Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Moazzam Begg, ex-Guantanamo Bay detainee
'All we had to read was Danielle Steel'
Thursday 06 March 2008
Moazzam Begg, 39, went to Afghanistan with his wife and children to build a school (later destroyed by a US cruise missile). He was kidnapped by the CIA and imprisoned for a year in Bagram, Afghanistan, and then for two years in Guantanamo Bay. He was released (without charges being brought) after campaigning by Amnesty International, which is currently running its "You Can't Jail Minds" poetry competition for secondary schools (www.amnesty.org.uk/education). He is the author of Enemy Combatant, and a spokesman for Cage Prisoners, a Muslim-based organisation for people in "ghost" detention sites throughout the world.
I didn't feel any racism although I was one of only two Muslims in my class at my first school, King David Infants and Juniors, in Moseley, Birmingham – a Jewish school. I never heard the use of the word "Paki" by the Jewish children, ever. My father came to Britain from India and Pakistan; he felt that our Jewish cousins were closer to us than people would care to admit. I never celebrated Christmas until I left this school but we celebrated Pesach, Hanukah, Purim and Yom Kippur.
The school produced among the largest numbers going on to grammar schools, but I didn't pass the 11-plus. My mother died when I was six, and as my father, who was a bank manager, was relocated to other places, I wasn't always at that school. Hillfield School in Bayswater, London, was a completely different experience. It was very cosmopolitan and my best friends were Yugoslavian and Malaysian. I then went to Parkhill, a school in another part of Birmingham.
Moseley Secondary School was a comprehensive that had been a grammar school. It was built in the late 18th century and the teachers wore gowns. There were still punishments with a cane and gym shoe. I think I was among three or four in the class who were Asian; strangely enough, there were no Jews that I came across. There was a lot of inter-racial animosity, and at the same time there was inter-racial friendship and – it was a mixed school – courtship.
At the end of the first year, I was put in the Latin class, although after two years this was deemed to be a bit archaic. With some of my O-level subjects, I just scraped by. The reason was that I had started getting involved with gangs to fight racism; my brother got terribly beaten up outside the school by skinheads and neo-Nazis and remained in hospital for a couple of weeks. After my exams, I wasn't particularly keen on more education; my father had begun his own estate agency and I began working for him.
Two or three years later I took an A-level in law at Solihull College. This was because of constant nagging from my father, who said I had a good mind for argument and thought law would be a good place to channel it. I got a B and then went to the University of Wolverhampton for a law degree.
I did that for two years. I stopped because I didn't enjoy doing it; also, the conflict in Bosnia had just begun and I was trying to rediscover my identity and being a Muslim was part of that. I began working for an aid organisation. I never went back to my education, other than studying Arabic for two years, but will probably finish my law degree and have enquired about Open University courses. In 2005 I gave a speech to over 400 law students in the largest lecture theatre in Wolverhampton university, which felt weird.
In Guantanamo, I asked the Americans if it was possible to study but they said, "No, the most we can get you is Dickens and the Brontës." The only other offer was mind-numbing Danielle Steele books. It was even worse than for convicted criminals, who would be given access to study – but nobody in Guantanamo Bay was ever convicted or even charged with a crime.
I believe that MI5 had offered erroneous intelligence. British agents appeared several times. They brought me a Mars bar "all the way from England" but I refused to take it: I don't like Mars bars.
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