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  Book review

Britain's First Muslims: Portrait of an Arab Community

Britain's First Muslims: Portrait of an Arab Community by Fred Halliday, I. B. Tauris, 2010. Pp. xxiii + 166. Appendices. Notes. Maps. Illus. Bibliog. Index. Hb. 15. 99. ISBN 978-1848852990. 

When this fascinating book was first published as Arabs in Exile in 1992, it might have been dismissed unkindly as an anthropological curio, destined to gather dust in the bookcases of a few academics. Given the events which have occurred in the intervening two decades, Professor Halliday's magisterial study might accurately be described as prescient, since its breadth of coverage, depth of detail and dispassionate observation provide much of the data to inform pressing Public Policy issues. 

Indeed, politicians, lobbyists and think-tankers would profit far more from studying Portrait of an Arab Community than they would from reading 'Celsius 7/7'. 

Here, portrayed in compelling detail, is the panoply of immigrant life, the good things and the bad. Here too, is a mirror of British life changing over the period of study, and reflected - not always kindly - in the eyes of Yemenis. Ignorance of the Other leading to fear and aggression; rabble-rousers harnessing economic concerns for political ends. 

Professor Halliday details the whole gamut of the immigrant experience: the initial self-contained world, a functional exclave of the originating country, into which the host community barely intrudes, leaving the immigrants' language and culture barely affected. Especially interesting is the calcification of language and politics at the moment of leaving, and thus the conservatism of a community abroad which no longer reflects the evolved community in the country of origin. Then there is the gradual change in mentality (from migrant workers to immigrants); and the gradual process of assimilation (buying property, permanent jobs, marrying into the host community, drinking in pubs). Similarly, there is decreasing rejection of Yemenis by the host community (which moves from targeting them to protecting them in riots). Ultimately, the migrated community becomes organised within the host community. 

There are intriguing cameos, such as Yemenis offering but not being allowed to fight against Israel invading Arab territory in 1967, but later, being encouraged to fight against invading Russians in Afghanistan - with many of the consequences too well known. 

There are, however, important lacunae which have opened up since the first edition of this book, questions which the new introduction to the second edition leaves unanswered: in particular, the impact of the internet and cheap airfares on the immigrant community - on their language and their interaction with both the host community and the originating one. Given the current low opinion held by many British Muslims of the role of UK Armed Forces abroad, it is intriguing to find Yemenis serving in the Royal Navy in some numbers in the past - especially in war time. 

The occasional, probably editorial, mistake remains from the first edition: the language is Hindi, not Hindu (p. 67); 'asid is not 'stewed lamb' but cooked dough; and hilba is not 'a kind of sweetish dough' (p. 70. ) but rather whipped fenugreek often topping stewed lamb (such as in salta). Similarly, whoever came up with the title of this second edition appears not to have read the book. The distinction of being Britain's First Muslims - as Halliday makes clear - belongs to a small community of Lebanese who settled in Manchester in the 1860s.

James Spencer