There are few Canadian figures as polarizing as Omar Khadr. If you don’t know his story, the short version is that in 2002 he was enlisted by Al-Qaeda as a child soldier. Following the bombing of the hideout he was staying in, a firefight ensued with the US military forces, during which Omar was shot and accused of killing Sgt. Christopher Speer with a grenade. Despite being 15 years old at the time, he was held in Guantanamo Bay for 10 years—the only Canadian citizen detained there and the only child convicted of a war crime since World War II. After a lengthy court process, he was extradited to Canada and eventually released back into the Edmonton community with strict guidelines.
He also likes cats, cartoons and Sega Genesis.
My first exposure to the case of Omar Khadr was in my first year of University. One of my friends, a social activist, wanted to screen the CBC documentary “The US vs Omar Khadr” for the school, and bring Omar’s lawyer, Dennis Edney, and his in-prison teacher, Dr. Arlette Zinck, as guest speakers. I agreed to help, and this was really the first time I ever became politically or socially active in a cause. From there I would attend rallies for Omar, follow his trial, and—being that he was a brother in faith—would keep him in my prayers.
I remember praying for God to let me shake his hand one day and give him the traditional Islamic greeting: salam alaikum—peace be upon you. Out of anyone I knew, he would be the one who needed that peace the most.
Five years later I was at the mosque I volunteer at, and was opening up the boy’s youth center for a program we were having. The lights were off in the hallway, since I was one of the few people in the building at the time. As I was about to open the door, I heard one of the brothers I knew greet me. I couldn’t see, but I knew him by his voice. He had a guest with him, so I shook his hand also, greeted him with salams and was asked if I could show him the youth center. Of course the guest was Omar Khadr, but I was so preoccupied with setting up that I gave them a quick tour without thinking twice. It lingered in the back of my mind like a suspicion. It wasn’t until after they left that I thought back on the guest’s face; particularly the left eye, the pupil still slightly white from damage. When I noticed that, I had my suspicions. But slowly it began to sink in.
I realized that I shook the hand of Omar Khadr.
Movies and Meatballs
I would see him several more times after that. At a community dinner, I sat next to him, shy and unwilling to speak despite the myriad of questions that swirled in my mind. I would say his voice is what stuck with me the most. You don’t hear headlines or photographs talk, and when he spoke his voice was surprisingly gentle. He was well-spoken and straight to the point, but not humorless. He struck me as well spoken, and conversational, but saying only what needed to be said. He was never afraid to laugh. And whenever he met someone, he did so with a smile. I noticed the tracking device around his ankle at the time.
Shortly after, I would pray with him at the mosque and would shake his hand when we were finished. At a movie night with my friends, Omar came with another one of my friends, who was his driver and would take Omar out occasionally. Around 8:30 or so—before I Am Legend had ended— my friend had to drive Omar back home because of is curfew.
Shortly after, it was my turn to host a movie night. I had picked the Tom Cruise sci-fi flick Oblivion, and was busy preparing dinner as guests started arriving. The butternut squash soup was almost ready, and I was about to start rolling together meatballs when Omar arrived with my friend.
It was during this time that I truly saw Omar as he was. The first thing he did was cuddle with my cat, petting him and chatting with him. Afterward, he offered to help me cook.
Here was Omar Khadr, the most polarizing Canadian figure in recent memory, helping me make meatballs and roll them in the teriyaki glaze. Even now, it seems surreal. He carried with him the air of a person who had seen much, felt much, but did not hate the world. His motions rolling the ground beef were careful and deliberate.
Afterwards, while the meatballs baked, we sat in the living room and he examined my movie collection.
“Seen it. Seen it. Seen it,” he’d say as he went through my collection (admittedly, most of it being sci-fi and animated movies). When I told him we were watching Oblivion, he admitted he had seen it as well. He pulled Disney’s Big Hero 6 out of my collection. “I wanted to see this,” he said to himself as he read the back. With that, I decided to switch out the movie. Even though all of my friends had seen it already, I felt the least I could do is honour Omar’s request.
Though my other friend jokingly complained, Omar responded with, “I was in prison for 13 years…”
It’s hard to argue with that logic.
There were about 10 of us in my little basement suite, and none of us laughed as much or as genuinely as Omar did. When the movie was over, we played The Dictionary Game and Omar kept score. Afterwards, I booted up Sonic The Hedgehog 2 for the Sega Genesis and Omar watched, recounting how he would play Sega when he was younger.
The night started coming to an end and people started going home. Omar and my friend started to leave.
“JazakAllah khair, Aaron,” Omar said to me—a phrase meaning, “May God reward you with goodness”. He shook my hand with a grin. His smile and his voice are definitely what have stayed in my memory.
So the inevitable question: what is Omar Khadr like?
It’s easy to look at the black-and-white of the headlines and see either a victim of injustice or a perpetrator of terrorism. It’s so easy for us to cast our judgments without bothering to know the men or women we claim to hate or venerate.
As for Omar Khadr, the answer is quite simple: he’s a normal guy. Really. Looking at him, hearing him speak, shaking his hand, you wouldn’t think that this is the same man who spent 13 years of his life in Guantanamo Bay. You wouldn’t think that a smile like his could come from a man who had faced the manmade hell and torture of that place, and who had been abandoned by his own country. You wouldn’t think that a courteous, well-mannered man could have been the product of spending almost half his life being beaten and humiliated. But that seems to be Omar—a man who had seen the hellish capacity of humanity, and chose to respond by being better than it. The last I saw him was shortly after coming back from Hajj; we were sitting in a group with a visiting sheikh, and Omar was expressing his concern about families inviting him for Christmas dinner.
Beyond the headlines and court photographs, Omar Khadr in real life is a man who is courteous, smart, and actually pretty cool. He’s the kind of guy you could talk about life with over a coffee at Tim Horton’s. This article may not change your opinion about him. But I guarantee you that if you were to actually sit with him—maybe even make some meatballs—you’d see a gentle soul who is just trying to make his way in the world.
I’d wanted to write this article for a long time, and sat on it until I learned that Omar was now engaged Muna Abougoush, a human rights activist. In the middle of writing it, the media seemed to catch wind of Omar’s engagement. The real push to publish this came when right-wing pundit Ezra Levant wrote in an article (which I refuse to link to, which would increase its traffic) that Omar Khadr’s purpose for getting married was to “build an anti-Canada, pro-terrorism family, just like his father did”, it was only fitting that I publish this now. The fact that Omar Khadr is a human being—one who suffered more torture than Levant ever has—and that human beings get married because they love someone doesn’t seem to cross his mind.
Then again, if Levant knew I was a Muslim convert working for the Government of Alberta, he’d probably accuse me of being an ISIS infiltrator looking to secretly overthrow the government from the inside and establish my own ISIS-approved version of Shariah law.
Did I just give away my secret plot? I guess you caught me there, internet.
As a reader, you may just dismiss this as, at the very least, an apologetic Muslim trying to save the tarnished reputation of another Muslim. Or, a little more extreme, you may just dismiss me as an outright liar—where’s the proof you met Omar? Why didn’t you name your friends? Where are the pictures? Well, you got me again: I never took a picture or selfie with Omar Khadr, and I deliberately chose not to name my friends in the article to protect them from potential harassment. I can give you a good recipe for teriyaki meatballs, though.
During one of his first interviews in Edmonton, he was asked what he would want Canadians to know about him. Omar said, “Just to give me a chance. See who I am as a person, not as a name. And then they can make their own judgment after that.”
With this article, I want people to know that Omar Khadr is a person, not as a headline or a photo on a website.