Arabs in Exile: Yemeni Migrants in Urban Britain

Arabs in Exile: Yemeni Migrants in Urban Britain

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in The Guardian, 8 December 1992

Arabs in Exile: Yemeni Migrants in Urban Britain by Fred Halliday, £35, 188pp, I B Tauris.

YEMEN is a land of remote villages, but for the remotest Yemeni villages of all we need look no further than Cardiff, South Shields, Sheffield or Birmingham. These villages-within-a-city are the focus of Professor Halliday's study of one of Britain's oldest but most self-effacing migrant communities.

It is a bleak picture: men from peasant families who - usually out of dire need - came here and took the hardest, grimiest jobs, often working at night, living in all-male households and, if they were lucky, visiting their wives and children in Yemen every few years.

Not only were they cut off from their homeland, but also from Britain. Since they worked and lived together (mainly in groups from the same village), there was rarely much need to learn English. Instead, they absorbed a handful of English words into Arabic, and this vocabulary marks the bounds of their contact with the people around them: words likeal-boolees(police) andal-tax. One man, asked if British people had ever come into his house and had a cup of tea, answered yes: the gas man and the electricity meter reader.

Their identity was largely a mystery to the British, who during the eight decades since their arrival have variously known them as lascars, coloureds, blacks, negroes, Arabs, Adenis, Mediterraneans, Muslims, Asians and 'bloody Pakkies', as well as - occasionally - Yemenis.

Halliday describes them as the 'invisible' Arabs. Partly this unobtrusiveness was forced upon them by British racism and by the political climate in Yemen, which made adopting a low profile the wisest course. But it was also a matter of choice. At least until recently, Yemenis in Britain never saw themselves as immigrants or settlers, but as 'temporary' workers earning some money to send home.

Much of their hard-earned cash never served its purpose, for the migrants found themselves trapped by two different systems. Those with wives and children in Yemen were entitled to British tax allowances. But getting them was no easy matter.

With birth certificates unobtainable in Yemen, one man got the schoolmaster in his village to testify to the number of his children. The British tax official replied: 'We know Aden because we used to rule it. There are no schools in the countryside, so there can't be any schoolmasters.' When the worker tried to explain that things had improved since independence, the taxman refused to believe him.

On the Yemeni side there were other difficulties. People in need of official documents had to consider the 'right to coffee' (an Arab euphemism for bribery). Worse still, families where the husband worked abroad were considered rich, even if they were peasants, and without a man to protect them, became easy prey for extortion.

Despite that, the book contains hints of a brighter side: of gatherings organised by the Yemeni Workers' Union where the speeches were kept mercifully short to make way for steelworker-poets, stand-up comics and general merriment. And the Yemeni community in Britain, perhaps by virtue of its small size (never more than 15,000) preserved some of the virtues of a traditional Arab society: it was both self-supporting and highly supportive of its members.

Essentially, this is the social history of a community, since the first Yemeni seamen came ashore from Aden early this century. As such, it might appear tangential to Halliday's main work in the field of international relations (much of it on Yemen proper). In fact, his expertise provides considerable strength: he is able to relate the development of the Yemeni in Britain to events in their homeland in a way that a sociologist would probably not have done.

Nor, perhaps, is it stretching a point to say that this is also a study of international relations in microcosm: as they affect individuals. We see, for example, how the 'Brides for sale' affair, which attracted much media coverage and strained British relations with Yemen at the diplomatic level, had its repercussions among the migrant community.

If the writing is a little flat, the material itself - gathered over 20 years - is anything but. It is in the seemingly trivial details that the book acquires its special fascination. In particular, the Yemenis' own observations of the British are pointed, often witty and seldom flattering - though perhaps too rarely heard.

Even so, it comes as a disappointment to find at the end of such a painstaking study that the Yemeni experience has only limited relevance to that of other, larger, immigrant groups in Britain, though there are some parallels among those from Pakistan and Bengal. However, if the book succeeds in enhancing British understanding of this little-known community it will have done the Yemenis a great service.