Halliday's Arabs in Exile: Yemeni Migrants in Urban Britain

Reviewed by Tim Morris

Yemen Update 34 (1994):42,44

On a flight from Sanaa to London I was surprised when nine of my fellow passengers asked me to fill in their landing cards. The accent of their broken, but reasonably effective, English indicated long residence in Birmingham. I learnt that some had been coming backwards and forwards from Yemen to Britain for thirty years, a few were married to British women, yet not one of them could read and write English.

Fred Halliday's study of the minuscule and forgotten Yemeni communities of Britain lucidly brings out the reasons for this failure to develop a skill so apparently basic to survival in metropolitan Britain. For the Yemenis, described by Halliday as the oldest-established of the many groups of Third World immigrants to Britain, stand out. No other group of immigrants have been so self-effacing, so confined within self-imposed boundaries, so generally oblivious to political and social currents in the country in which they have earned their meagre livelihoods, so firmly mentally rooted in the distant nation to which return is the focus of all desires.

From the time the first Yemeni sea-farers washed up in Cardiff and South Shields at the turn of the century the Yemenis have been a hidden minority. The historical records are scanty, and enumerating the size of communities of Yemenis indifferent cities at different times is problematic. Halliday has unearthed references to non-white sailors in local seaport newspapers of the time indicative of a tragi-comic confusion as to the origins of these strange "coloured" men. To most British the Yemenis were simply "lascars", indistinguishable from the Indians, Malays and Somalis who similarly toiled below decks in the days when the British merchant navy ruled the world. Yemeni and other under-paid lascars bore the brunt of resentment from British sailors laid off at the end of the First World War. Officially the Yemenis were classified as "Adenis" despite the fact that the majority came from rural areas straddling the former border between North and South Yemen. Halliday notes how Yemenis benefited from confusion about their places of origin, that quiescence served the interests of men already skilled in keeping their affairs hidden from government officials and tax-collectors, solely preoccupied with sending as much as possible from their meagre pay-packets back home.

Though Britain continued to employ non-white sailors at a fifth of British sailors' wages until the 1970s, the proportion of "lascars", and in particular the number of Yemenis in the merchant navy, had dramatically declined by the end of the 1930s.The Second World War temporarily renewed demand for cheap maritime labour but after 1945 the Yemeni communities in Cardiff and South Shields shrank as new opportunities arose in the industrial areas of Birmingham, Manchester, and Sheffield.

Unlike the more permanent immigrants from South Asia who now came to outnumber them greatly, few Yemenis acquired sufficient skills to do other than the most menial and repetitive of industrial tasks. By the late 1980s as jobs became scarce the Yemenis were again on the receiving end of white resentment, although by now they were being dubbed "Pakis".(Interestingly, the Yemenis have had such a low profile, keeping to themselves in the Victorian terraced houses they had clubbed together to buy, even buying their meat from itinerant Yemeni butchers, that Halliday relates how Pakistanis can mistake Yemenis for their own compatriots). As the recession bit, Yemenis moved on. By the early1990s the scattered communities of Yemenis, which in the heyday of Yemeni immigration had reached 15,000, numbered no more than 8,000.

There are poignant moments in this book: old seafarers left with little but their memories sipping tea in dingy boarding houses into which no English people have ever penetrated; destitute Yemenis knowing nothing of the welfare benefits they were entitled to; men on permanent night-shift cut off not only from the society of the religious-ethnic majority of their country of residence but also from the mosques and Islamic welfare associations frequented by their non-Arab co-religionists; Yemenis sitting by themselves in pubs.

Such vignettes serve to tantalise for this chronicle of Yemenis in Britain is frustratingly devoid of people. This is a one-dimensional account of immigration with no feel for the communities from which the migrants sprang. Even one case study of an individual and his family could have greatly enriched the book.

Halliday's information about Yemeni society is sketchy, based on a few visits to the former People's Democratic Republic of Yemen and a single visit to the Yemen Arab Republic. He repeatedly assures us of the "recurrent" and "chain" nature of Yemeni migration, that they are "sojourners" maintaining links with villages to which they will return. One senses that strategic choices are being made as to who will go and who will stay, yet we learn nothing of the sending communities. One is led to doubt whether Halliday has visited them, despite his intention to base the book on "historical record, social and political analysis and personal observation". How else to account for being told that asid is "stewed lamb", hilba "a kind of sweetish dough" or that "only elder sons inherit land" in Yemen? We learn little of the "push" factors behind migration. Those who leave are not placed in any social context, simply referred to as “tribal commoners". Halliday seems surprised by the existence of remittance agents in rural Yemen when such a mechanism of transferring funds is to be found in many peasant societies lacking a banking system in which they can trust.

In lieu of detail on the lives of Yemeni sojourners before, during and after their time in Britain, Halliday provides a potted description and analysis of global migration trends and other labour movements in the Arab world. If this book is targeted to those already familiar with the Middle East or Yemen, it is not necessary to explain the meaning of halal, to define an Arab, to list the members of the Arab League, to inform the reader that not all Arabs are Moslems, to provide a brief history of migration from Lebanon and the Maghreb.

Women appear as shadows in this book. With no regard to the social millieu of rural Yemeni women, Halliday simply assumes that those left behind in villages are gripped by “melancholy". He uncritically accepts the view of one of the rare migrants who not only brought his wife to Britain but had her do the household shopping that she could not understand Roman numerals nor understand the denominations of the currency she regularly used.

The book is stronger when it comes to sketching the history of the various religio-political-trade union organisations established by the small fragment of the Yemeni diaspora temporarily resident in Britain. Such organisations were not motivated by any hope of ameliorating the conditions under which the Yemeni migrants worked and resided but reflected the turbulent history of their country, the struggle against the Imamate, debates within Islam and divided loyalties to the northern and southern regimes. The description of the career of Abdullah Ali al-Hakimi, an Islamic moderniser determined simultaneously to establish mosques, raise the educational level of women, and press Imam Ahmad toward political pluralism is fascinating. In more recent times media-generated furor over the sale and consumption of qat in Britain and the case of a Yemeni migrant who allegedly "sold" his British-based daughters to a compatriot is also well-handled.

In short, despite gaps which will irritate those familiar with Yemen, Halliday has written an interesting account of the forgotten Yemeni communities of Britain.

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