Book review: From Ta'izz to Tyneside

An Arab community in the north-east of England during the early twentieth century

by Richard I. Lawless

University of Exeter Press. Hardback £30, paperback £15

This substantial book of nearly 300 pages, including over 30 pages of notes, is a very detailed study of a small Yemeni community of itinerant merchant seamen in South Shields from the turn of the last century to the present day. Thus it was almost on Dr. Lawless’ doorstep as the recently retired Director of the Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at Durham University.

The book deals initially with the arrival of the first Yemenis as stokers on steamships at the end of the 19th century and how some settled and set up boarding houses for their brethren. It then goes on to explain something of the background of how these essentially mountain-bred peasant farmers came to be employed in such an unlikely trade; how they prospered in the first two decades of the twentieth century and then how the declining demand for shipping produced a violent colour-prejudiced reaction among British seamen and local residents resulting in the first race riots to be experienced in the United Kingdom.

He explains very effectively, how the society organised itself around the boarding houses, in the slum area around the South Shields docks and of the revival of Islamic teaching in the ‘30s and ‘40s with the arrival of an inspired ‘alim. However, there is a clearly a limited amount of written material available from a largely illiterate community and so much of Dr. Lawless’ material comes from letters in the local newspaper, minutes of discussions in the local council and Home Office minutes, none of which show the authors thereof in anything but a very unpleasant light.

To a degree, the reprinting of the newspaper correspondence and the detailed reports of South Shields councillors makes for monotonous reading. For the average reader, it might have been easier if more of this was relegated to the notes. Five pages of anonymous abusive letters about the Arab community followed by three or four of Arab boarding house keepers’ replies over-eggs the good doctor’s point.

The book is an exacting piece of scholarship which is of value particularly to social historians rather than the average reader.

JAMES NASH, November 1995