, tells two everyday stories. In October 2005, he is on a bus going to Hounslow to see his aunt when "I was aware of eight teenage schoolgirls tumbling down from the top deck, shouting and laughing... several were young Somalis, their heads neatly wrapped in dark headscarves, their uniform consisting of very tight drainpipe trousers and fake Chanel bags with shiny interlocking buckles... Their loud and high-pitched chatter jumped from one another to their mobile phones that jangled out in an otherwise utterly silent bus."

Omaar's other story comes from his disapproving aunt, who recounts her own bus story from that day. She had gone shopping and, a devout Muslim who prays five times a day, had done ablutions for her morning prayers. When a white man sat next to her, she moved to another seat because it is a rule not to touch the opposite sex after ablutions. The man shouted: "You are so rude! How dare you? It should be me who moves away from you given how your type blows up buses."

Only Half of Me is a vivid, poignant and hopeful plea for that move from the man's anger to the "connected" schoolgirls, where the "other half" - of being a Muslim in Britain - is revealed, understood and becomes part of the fabric of a better civilisation. True to his purpose, Omaar reveals it through the mix of mobiles and murder, business and belief, that form his own story and those of Somali Muslims closer to his family.

He tells the stories of his brother and children in a flat opposite Edgware Road tube station when the bomb went off on 7 July 2005; of his family friend Samia's tale of her terrible escape with her young children from the Somali civil war; of Mohammed Hassan, persecuted as a Muslim by the Bari dictatorship, educated as a biochemist in England to help doctors in his own country but, stranded by increasing violence, running a travel agency in London to help Somalis on their pilgrimage to Mecca; of his aunt Asha's nephew Mohammed's story, when his throat was slit by young London men after the 7 July terrorist attacks; and of how his cousins Habiba and Asha were grabbed and patted down by flak-jacketed police officers after trying to visit Mohammed in hospital, because passengers on the bus had become frightened by "something bulky" under one of their dresses (one of the cousins was overweight) and were suspicious that they wore headscarves and dark gowns on an evening in July.

Buses and trains, in Omaar's riveting account, are often vehicles of unease, fear and terror. There is the story of London Muslim businessmen killed on a bus of Shia pilgrims to the shrines of Iraq. But buses can also be the source of the people and ideas (such as the schoolgirls) in which Omaar invests hope.

The bus tragedy in Iraq becomes the setting for Omaar's history of the country. He tells the story of the Prophet Mohammed's own family, who died fighting powerfully unjust enemies - a story that the "ambitious and aggressive" Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr turned against US occupying forces attacking Najaf. And he tellingly reminds us of the British government in 1920 reciting the same "liberation" versus "civil war" rhetoric used in 2003 in Iraq.

Omaar's plea is that the voice of the individual not be lost in the broad stereotypes we hear from media and politicians about fundamentalism, the "clash of civilisations", and good versus evil. His book - written admittedly from the background of an affluent immigrant family - is a powerful agent in telling the everyday tales which can make us all imagine "that our worlds are not actually in conflict at all".

John Tulloch's 'One Day in July: Experiencing 7/7' is published by Little, Brown

Comments