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Reya El-Salahi: Mixed Up in the Middle East

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Reya El Salahi Reya El Salahi | 10:11 UK time, Monday, 14 November 2011

Growing up between the UK and the Middle East, I thought nothing strange of celebrating Christmas, Eid and Hanukkah. It wasn't until I started school that I realised not everyone comes from a family like mine.

My British-Jewish mother met my Afro-Arab Muslim father at university in 1970s London. I am the product of this unconventional relationship.

This summer I set off on what would become the most challenging and contentious journey of my life. It's the conflict that divides opinion - even within my own family - and minutes after arriving at Tel Aviv airport I faced the reality of what my mixed background means in a place like Israel. While the rest of the crew breezed through passport control, I on the other hand - despite my British passport and entitlement to live in Israel due to my maternal Jewish heritage - was immediately whisked off for questioning.

Although my initial experience was far from welcoming, in the three weeks I spent in Israel and the Palestinian territories filming Mixed Up in the Middle East, many of my pre-conceived notions were turned on their head.

For example, I had arrived assuming my darker skin would leave me standing out like a sore thumb. In fact, everywhere I went I found people who looked just like me. The migration of Jews from all over the world means Israel is, visually, a far more mixed society than I had ever imagined.

Another example of my naivety, perhaps - I was shocked the first time I saw a tram pull into a Jerusalem station with a sign flashing in English, Hebrew and Arabic. And no one, except me, batted an eyelid as orthodox Jews with hats and curls disembarked alongside women in hijabs and girls in mini skirts.

Visiting the West Bank was equally eye-opening. It was my first experience of an increasingly secular Arab country, where late night in a Ramallah café mixed groups of young men and (hijab-less) women sipped alcoholic cocktails together. The liberal take on religion was as shocking as it was refreshing to me.

I went to Israel to find out if, like my maternal grandparents before me, it was a country where I would feel instantly at home. Coming from the background I do, questions about my identity were inevitable. But what I wasn't prepared for was just what a divided society it was, and not just between Jews and Arabs. I couldn't ignore the fact that every street cleaner I came across was a dark-skinned Ethiopian Jew.

That said, the Israeli-Palestinian divide remains the most intransigent. On the last Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, I spent the day at the Qalandia checkpoint, the main entry from the West Bank to the revered Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. I watched as hordes of Palestinian men, women and children queued for hours in the hot sun, whilst armed Israeli soldiers - some of whom looked younger than me - allowed a select number through. Just after midday the checkpoint was closed, meaning many were left to pray in the dusty street, and although I'm not religious, the sheer humiliation of this was not lost on me. Moments later angry protestors began to chant, I saw some children throw a couple of stones and without hesitation the soldiers responded by shooting tear-gas into a packed crowd that included elderly people, children, babies and even some Israeli soldiers who were caught off guard. As I began to panic from the violent effects of the tear-gas, it struck me that this is as much the reality of everyday life in Israel for some people as sipping cocktails by Tel Aviv's white-sand beaches is for others.

Here are some images I would like to share:

Reya El Salahi visits a home in Jabaliya Refugee Camp in Gaza and meets Eman Raffie, a young woman who lives there with her family.

I visited a home in Jabaliya Refugee Camp in Gaza and met Eman Raffie, a young woman who lives there with her family. © Adam Patterson / BBC
Reya meets with two young Jewish Israeli women to experience life in Tel Aviv, the 'fun capital' of Israel - starting with some retail therapy! (l-r) Keren Cohen, Reya El Salahi and Shani Scharfstein show off their new manicures on the beach in Tel Aviv.

I met with two young Jewish Israeli women to experience life in Tel Aviv, the 'fun capital' of Israel - starting with some retail therapy! (l-r) Keren Cohen, me and Shani Scharfstein after our manicures on the beach in Tel Aviv. © Adam Patterson / BBC
Reya El Salahi (centre) visits the Jewish settlement of Itamar in the West Bank and meets the Goldschmit Family.

I visited the Jewish Settlement of Itamar in the West Bank and met the Goldschmit Family. © Adam Patterson / BBC
Reya El Salahi meets a young Arab villager, Muntassar Khalid Alkadi, in the village of Awarta, close to the Jewish settlement of Itamar in the West Bank.

I met a young Arab villager, Muntassar Khalid Alkadi, in the village of Awarta, close to the Jewish settlement of Itamar in the West Bank. © Adam Patterson / BBC
Lieutenant Keren Hajioff of the Israeli Defence Force shows Reya El Salahi the correct way to salute, on IDF base in Mitzpe Ramon, Southern Israel.

Lieutenant Keren Hajioff of the Israeli Defence Force showing me the correct way to salute, on IDF base in Mitzpe Ramon, Southern Israel. © Adam Patterson / BBC

It's a deeply complex conflict and an even more complicated country. There were things I loved about it, and things I hated. From visiting a refugee family in Gaza, to spending the day as a soldier at an IDF army base, and being welcomed into the settlement of Itamar - a place that very few Arabs have visited. It was an eye-opening experience to say the least but ultimately, it's a journey that has left me with more questions than answers.

