Glancing over the headlines about Yemen today, one might be forgiven for thinking the country is an amalgamation of ‘Al-Qaeda,’ ‘radical,’ ‘drone strikes,’ ‘US,’ ‘CIA’ and ‘UN.’ Alternative stories that detail the country’s heritage, culture and people are either non-existent or swallowed up by the continual stream of violence and unpleasant incidents. As an outsider, it is difficult to understand what Yemenis think about the situations affecting them, as much as it is to become familiar with the characters that constitute this region. BAFTA award-nominated Iranian–American filmmaker Tina Gharavi’s multimedia exhibition is an inspiring contribution to this understanding, although it is a story born out of an unlikely place.
The small and inconspicuous portside town of South Shields is located eight miles from Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. More people will be aware of the Northeast’s maritime and industrial heritage than they will be about its connection to the Middle East. And yet, since 1890, thousands of sailors from Yemen, originally employed on British merchant vessels passing through the colony of Aden, have settled in the area and found employment in the shipping and coal industries. Although today their numbers are considerably smaller than other British Muslim communities, Yemenis are thought to be the longest-established Muslim group in Britain. Last of the Dictionary Men includes intimate and informal interviews with fourteen Yemeni sailors from South Shields, the last survivors of the first generation of settlers from the British colonial and post-colonial era.
The exhibition, originally created in 2008, has already enjoyed unprecedented success. Now in its fifth year of touring—which included a showing in Yemen—it is making its final port of call at the Mosaic Rooms in London. Three distinct parts form its narrative. First, its historical basis: a screening of Tina Gharavi’s documentary, The King of South Shields. The film explores boxer Muhammed Ali’s 1977 visit to South Shields and his marriage blessing at the town’s Al-Azhar mosque, the first mosque to be built in Britain. Gharavi, who is also a lecturer at Newcastle University, was surprised to learn that this remarkable event had taken place without any commemoration. She had lived in Newcastle for eight years at the time of her discovery. “I saw that there was this really old mosque and I thought, what’s this? Then I bumped into someone and he said, ‘That’s the Yemeni community—and by the way, did you know that Muhammed Ali got married in the mosque?’”
While researching The King of South Shields and meeting members of the local Muslim community to record their experiences of Ali’s visit and its lasting impact on the town, Gharavi found herself drawn to the older generation. “While I was meeting these men and going to the boarding houses, I felt like I was going into a Catherine Cookson novel, and then I was sort of trapped by their story as well,” she says. The law initially prevented Yemeni sailors from staying with local families. As a result, in 1909 a man named Ali Said opened the first Arab seaman’s boarding house. In the documentary, we watch these men lodging in a boarding house in recent times, smoking, chatting and chewing Qat as they congregate around a game of cards—it is a scene preserved from history.
The second part of the exhibition is a series of portraits of the sailors, commissioned from renowned Egyptian photographer Youssef Nabil. The photographs have been captured in black and white and colored in later, reminiscent of old practices in photography. The artist’s use of bright colors and formal poses has the effect of making these humble men appear regal, although the quirkily-patterned wallpaper backdrop of each photograph also emphasizes their distinct, colorful characters.
Finally, we meet these men downstairs, face to face. Discussing their experiences in their native Arabic, they beam out from individual vintage television set screens. The televisions rest on white plinths, which elevate them to the eye level of the viewer. “When I arrived in this country I didn’t know any English, so I bought a dictionary,” one says. A low cacophony of voices vibrates from earphones hanging by the side of each television. The interviews are also subtitled in English. They are unedited, which often lends to some awkward, unscripted moments, such as the interviewee who cannot hear properly, and needs Gharavi to lean into the shot and whisper the questions into his ear. There are also grumbles: “Please don’t keep me too long,” says the owner of a boarding house, who once assisted Richard Lawless with one of his books. There are also some outbursts: “English people say the best Arab is a dead Arab, and they are right!” says one, mid-rant. Indeed, old age is well recognized as a facilitator of mesmerizing, as well as uncomfortable, anecdotes.
