I'm proud of my son - whatever's said about him
The young Muslim who dressed as a suicide bomber to protest against newspaper cartoons has been condemned and sent back to prison. Declan Walsh in Punjab hears Omar Khayam's family defend their 'bright, sensitive child'
Sunday February 12, 2006
The evening traffic trundles along the Great Trunk Road, the colonial-era highway that slices a broad arc across Pakistan's Punjab province. In a large marble-walled house down a dusty side road, Taj Riffat, chatting over a tray of sweet tea, biscuits and fried potato, speaks warmly of his son, Omar.
A quietly spoken man with owlish glasses and a neat grey waistcoat, Riffat explains that he named Omar after the great Persian poet, Omar Khayyam - whose life is the subject of a new film starring Vanessa Redgrave. The 12th-century mystic, who is also known as the 'King of Wisdom', was a romantic figure, says the retired Urdu teacher: 'He spoke about the richness of life.'
The modern Omar Khayam - a 22-year-old from Bedford - is also a sensitive soul, he adds. 'All my children were good and bright, but Omar was very bright, very intelligent - a diplomatic sort of person.'
That is a minority view 4,000 miles away in Britain, where Khayam became one of the country's most controversial Muslims last week after provoking a most undiplomatic furore.
Ten days ago he was photographed at a protest against the controversial Danish cartoons satirising the Prophet Muhammad, wearing a black bandanna, military fatigues and a black ammunition jacket - 'the fake suicide bomber'. The widely published photograph triggered a wave of anger, most powerfully from some of the victims of the 7 July London bombing, and, after a stern talking-to from his Muslim elders, Khayam apologised last Monday.
But it was too late. A day later the paroled prisoner - who had served half of a five-and-a-half-years stretch for drug dealing - was returned to prison on charges of breaching the conditions of his licence for behaving in a threatening manner.
The case crystallised many of the debates that are sweeping Britain in the wake of the ballooning cartoon crisis - between religious respect and freedom of speech; between Muslim and Western values; between peaceful protest and inflammatory grandstanding. In many ways an unremarkable figure, Khayam unwittingly pitched himself into the heart of the storm.
But the Bedford man also represents a far more personal set of dilemmas, one felt by a generation of young Pakistani Britons torn between the freewheeling liberties of modern Britain and the conservative, slow-moving values of an Islamic society a continent away. Straddling the gap between the two worlds can seem an impossible task - for father as well as son.
The Khayam family home is in Kamra, an air force town at the northern edge of Punjab, 60 miles from Islamabad, which is home to part of Pakistan's proud fleet of F-16 warplanes. When I arrived in the town as dusk fell last Thursday, I was welcomed by Taj Riffat and his burly 25-year-old son, Omar's brother, Nazish.
The interview starts with a polite but firm request - the entire conversation must be videotaped. 'It's not that we don't trust you,' he says, half apologetically, in a strong English accent, positioning the camera on a table beside a bouquet of plastic flowers. 'But we can't take a chance with the media any more.'
Once the camera is rolling, Riffat, a retired schoolteacher, is entirely unapol-ogetic for his son's behaviour. He blames everyone else for the great misfortune that has been heaped on his family - the media that hyped a 'good story', the police who arrested him, the Danish cartoonists, the parole board, the 'Jewish lobby'. Everyone except Khayam.
'He didn't say a harmful word, he didn't carry a placard, there was nothing hateful written on his uniform. So why was he arrested? I think the pressure came from the police and the shadow home secretary [David Davis, who called last weekend for police action against protesters],' he says in a calm, low voice.
The picture of Khayam at the march - a sullen-faced, closely shaven man staring at the camera - is saved on the family computer in the next room, downloaded off the internet. Both men insist that Khayam did not intend to resemble a suicide bomber.
'It's the press that made him into a suicide bomber, he didn't dress like one,' says Nazish, a computer technician who came to Pakistan to help his father through an operation. 'It's just a fashion statement. Why don't they arrest 50 Cent? London is the fashion capital and people are used to this. He was just trying to highlight a double standard. There was no hatred.'
The story of Taj Riffat's family is in many ways typical of the thousands of families that straddle Britain and Pakistan, two universes tied by an eight-hour Pakistani International Airlines flight. After graduating from the University of Lahore, Riffat moved to Britain in the early Seventies, where he started a family and taught Urdu to GCSE and A-level students.