Reya El-Salahi presents Mixed Up in the Middle East, which is tonight at 9pm.

- BBC News: Watch half-Arab half-Jewish British woman's Gaza experience


  • Comment number 1.

    Watched this with interest. Wasn't expecting much, what with it being a BBC production.

    I just have a couple of factual-type comments to make.

    First of all the comment that Israel is segregated. I'm not sure if Reya only spent time in Tel-Aviv, but Arabs and Israelis in Israel mix all the time. There are mixed towns and villages. I was in Israel in September chilling out with some Bedouins and Jews. Reya didn't make the distinction between mixing in Israel and mixing in Judea & Samaria (West Bank). The former is mixed, the latter being segregated. Up until the intifada, the West Bank was far more mixed with Arabs and Jews interacting far more than they do now.

    Secondly Reya said Gaza was in Israel. It's not.

    Thirdly, I felt the reaction to the IDF's actions during the protest was a bit OTT. If you watch some videos of UK police dealing with the London riots or in Northern Ireland, you'll see these tactics are universal.

    There's a lot more to Israel than Tel-Aviv. I was on top of Masada during sunrise. I fell is love with Israel all over again (was last there as a child) Jewish, Arabs, Christians, the hippies in Tel-Aviv, the mad orthodox dancing to trance music in the middle of the street, the markets in Yaffo and Jerusalem, the beautiful women, the history under every step you take, the beach, falafel - everything.

    Otherwise I think Reya did well.

  • Comment number 2.

    I feel I ought to congratulate Reya on such a brave an honest programme.

    She is in a very unusual position to be able to observe and comment upon the complex problem that is the Middle East, and privaleged to be able to view the conflict from the perspective of both sides. I am from the Jewish side of the conflict, but fully recognise there are two sides to the terrible troubles, and really sympathised with the way in which Reya helped the viewer to view the same problem through different lenses.

    Of course she didn't find the solution, but her very presence in Israel as a member of a family which is both Jewish and Muslim could remind the viewer of the absursidity that all the participants in this conflict are ultiimately themselves also descendents of the one , original, Abrahamic family.

    Thank you again Reya.

  • Comment number 3.

    I agree that Reya was very brave for entering and exploring certain parts of Israel and to actually try and find some kind of solution.

    The only bits of the programme I felt uncomfortable with were at the start of it, she mentioned that settlement is internationally recognised to be illegal, yet when she question the palestinian girl Zainab she was shocked by her response of wanting the settlors to leave. This is expected, as in their eyes their homes and family life have been disrupted ever since the settlement. I dont agree with the girl saying that the settlors should be shipped off to the US, but instead how about the settlors stop settling, give back the palestinians their land and rights to basic things such as access to Al Aqsa mosque, water, better housing, the settlers remain and everyone live together as neighbours.

    With all due respect the programme seemed to miss the point that settlement is illegal, so effectively whats happening is ethnic cleansing, as the young british jewish group mentioned 'they love israel, everyones jewish'. Moreover I was not happy with the programme mentioning how many murders some arab palestinians have committed, so if we look at statistics what about the amount of arab israeli murders that they have committed. There was no need to mention such things as it just paints a negative picture which the program should not do. Personally I am neither arab nor israeli, I am just thankfully a well educated human being who would like to see justice.

    I think the BBC should create such documentaries to be more well balanced in the interests of both parties. Otherwise it was a well informed documentary.

  • Comment number 4.


    I'm not sure if this was made clear in the programme but the signs appear in English, Hebrew and Arabic because from 1920-48, Palestine/Israel was in effect a British colony though it was officially a Mandate under the League of Nations. Specifically the naming of the signs is covered in paragaps 80-82 of the Palestine Order in Council, 1922.

  • Comment number 5.