“They were so amazingly warm and interesting and hospitable, and their stories had not been told and I felt that there was a danger of that story disappearing,” says Gharavi. It is difficult not to spend hours in the room listening to their stories. Refreshing, too, that not one of the men seems to care very much for formal social protocol, an aspect of filming them that Gharavi says she particularly enjoyed. “I always say it is like having fourteen different grandfathers. My grandfathers both died very early. [The sailors] treated me like their naughty granddaughter. [They’d say,] ‘Why haven’t you come to see me? Oh my God, why aren’t you married?’”
Gharavi, who says she is “engrossed in telling stories or ciphering stories,” often focuses on diaspora communities in her work. “It’s definitely an issue in my life,” she says, “being from two different places, being a migrant, and being in exile.” Notably, her recent BAFTA award-nominated film, I am Nasrine, documents the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers. But that the Yemeni maritime community has existed in Britain for so many years, largely unnoticed, is not entirely a mystery. As Gharavi points out, “[The Yemeni sailors] were living there from the 1890s to today, and living and integrating into British culture and nothing dramatic has happened; how do you talk about nothing happening?” It was not all smooth sailing, of course. After the end of First World War, England was in a bad state and there were no jobs. Riots erupted within the community over disputes over jobs and working conditions. But over time, there were no further significant incidents, and thus, the community disappeared from the headlines.
This is certainly an exhibition that is brimming with nostalgia, but the reason it is important is that it provides a platform for the stories, and thus for a history that was previously un-recorded. Says Gharavi, “They’ve lived there integrated there—worked, lived, loved, married; they are in the graveyard. There’s a woman named Dorothy Hassan with a tombstone that is from the 1930s. Just think, who was Dorothy Hassan, what was her story, who did she marry, what were their lives like?” This is not just a Yemeni history but a British one too, revealing previously unknown truths about Britain’s maritime heritage and its history of cultural integration. It exposes misconceptions about Muslims in Britain, but also highlights the open-minded worldview of these men in particular. “To me, these men were thoroughly modern and were not afraid of change. They were travellers, they were real seafaring men who were not afraid of what they were meeting…. I would ask them all the time if they wanted me to cover my hair when we went into the mosque and they were always like, ‘Come as you are. We accept you the way you are.’”
The nineteenth century was an age when there were no preconceptions in Britain about Middle Eastern or Muslim culture. To the contrary, in that era Europe was enjoying a big love affair with the East. As Gharavi points out, “I think the Yemeni story helps to re-calibrate that there have actually been Muslims and people from the Middle East here since the time of the Romans; never mind the Yemenis of 1890, integration has been a massive part of British culture.” The attitudes of this generation of Yemenis towards their own culture and their religion teach us a lot about the way in which attitudes on both sides have changed. There has been an often-unwarranted and renewed hostility towards Muslims in British society today. Gharavi also notes a change in some members of the younger generation of British Muslims: “The young Muslims today are warping what Islam and religion mean, because of the crazy idea that we need to go back into the thirteenth century.” She recalls an incident that occurred while she was filming with the Yemeni community: “When I went into the mosque and a Libyan man shouted at me for being at a Ramadan dinner, [the sailors] stood up and said ‘Don’t do that—don’t talk to anybody like that. She’s our guest; she’s doing her job. She’s a journalist; we respect her and if you do anything like that again, we will be the first to call the police!’” These men, she says, are caught between two worlds.
For Gharavi, one man in particular stood out: “Mr. Obeya, who is almost the king of South Shields, really is absolutely a complete character.” She adds, “To me, they are amazing in that they are a far less radical than people would think the older generation would be.”
The message that Gharavi took away from her experience was this: “They were very open minded. They believe that you assimilate into the place that you are in, that you keep your own identity but you respect the host culture of where you are, you respect people for who they are, and I had this amazing sense that they just didn’t judge me for who I was…. That was just such an amazing legacy that I’m so fearful will disappear with the passing of these men.”
Last of The Dictionary Men will be showing at the Mosaic Rooms in London until March 22, 2013.