Although Muslims have been visiting the shores of Britain as merchants and traders for centuries, the Yemenis were the first Muslim community to settle permanently in the UK back in the 1890s.
In his book, ‘Britain’s First Muslims: Portrait of an Arab Community’, Fred Halliday (who passed away in April 2010) chronicles the journey of this Arab community. I was particularly interested in this book as where I live (Eccles, Manchester) there is a sizeable Yemeni community and so it was great to read about those first sailors who left from Aden and decided to make a living in the harsh industrial cities of Britain.
The book is no masterpiece and didn’t have enough background information or personal insight for my liking but it is a historical record where before there was none. It reads more like a collection of facts with interesting bits of information and explanations of the pull/push factors of migration into the UK.
Don’t get me wrong, all the major points are covered- such as the 1919 riots, workers organisations and the changing character of the community- but you only occasionally get a real glimpse of the community itself. This is all the more ironic as Halliday states that the Yemeni’s remain the ‘invisible Arabs’ of Britain as they have been clumped with larger migrants groups and have been known as everything from lascars, negroes, Adenis, Arabs, Mediterranean, Asians, Pakistanis and more recently as Muslims.
One interesting bit of insight was the Sojourner mentality of the Yemeni migrants- many of whom ironically lived and died in the UK- whilst this is accurate of the older Yemeni population, it doesn’t reflect the aspirations of second-generation Yemenis.
One aspect which wasn’t covered in detail was the British rule of South Yemen. Although it probably wasn’t part of brief of the book, I think it would have been interesting to get Yemenis view of the brutal British rule and the complex relationship of dependency and detestation that must have developed. Halliday was conspicuously silent about British rule and the resentment that many Yemenis must have harboured about the treatment of their fellow Yemenis back home.
Whilst it’s easy to forget, this absolutely must-see and quite shocking bit of great documentary dug up by Adam Curtis is a real testament the harsh realities of colonial rule. When I first watched it, I was genuinely shocked about how British soldiers treated the locals and don’t think I’ll ever forget the repeated refrain of one Yemeni man who keep saying in broken english ‘I am man’ as he gets a thorough kicking and beating.