Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Rageh Omaar, Al-Jazeera presenter

'I've always had the wanderlust'
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The Independent Online

Rageh Omaar, 40, is the former BBC world affairs correspondent who now presents the nightly documentary series Witness on al-Jazeera English. His reporting in the second Gulf War led to his nickname of the "Scud Stud", coined by the Washington Post. He is the author of Only Half of Me: Being a Muslim in Britain. He is presenting Crime Invasion: Britain's New Underworld, a 10-part series on Virgin 1 on Thursdays at 9pm.

I still speak Somalian fluently. I was born in Somalia and went to a kindergarten in Mogadishu. I came to England when I was five and when I went to Bassett House, a school in west London, I was still learning English. I describe it as talking with your hands over your ears: I was communicating, but I wasn't sure how. It was a strange limbo.

I left home when I was young; it was a case of sink or swim when I went at seven as a border to the Dragon prep school in Oxford. I'm very good at coping when I'm thrown in at the deep end, so journalism is a perfect career: it's very instant, being a foreign correspondent and doing a live news report.

I'm drawn to places a lot of journalists can't get into. Having a privileged education does give you a sense of confidence to take on difficult challenges, to explore and push. In 1997, I was going into Iraq as a junior reporter when no other journalist from the BBC had been there for five years, and in 2001 I travelled into Kabul with the Taliban before the city fell.

At the Dragon, I got the annual prize for acting and I enjoyed the idea of public performance. I ended up being naughty and had to knuckle down towards the end. I got into Cheltenham College; I probably just scraped through the entrance exam.

I spent my time there on the playing fields and hanging about with friends. It wasn't until A-levels that I started to study. I got the minimum five O-levels and then realised that, to get to Oxford, you needed to work. I think that the school was surprised: "You've left it rather late!" I suppose I leave things to the last moment – like doing dispatches – and that's how I did my exams. I did four A-levels: history, English, political philosophy, and economics and government. Modern history was the obvious choice at Oxford and the student handbook described New College as popular.

They were great teachers at Oxford. I enjoyed my history course: it taught me about writing and constructing an argument, the basis of a dispatch. I wanted to enjoy my time and remember it. Unlike school, where you are simply thrown in with people, you can pick your friends at university. I met my wife through one of mine.

I joined a strategic studies group that got diplomats to speak to us. Sitting across the table from them, I thought, "I'd like to report on that sort of thing." It planted more strongly in my mind the idea that I'd like to go to faraway countries; I've always had the wanderlust. At school, I'd look at maps of different countries and wonder what life would be like there; I remember when President Sadat of Egypt was assassinated and Terry Waite was taken hostage.

I had no interest in student journalism, which seemed quite cliquey, and I finished at university without an article to my name. I wish I had done languages – I did have the idea of changing my degree. It's much easier to turn a linguist into a correspondent than a correspondent into a linguist.

In my first year, I was considered for a scholarship (no money, but you got the chance to wear a long gown in hall), but when I just missed it, I thought, "I'm not going to work my guts out." My tutor said, "I've enjoyed teaching you. You should either get a first or a third: don't get one in the middle." I got a third.