Last of the Dictionary Men

May 3 2008

A couple of weeks ago a Yemeni, Talal Doghish, placed a comment at the end of a post which had quoted Toynbee on Britain’s presence in Aden. He wanted to trace some friends of his grandfather, who were from near Taiz and had worked with the French and British “in the sea [as] soldiers or workers” during the Second World War. Some had not returned.

“I want to inform you that my grandfather and his friends from A’abous Village in Taiz city (Yemen) they worked with French’s and England (British) during the Second World War in the sea like soldiers or workers, they traveled through Aden city. After the war finished they comeback to their (Alaabous village) with a lot of French gold money like my grandfather Khaled Doughish Ghaleb and Ismail Abdelkader but some of them couldn’t comeback and we didn’t know anything about them until now like Abduljabbar Anaam, and some of them had the monthly salary but when they died the monthly salary had been stopped like Noaman Omer Muqbel and Raoeh Mohammed Hider. So could you please help me and give me any information about it.”

I suggested that he contact the embassies in Sanaa.

A couple of days ago I wandered into the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, on the south bank of the Tyne opposite Newcastle. As in London, a millennium footbridge leads to a large gallery on a south bank. One of the exhibitions was:

2 April – 5 May 2008
Stories from the South Shields Yemeni Sailors

The organiser was Bridge + Tunnel Productions (Tina Gharavi) with a sister entity, Nomad Cultural Forum. Photographs by Youssef Nabil.

Yemeni seamen used to join British merchant vessels to serve as engine-room firemen and in similar jobs. Many were recruited at Aden, especially during the wars. Some joined the Royal Navy. Some found their way to South Shields and settled there, working in local industries. The exhibition is about South Shields’s last surviving first-generation Yemenis. The Wikipedia article on South Shields has a section on the Yemenis.

They have been there since the 1890s. An Arab Seamen’s Boarding House was opened in 1909. By the end of the First World War, the population was about 3,000. There were riots in 1919 (“Arab riots”) and another dispute in 1930, but they were about working practices which the Yemenis felt to be discriminatory, not race riots, and weren’t repeated. There were other Yemeni communities in Hull, Liverpool and Cardiff.

South Shields is close to the mouth of the Tyne, on its south bank, downstream from Newcastle and Gateshead. Newcastle was a port and a centre of shipbuilding and coal-mining. So was Sunderland, at the mouth of the Wear, to the south.

Many Yemeni seamen died in the wars. After the Second World War, heavy industry declined in the northeast. Shipbuilding eventually disappeared. Some Yemenis moved to other centres, such as Birmingham, Liverpool and Sheffield. Fewer arrived: there were fewer coal-burning ships requiring stokers. But there are still about 1,000 in South Shields (defined how?: many had married local women).

Fourteen old televisions, placed on columns, show the Yemenis telling the stories of their migration, working lives and integration into the northeast. You listen through headphones. In the same room are thirteen monumental hand-tinted photographs by Youssef Nabil. One of the men died between the filming and the photographing. He is represented by a small black and white photograph.

The other part of the exhibition is a documentary film by Tina Gharavi, The King of South Shields. Why a film about Muhammad Ali?

Muhammad Ali visited South Shields in July 1977. He’d been asked by a friend to help in raising money for a boys’ boxing club there.

He decided to have his recent (third) marriage blessed there (the one to Veronica Porsche Ali). The ceremony took place at the Al-Ahzar Mosque, which had been founded by Yemenis and may have been the first purpose-built mosque in the UK. A Yemeni school is attached to it.

Ali had been introduced to the Nation of Islam by Malcolm X, but had become a convert to mainstream Sunni Islam in 1975. X had made the same transition in 1964.

1977 was a low point in the economic history of the northeast. It must have been difficult to imagine how Newcastle could recover and prosper again – but it has recovered. But 1977 was not as bad as 1936 had been. The Great Depression had all but halted shipbuilding. On October 5, over two hundred Geordie men began a march from Jarrow (south bank, down the river from Gateshead, up from South Shields) to London, three hundred miles, to protest against unemployment and extreme poverty. The last of the Jarrow marchers died in 2003. Jarrow was also the home of the Venerable Bede.

