Reya mixed it up in Israel to explore her dual heritage

GROWING up, Reya El-Salahi thought everybody celebrated Chanucah, Eid and Christmas.

But it wasn’t until she reached her formative years that Reya — the daughter of a British Jewish mother and a Sudanese Arab father — realised that her familial situation was unique.

“I began to question it more later on,” the 32-year-old told me.

“I realised that not everyone came from a family of mixed ethnicity and religion.”

The news and current affairs presenter, reporter and journalist was born in London and spent her early years in the Middle Eastern country of Qatar, before moving back to Oxford, with her mum Katherine, dad Ibrahim and three siblings when she was five.

Intermarriage is nothing new among Britain’s Jewish community. But what is less common is a Jew marrying an Arab, as happened with Reya’s parents.

They met when Newcastle-raised Katherine (nee Levine) was studying in London for a post-graduate degree. Artist Ibrahim was also studying in the capital.

“Surprisingly, it wasn’t a problem for my dad’s family, at all, but there were some concerns on my mum’s side, as the idea of their Jewish daughter marrying a Muslim Arab was always going to be met with raised eyebrows,” Reya said.

“Mum is like most Jewish mothers in that she takes life by the horns, follows her heart and lives life to the max.

“My parents’ love for each other really shines through and, although it is a cliché, it is true that love conquers all.”

Reya is considered Jewish according to Jewish law and Muslim according to Islamic law.

She explained: “I am an atheist, but I love the fact that I have learned about two religions intimately.”

And she confronted her mixed heritage when she made the BBC documentary Mixed Up In The Middle East.

It saw her make her first trip to Israel and the Palestinian Territories in a bid to help her understand the conflict.

The Israel-Palestinian issue was a topic among her immediate family, but not one which has been raised among her wider family on both sides, as it would be a “difficult one to navigate”.

Her cousin, who was doing work experience at the BBC, overheard a conversation about making a documentary on that part of the world, but aimed at younger people — so suggested they contacted Reya.

“It feels like a conflict that is intimate to my life,” said Reya, who has cousins in Israel.

“I was expecting an Israel which I had seen on the TV, a country of conflict, war and destruction, but walking in Tel Aviv, it felt just like a European city, which was quite a shock.

“I was worried how people would connect with me because of Muslim heritage and thought I would have a hard time.

“In Jerusalem, I met a young guy who had converted to Judaism from Islam after he discovered that his maternal grandmother was Jewish and he said things about Islam which I found difficult to hear.”

She added: “There were definitely circumstances where I spoke to people who had a problem with it, but, by and large, people were very welcoming on both sides.

The 32-year-old hasn’t been back to Israel since and has also visited Sudan and Egypt, where her father’s family live.

“It taught me that there is nowhere I can live but Britain,” Reya continued.

“I think there is something very British about being comfortable as part of an ethnically-mixed family.”

Her broadcasting career began when she was reading sociology at the University of Nottingham.

She presented a programme on a local community radio station and was heard by a producer from BBC Radio Nottingham, who offered her a job at his station.

She was the youngest presenter hired by the station.

Reya, who also took a post-graduate degree in journalism, said her Israel documentary took her career to “another level” and she began to present more current affairs programmes on the BBC, worked as a travel reporter on BBC Radio 5 Live, as a presenter on the London Live television station and as a presenter on talkRADIO.

And, last year, she became the face of the renowned consumer affairs publisher Which? as it moved into digital-first content, presenting and producing video campaigns, investigations and hosting the organisation’s first live streaming web show series.

“When I started my career, which was not that long ago, a digital presenting job did not exist,” Reya said.

“This is a fascinating industry, where things move on so quickly, but we also have to give more opportunities to diverse voices.

“Whereas previously you would have to go through the gatekeepers at the BBC or Channel 4 to pitch stories, now younger people are going digital and becoming social media journalists, making and editing their own work for the world to see, which I think is a good thing.”

There has been much debate about the lack of diversity in the higher echelons of football, something which she thinks is replicated in the media industry.

“I don’t think the media is representative of the society we live in and not just from an ethnicity point of view, but also from a disabilities or different walks of life point of view, too,” Reya explained.

“The people making decisions at the top are generally, white, Oxbridge-educated middle-class men.

“There is nothing wrong with that, per se, but seeing how many young people are creating careers through YouTube and Instagram is almost letting them off the hook.”

Many female journalists and broadcasters who retain a presence on Twitter have been the victims of horrific misogynist and racist views.

“I know that male colleagues do not face the same amount of abuse, but I have grown up with a thick skin, so it is water off a duck’s back,” Reya said.

“I find the best way to shut trolls down is having no conversation with them whatsoever and not reacting.”

Reya recently hosted an episode of the renowned podcast This American Life, where she interviewed her mum — and discovered that she went undercover to fight apartheid in South Africa.

Reya continued: “Mum was part of a delegation of young Londoners who posed as honeymooning couples in order to smuggle guns and literature to the ANC.

“It blew my mind, because here was a very sensible Jewish mother smuggling guns. It was also the one time that she faced outright antisemitism.

“She was travelling with her pretend husband and they checked into an all-whites hotel, where the owner made a comment about not wanting Jews there.”

Katherine’s role in helping the ANC will be told in Gordon Main’s documentary film The London Recruits, which will be released later this year.

Reya added she would like to work in America more, but that President Donald Trump’s ban on citizens from certain Muslim countries would be an impediment.

She explained: “That solidified my decision, because my dad would not be welcome there.

“I would like to do more This American Life-type storytelling though and definitely more long-form stuff.”


If you have a story or an issue you want us to cover, let us know - in complete confidence - by contacting, 0161-741 2631 or via Facebook / Twitter

© 2019 Jewish Telegraph