How We Met: Jon Blair & Rageh Omaar

'Having a Somali and a South African under Al Jazeera is quite an odd combination'
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The Independent Online

Rageh Omaar, 44

A Somali-born British journalist and former BBC reporter, Omaar came to national prominence during his coverage of the 2003 Iraq War from Baghdad. He is now a Middle Eastern correspondent for Al Jazeera English. He lives in London with his wife and children

I'd just returned to the UK from Baghdad in the summer of 2003. It was a pretty extraordinary moment for me, as I'd gone from being an unknown BBC reporter to some notoriety, and I was asked to give this colleague, Jon Blair, a call, as he was making a TV series about the history of foreign correspondents.

I didn't initially know he was the Oscar-winning director of some of the most important documentaries made in the past 20 years, as he doesn't go around talking about it. We hit it off immediately as I'd been living in South Africa in the run up to the Iraq War, and he's from South Africa. We talked about everyday things such as bars in Soweto and walks in Cape Town. It felt intimate at a time I was feeling taken aback by all the post-Iraq attention I was getting.

Jon has a deadpan sense of humour and a sharp mind, while I'm more chaotic and like to live in the moment, like a correspondent doing a live report.

Of all the places to end up working together, Jon joining me at Al Jazeera at the beginning of the year was like a bolt out of the blue. He often says that having a Somali and a South African brought together under Al Jazeera is quite an odd combination. He's my boss now, which is a little weird, but it's best to have a boss that you know and like.

We do have robust discussions about projects we're working on, but it's not in his character to let anything linger and he knows the pressure this line of work leaves on one's family. I had plans recently to take my son to his first football game at [Arsenal's] Emirates Stadium when suddenly I was told by my team I had to fly out to LA. I said to them, "If there's any chance I could have a later flight to take my son to the footy, that would be great." Normally it would be a case of, "Rageh we'd love to, but..." But Jon got in touch with them – we're both huge Arsenal fans – and said, "We've got to make sure we look at every single flight that allows Rageh to go to the US, while also taking his son." I was very touched.

Jon Blair, 60

A South African TV producer, Blair has won acclaim for documentaries including 'Schindler: the Documentary', 'Reporters at War' and the Oscar-winning 'Anne Frank Remembered'. He lives in London

I first noticed Rageh when he was reporting during the Gulf War from Baghdad, where he became one of the major faces of the BBC's coverage. He had a compelling way of delivering words from the rooftops – which was all that could be done until after the statue [of Saddam Hussein] fell.

A year later, I was collecting stories from a range of reporters for a series I was making on the history of war reporting, and I interviewed Rageh in my own home, talking about his experiences of the liberation of Baghdad. He told me it was terrifying being out in the streets. Not because of the Iraqis, but because of the American GIs, who he said were unpredictable and trigger-happy. I liked him immediately, and we exchanged numbers and kept in touch. He is what you see: warm, friendly, likeable and I could see why the camera likes him.

He's unusual in the context of TV, as there are not many non-white people doing the job he does – but he is in many senses quite English. He's from a very connected family in Somalia, but when you hear him he doesn't sound anything other than British establishment.

He's very tied up with his family, as am I, but you don't often find that in reporters – which is why so many have such disastrous lives. We talk a lot about each other's kids – I'm a bit older than him but our kids are the same sort of age. I know not to give advice about family life, though – it's a quick way to destroy a friendship, as you can never truly know what anyone else has going on.

But we do swap opinions about the club we both support, Arsenal: we're deeply troubled right now, as the team has had its worse start to a season since 1953-54.

At the moment, I'm in the curious position of being Rageh's boss. He's been at Al Jazeera English since it began, five years ago, while I joined at the start of this year. The first thing I did was commission a series about 21st-century slavery [which Omaar presents]. I was struck by his skills as a presenter, because he makes tough subject material incredibly accessible.

I tend to get very engaged in minutiae and [incorrect] details can make me angry. Rageh seems able to float through a lot of that stuff, and he delivers with such conviction. I don't have any of those skills, so I think I'll always be happier pulling the strings behind the camera.

'Slavery: A 21st Century Evil', presented by Omaar and executive produced by Blair, starts on Al Jazeera English tomorrow

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