The North East of England shares a history with Yemen that stretches back more than a century. Like the port city of Liverpool, the small town of South Shields saw thousands of seamen from Yemen settle in the area over the course of 100 years, consisting initially of single men working as sailors on British Merchant navy ships.
A multimedia exhibition at London’s Mosaic Rooms, entitled ‘Last of the Dictionary Men’, has set out to trace the role of the early Yemeni communities in the UK’s maritime and industrial heritage.
The exhibition, which began on February 1, features interviews and portraits of 14 Yemeni sailors, who are the last survivors of the first-generation who settled in South Shields.
BAFTA nominated Iranian film director Tina Gharavi began producing the project in 2005, commissioning Egyptian photographer Youssef Nabil to create a series of photographic portraits of the surviving sailors.
Gharavi says she felt it was vital to give the South Shields Yemeni sailors an unedited and free platform to tell their life stories, which include accounts about 800 Yemeni men from Tyneside who died at sea during the Second World War, as well as trade union riots at the Customs Office in the late 1970s.
“This project goes back to 2005 so I was already interested but that was also because of how important it was to collect stories of multiculturalism, really positive stories of immigration and the Yemeni story in South Shields had not been told and I thought it was a fantastic one, because these were the model citizens,” said Gharavi on Saturday (March 2) on the sidelines of a Producer’s Talk event at The Mosaic Rooms.
Referring to the revolts that began in Tunisia at the end of 2010 and spread across the Middle East and North Africa, including Yemen, Gharavi says world attention has concentrated on turmoil and war. But she says it has encouraged people to seek a better understanding of the region.
“There is a lot of interest in the Middle East, isn’t there? Because it is in the news and people want to know, they want to know the real stories behind it, they want to know what the places are that are being demonized and certainly they want to understand more about the cultures that are in Britain that are supposedly problematic. And the Yemeni and the Arab communities have a problematized identity at the moment,” Gharavi told Reuters.
“But what I wanted to do is reassure people and say actually these Arabs have been here since the 1890s, it is not a big deal that they are here, they have always been here. The Yemeni have assimilated, adopted to the culture and added so much. Their contribution to the war effort in World War Two was massive and is totally unrecognized. These men in one sense represent that history, they are that last bit of history, that colonial history that Britain needed Yemen in order to be able to have an empire,” she added.
According to the National Association of British Arabs (NABA) Yemenis in the 1890s formed the first ever ethnic group to settle in the UK. While some worked on the British navy ships, others joined the British Army or worked at the docks. Large numbers married English, Welsh and Irish women, creating their own Arab-British identities.
Venetia Porter, Assistant Keeper of the Department of the Middle East at the British Museum says active engagement by Middle Eastern artists in the Arab Spring has encouraged growing international interest in art from the region.
“I think there has been a lot of interest in work by Middle Eastern artists, probably in about the last ten years,” said Porter.
“But I think what the Arab Spring did, was because so much of what we saw was how artists were engaging with the Arab Spring, particularly in Egypt, all that really interesting graffiti art, you see it in Yemen as well, where artists are actually engaging with the revolution and very interestingly you see it in Syria actually at the moment.
So, I think, because all of that material is now so accessible to us, you know, through YouTube and Facebook, and all of this kind of thing, I think that a lot of people are paying more attention to it,” she added.
But Porter says the hunger for work by Middle Eastern artists is not solely related to the recent revolutions.
“It is not just about the Arab Spring, I think there is a recognition actually that work made by artists from across the Middle East, whether they are in their countries still or whether they are in the diaspora, is incredibly interesting and important. It is definitely time that the work of these very talented artists be seen in a kind of global context, these are international artists, and I don’t think it is a flash in the pan. I think what is really interesting and sets the work made by Middle Eastern artists really apart is that a lot of them are very, very engaged, they are very politically engaged, they are very connected in some ways to their traditions and to their cultures,” said Porter, who also connected Gharavi and Nabil’s work to exhibitions organised by the British Museum.
London’s Victoria & Albert Museum is currently also showcasing photographer Youssef Nabil’s original hand-coloured gelatin prints of the Yemeni sailors as part of its ‘Light from the Middle East’ exhibition.
The Last of the Dictionary Men exhibition is set to feature the film ‘The King of South Shields’ later in March. The film follows the Yemeni-British men who met heavyweight boxing legend Muhammad Ali in 1977, when the boxer had his wedding blessed in the South Shields’ Al-Azhar Mosque, the first purpose-built mosque in Britain.
The exhibition derives its name from a poem by Yemeni artist Abdullah al-Baradduni, who wrote in 1995 that the land of Yemen was ‘the dictionary’ of its people. Some believe Yemen to be the original home of the Arabic dictionary and therefore it is sometimes referred to as ‘Dictionary Land’.