Ali’s arrival was an electrifying event. The expression on the boy’s face in the picture at the bottom shows the spell he was casting, and the presence of Ali in the mosque brought Islam into the consciousness of northeasterners perhaps for the first time.

Tina Gharavi, the creative director of Bridge + Tunnel Productions and a lecturer in Digital Media at Newcastle University, says that the exhibition grew out of her research into Muhammad Ali’s visit to South Shields. As she interviewed the young men who had met Ali in the mosque she felt the camera being drawn towards the more elderly men, who also wanted to tell their stories.

“A lot of the men I was meeting at the boarding houses were in their 70s, 80s and 90s and it was very, very clear that their stories were hugely important, hadn’t been recorded, and needed a kind of context. I don’t do history documentaries, and I’m not really a historian but I almost […] felt the responsibility to record it. They’re the last men who worked on the ships.” She felt “urgency”.

“[Mohammed Nasser] was one of the men who worked in the Royal Navy rather than the Merchant Navy, so slightly different. [He is the one who died before he could be photographed.] He was in the Falklands War and was taken hostage in Argentina and tortured for a few days. And then Mr As-Sayadi, who is the chairman of the mosque, and who’s definitely in his 90s, had been in the World War II efforts. It […] gives you a complete sense of the contribution that this community had to [this] society and this country – and it’s totally unrecognised, totally uncommemorated and unknown.”

It isn’t hard to guess, but the exhibition nowhere tells us how the phrase “Dictionary Men” arose. The combination of film and of exhibition as a kind of “installation” works well.

An international touring exhibition, conference, DVD and publication are planned for later in the year.

Buy the DVD of The King of South Shields.

Download the brochure for the exhibition.

BBC Tyne piece.

Further BBC page on the Yemenis.

Website for Yemenis in Britain.

There is material on YouTube. The sources for this post, including the images, are the links I’ve given and what I saw in the exhibition.

Suddenly Talal Doghish’s email had a social-historical context. I’ll send him this post. One of the Dictionary Men has the same family name as his grandfather: Ghaleb. There is an outside chance one of the links will help him in his search.

Muhammad Ali in South Shields

8 Responses to “Last of the Dictionary Men”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    The Yemenis weren’t the first Arabs in South Shields.

    There are remains of a large Roman fort there called Arbeia. It was founded c 120, became the maritime supply fort for Hadrian’s Wall, and contains the only permanent stone-built granaries yet found in Britain. It was occupied until the Romans left Britain in the fifth century and first excavated in the 1870s.

    “Arbeia” means “fort of Arab troops”, referring to the fact that part of its garrison at one time was a squadron of Syrian boatmen from the Tigris. We also know that a squadron of Spanish cavalry, the First Asturian, was stationed there.

    A stone at Arbeia commemorates Regina, a British woman of the Cattivellauni tribe, from what is now Kent, who was first the slave, then the freedwoman and wife of Barates, a Syrian merchant who evidently missed her greatly when she died at the age of 30. (Barates himself is buried at the nearby fort of Corbridge.) Another commemorates Victor, a former slave who had been freed by Numerianus of the Asturian cavalry. Numerianus arranged his funeral “plantissime” (with all devotion) when Victor died at the age of 20. The stone records that Victor was “of the Moorish nation”.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    I’ve just noticed Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land. At the beginning it quotes the blind Yemeni poet Abdullah Al-Baradouni (1929-99): “Our land is the dictionary of our people.” I presume that the exhibition’s name also refers to this.

  3. Tina Gharavi Says:

    Thanks for writing this. I have more information about the Yemeni if you are interested and also the exhibition. It is likely there will be an opening in London at some point.

    Feel free to get in touch.

    Tina Gharavi

  4. davidderrick Says:

    This post is dedicated to the memory of Nicholas Huxtable, with whom I walked over the footbridge.

  5. […] Last of the Dictionary Men […]

  6. davidderrick Says:

    There were so-called race riots in more than one British city in 1919.

  7. Talal Doghish Says:

    Hi sir< Thank's a lot for the informations to help us,and I'm sorry 4 late ….

    My Name is Talal Doghish from Yemen,now I will be available during this Emails:

    Best Regards

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