    Reya I have a few points to make. Please read and you are welcome to comment.
    1: Why is it the BBC insists on calling the Hamas “militants” when they are clearly recognised as terrorists by the British too?
    2: You make it sound like it is Israel’s fault that the Palestinians live in such primitive and inhuman conditions whilst the Israeli cities are very developed and they live a good life. If they have been living there for a thousand years surely the land would have been a lot more developed than the way it looks now even 70 years ago, before the state of Israel. I mean look at pictures of other Arab countries 100 years ago compared to Palestine 100 years ago and you will notice that they have done nothing with the land. In fact it was never considered to even be their land; after all they have settled in the land without it ever being recognised as theirs till this day.
    3: The Jewish claim to the land of Israel is not just that it is written in a book. The fact is that Jews have been living in Israel for the last 3500 years. It is true that for the last 2000 years it has been only in small numbers but that was because they were expelled from the land and not allowed to return. But if you look in history you will see that there has been a constant Jewish present in the land of Israel. It has been the dream of all Jewish people around the world for the last 2000 to return to their land. Is it therefore a wonder that when finally after all those years when the UN recognised the need for the Jewish people to have a land that so many Jews seek to move there?
    4: It is truly disturbing to see the conditions the Palestinian people find themselves living in. But let us look realistically as to what is the cause for that. Before the state of Israel you will find that the Palestinians only used very small parts of the land. We are talking of less than 10% of the land. The Jewish people just gone through the most tragic period in their history, the Holocaust (and I don’t mean to use this as an excuse for anything but simply stating a fact). And they finally win their bid in the UN for a Jewish state in the land of their ancestors which at that point was under the British Empire. They were given borders known as today the 48 borders and the Palestinians were given the chance to build their country on the rest of the land giving them more land than they possibly ever needed or used. Instead the Arab nations decided to go to war with this young country called Israel and attacked it from all its borders. Israel was able to defend itself not only that time but also in the wars that followed. As a cause of these wars Israel had to conquer lands in order to defend itself but also as it was attacked the conquered significant sites to the Jewish people, like Jerusalem.
    Ever since then Israel has always had to defend itself from extremist who are not few in number at all, in fact they are a very significant proportion of the Palestinian people. And so they were forced to build barriers and fences and check points etc.
    Many times the Palestinians were offered peace deals which they turned down because they have a problem with the Jewish people living in Israel period.
    5: Look at it from these 2 angels: If the Palestinian Authority was to say that they will put down their arms and ONLY negotiate for a Palestinian land beside a Jewish land, what would happen? Israel would sit with them around a negotiating table, everyone will have to make compromises but at the end it will lead to peace. (And yes there are extremist on the Israeli side too but Israel can control them).
    On the flip side, if Israel was to say they will put down their arms and ONLY negotiate for a Palestinian land beside a Jewish land, what will happen then? Well experience has shown us that whenever the Israeli’s put down their arms they then get attacked by terror groups as it strengthens them to fight to the end (of Israel).

    So tell me now; who is responsible for the way the Palestinians live now? I do feel sorry for them but it really is only them that can make it better by putting down their arms and recognise the Jewish people also have a right to live in the land of their fathers.

  • Comment number 6.

    Congratulations to Reya El-Salahi and BBC3 for having the courage to enter the minefield of Palestinian/Israeli politics with an open mind and a willingness to denounce ignorance, bigotry and inhumanity, independently of which side it comes from.
    And, predictably enough, Reya was disillusioned and distressed to find intransigeance and misogyny on both sides, and left only with the conclusion that there is no quick fix to a problem where religion, history, race, land and politics are involved.
    Admirably, she brought no pre-conceived ideas with her, but responded with warmth, sincerity and affection to the life-affirming exemplars she encountered, whether in the suburbs of Jerusalem or the streets of Ramallah and Gaza.
    But most congratulations must go to her patently loving - and courageous - parents, who have contrived to overcome religious and racial obstacles and bring Reya up with values and attitudes of which they can all be proud. I,for one, am impressed that for all her mixed heritage, she is so clearly proud to call herself British.
    If she has a dream that one day her honesty and sense of decency might some day bring peace and normal life to a troubled region and frightened,angry people I hope she lives to see her dream come true.

  • Comment number 7.

    I just finished watching "Mixed Up in the Middle East" and thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Your befuddlement and anxiety at the situation in Israel is completely understandable and justified.

    Having lived here since 1975 I share your emotions with conditions in the Holy Land.

    I left the U.S. Air Force in '75 and hired on with a company to perform modifications to Israeli Air Force fighter aircraft. The contract was completed within 8 months but I didn't want to leave. I had seen some of the unrest and could not help but see some similarities between the struggles of the Palestinians and the struggles of the African Americans.

    In April of '76 I joined the crew of the Voice of Peace, Abie Nathan's pirate radio station, anchored off the beach of Tel Aviv-Yafo. I was with them until early '82 when I joined the Multinational Force and Observers which monitors the border area between Israel and Egypt. This body was created as a result of the "Camp David Accord" and the Sinai was returned to Egypt in April '82. I remained there for 16 years.

    In '83 I married an Arab of Christian background (Mary) and we are still happy and share our lives with three beautiful daughters and a Labrador named Brandy.

    Organized religion, in my observations, has been the source of more human suffering than any other cause throughout history. I can't believe that ANY omniscient, omnipotent being approves of our actions in his name.

    Bless you for your curiosity and wanting to "see it for yourself". And bless your parents for believing that love really does conquer all.


  • Comment number 8.

    I have just finished watching mixed up in the middle east, I had been looking forward to the programme for the last few days as I have always been very interested in the dynamics of this area.
    Although the idea of the programme apealed to me the execution was to be honest quite dissapointing. I feel Reya may not have been the best person to host the documentary, probably due to her age/experience which showed through when dealing with aituations which to people living in England might find frighteningor odd but to people living in this area would be normal day events. I think Reya could have dealt with these situations much more prefessionally and have not have looked so worried and jumped out of her skin every time someone clapped etc.
    I feel a more professional reporter would have been able make this the documentary I was so looking forward to.


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