They set up home in Queen's Park in Bedford which, according to the town website, is the most ethnically diverse place in all of Britain. Khayam was Riffat's third son by his first wife, who later died in childbirth. At Biddenham Upper School in Bedford, he was also Riffat's student. 'He was very good in Urdu,' he says.
Three years ago Riffat retired to Kamra with his fourth wife. His health was one reason for going back, he says - as a coeliac sufferer and sensitive to gluten, he finds the Pakistani diet easier to manage. But there were also cultural preferences. During our interview Nazish serves the food and the only visitor is his five-year-old son Usman, who bounds in with a shy smile.
'Right now, you haven't seen any women coming through,' he says. 'In other cultures women bring their boyfriends home. We don't do that. We have a sense of morality and respect.'
Khayam followed a different trajectory. He came to Pakistan when his grandmother died but returned to Britain because 'he didn't like it here', says his father. While looking after his ailing mother, Riffat learnt that Khayam had been arrested for dealing drugs. The 18-year-old tried to evade arrest by throwing a 60-gram bag of crack cocaine from a moving car during a police chase through Bedford.
But a witness retrieved the bag, and he was convicted with possession with intent to supply. 'I was very disappointed,' admitted Riffat. 'You can expect that sort of thing happening to decent and noble people in Britain. You can't jail them in the house. They have to go out, see their peers, mix with ordinary people.'
In jail Omar got a job as a chef, Nazish says, and became popular for his fine South Asian cooking. 'Usually during Ramadan [the Muslim holy month of fasting] they just have a sandwich and an apple. When Omar arrived everything changed. He cooked chicken and meat biryanis, kormas, jalfrezis - everything you would find in a good restaurant. There were more converts to Islam in the prison than ever before. Then there was a ban on converting because they know most of the guys were doing it for the food.'
Some reports suggest Khayam was drawn to radical Islam during his three-year jail spell, which ended with his release on licence last year. His brother, who describes Khayam as a 'moderate Muslim', denies the charge.
'He said that when there's a 23-hour lock-up, you have to make the most of the one hour you have free. He tried the gym at first, then he paid more frequent visits to the mosque.' His father interjected. 'From a religious point of view, he stayed the same. Prison had no influence on him.'
After being released last year Khayam started a bricklaying course and helped out with the family computer business in Bedford. Then came the Danish embassy protest and the suicide-bomber outfit.
When Riffat first saw the controversial image, he laughed. 'We did not take it seriously,' he said. But days later he watched Khayam apologise on national television and read reports in which the local mosque chairman called him 'a bit of an idiot'. Then, listening to the BBC Urdu radio service, he found out the Home Office has sent him back to jail.
'I am not emotional about that,' he says, but then goes on to suggest the opposite. 'Was it the condition of his parole not to join a religious gathering? To me it was against the standards of civil liberties set by British society. I have been living there for 27 years, and I have never seen such an example in my life.'
Nazish feels that his brother was picked on for being a Muslim. 'It started out as a jokey thing, but now it's become serious to a pathetic level. They shouldn't have given him that level of publicity,' he says. 'When Prince Harry wore the Nazi uniform, why wasn't there a poll to see if he should be arrested for offending the Holocaust survivors? Omar has done the same thing, in a way. It's pathetic.
'The IRA used to be branded "terrorists", but now they have been downgraded to "paramilitary group". The new terrorists are the Muslims.'
The men share Khayam's outrage at the Danish cartoons, and detect hidden hands behind the scandal. 'Muslims are bridging the gap with the West. But because the Jewish lobby did not like that, they may have backed this. This may have been their conspiracy,' says Riffat. But they reject violence and are furious at the 7 July terrorists - who, unlike Khayam, were true suicide bombers - for, as they see it, staining the reputation of British Pakistanis. 'A whole community has been sabotaged,' says Nazish.
Ultimately, though, they see Khayam as the casualty of a ballooning clash of cultures that is being played out in Bedford, London, and across the world.
'This is such a critical time. In the Middle East there's a crisis where America is on the giving end and the Muslim world is receiving,' says Nazish, after the videotape runs out and the tea has gone cold. 'Anyone makes a hiccup and things are bound to kick off. Everyone is on thin ice.'