I was one of Omar’s friends from his undergraduate days at Balliol. He was in the year above me and we’ve been friends ever since. He lived with me and some other friends in his third year in a house in Marston Street, off the Cowley Road, and we had great fun. I’m glad there is someone here today who was an undergraduate with Omar at Balliol: it was a very happy and carefree time.
Omar had a tremendous gift for friendship, as all of you here today know. He brought people together. Almost every time I was with him I was with someone else too. But that didn’t mean you were any less with Omar: it was just that he naturally reached out to and included people.
Things were good when you were with Omar. I remember late one night, it must have been about 2 or even 3 in the morning, Omar and I walked out of the college gates into Broad Street. Probably we’d been at a party or talking in someone’s room and wanted to clear our heads in the fresh air. It was completely quiet – everyone else seemed to have gone to bed. Then the pure lyrical notes of a flute came wafting towards us. A lone flautist was playing to the night air from the steps of the Clarendon Building. It was a magical moment, and the kind of thing that happened when one was with Omar.
When I think of Omar, the first picture that comes to mind is of him stretched out full length on the sofa near the entrance to the College library. Everyone else sat down on one of the chairs, but not Omar. He was in fact working very hard but it was entirely characteristic that he enjoyed himself while doing so. Omar worked because he wanted to, unlike many of our fellow undergraduates who regarded their work as a duty or chore.
Omar was interested in everybody and afraid of nobody. Those two characteristics were fundamental – a deeply impressive combination.
He would follow his ideas wherever they led. He was very interested in political philosophy when we were students. It was a great period in political philosophy and Rawls, Nagel and Nozick were all publishing or had just published. Omar was particularly impressed by Robert Nozick’s book, Anarchy, State and Utopia and decided to try anarchy out for himself. So off we went to a meeting of the Oxford Anarchists. They were pretty serious anarchists, intent on revolution and ready to get themselves arrested at the drop of a hat. But Omar was quite unintimidated by the heavy political atmosphere and took them to task intellectually for the inconsistencies and implausible assumptions in their position.
Although Omar was utterly informal and unpretentious in his manner, as I got to know him better I became more and more aware of his quiet but unshakeable inner dignity. A story he told me illustrates this. Late at night he was coming out of a subway station in New York when he heard footsteps behind him. It was a tall, menacing Rastafarian. ‘Are you afraid of me?’ came the voice. ‘No, are you afraid of me?’ replied Omar. Not surprisingly the other man was rather discomposed, and following up his advantage Omar added ‘You can’t be too careful these days you know’.
Omar would try anything. I don’t think it crossed his mind he might not be able to do it. Once we decided that we would go on a cycling expedition from Oxford to Salisbury, quite a major trip, perhaps sixty or seventy miles. He didn’t think it was relevant to tell me that it was years since he’d been on a bike and couldn’t really remember how to ride one. Just a few miles outside Oxford, hurtling down Garsington Hill, Omar went flying over the handlebars. For a few minutes we thought he’d seriously injured himself. But I don’t think he regretted the idea. Another time, we went up to the Lake District for a few days. For some reason I had to go back to Oxford a bit earlier. Omar stayed on for another day and decided to walk round Lake Windermere with an army-type fitness fanatic we’d met up with. What Omar hadn’t realized was that it is a good 25 gruelling miles round Windermere. But he did it. I think he basically thought: ‘if someone else can do it, I can too’. He had that kind of confidence in himself.
He often used to claim to me that he was a hedonist on principle. I think he said it mainly to tease me, thinking (probably rightly) that I was a bit too inclined to moralism. In fact Omar was all of a piece, and his deeply-held liberalism, developed by his reading and thinking in political philosophy, informed his whole life: his lifestyle, friendships, attitude to others, and his academic interests. But I think there was an element of truth in his claim. What he did, he did because he believed in it and wanted to do it, not in deference to any one else, or to any unfounded moral, religious or political injunctions. And being Omar he enjoyed doing it. He showed us how to live life well, in every sense, and those of us who were privileged to know him will never forget the brightness he brought to our lives.