Reya El-Salahi: Mixed Up in the Middle East
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:
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.