From the roof of Arabia to the coal cellar

by Patricia Aithie

On April 30th 1994, a new Yemeni Community Centre was opened in Cardiff. It followed the success in the 1980s of the building of a new mosque and Islamic centre in Alice Street, by the Cardiff Yemeni community. Built by contributions from the community themselves, individual Yemeni and Arab donors and the local authorities, it is a triumph of dedication, at a time when the last pit in the Rhondda was closing and a chapter of Welsh Yemeni history was drawing to a close.

For during the last century, when Welsh steam coal fuelled the merchant and navy ships of the world, it was also bunkered down in Aden, then a strategic coaling station. Every P.& 0. ship that sailed through Suez, to and from India and the Far East, refuelled here and many took on Yemeni stokers, engineers and sailors. Yemenis worked mostly in the engine rooms of the ships as stokers and many died in the convoys of the Second World War.

By the turn of the century, Cardiff had the largest walled dock in the world. The first dock was built in 1839, the year that the British gained control of Aden. The traffic between the two ports then began and many Yemenis found that their worldwide journeys on the colliers eventually led back to South Wales and to the world’s major steam coal ports of Cardiff, Barry, Swansea and Newport and so began the oldest Yemeni community in Britain.

In fact in 1945, Freya Stark wrote in her book ‘East is West’, about sitting with men in Yemen: "We could talk about shipping in Liverpool and Cardiff and many Asiatic harbours, for strangely enough many of these inland Arabs are sailors."

In May, the Cardiff Yemeni community, with the encouragement and assistance of the British Yemeni Society and funding by local sponsorship, set about the task of putting on a ‘Cardiff Yemeni Week’. The object was to tell the people of Wales about the valuable cultural and economic contribution Yemenis have made over the past century to the country and to increase awareness of Yemeni culture and history.

In a village just south of Ta’izz, I met Naji Ali Abdulla who was well over 100 years old and claimed to have worked on ships for over seventy years, declaring that his feet sometimes had not touched dry land for over five years. He described how he had worked as a stoker on a ship in both world wars and was in France when the first world war broke out in 1914. He recalled arriving in Cardiff in 1916: "We all came to Cardiff in those days." he told me. "Welsh coal was the best in the world and Europe was at war; the ships needed the good coal." He described how he had been visually stunned by the number of ships queuing up in the Bristol channel and described the docks as "black with coal."

An old Yemeni living in Cardiff described how he used to ‘taste the coal for its quality’ by crushing it between his teeth to see if it had too much silt in it. The old man, Abdul Wali, died in February 1993 and was probably the oldest man in Wales. Believed by the local Yemeni community to be well over 110, he described how he had fought with the Turks against the British at the time when T.E. Lawrence was cutting off Ottoman supplies by destroying the Hejaz railway. Like David against a Goliath, Abdul Wali fought with catapults, not guns. When the Turks began retreating, he swapped sides and fought with the British. He later came down to Aden, boarded a ship and arrived in Cardiff docks in 1922. He married a Welsh girl. His burnt hands revealed the forty years he had worked as a stoker between Cardiff and Aden. A younger man, Saif Othman, who sat beside him, described how he came to Wales during the second world war: "Churchill called us." he said. He worked on the convoys, like so many, and was later shipwrecked in Brazil.

In Aden I came across Ali Fouaz at Steamer Point. He was building a house on an old coal bunker across from the Aden refuelling depot. I had already been told by the management that, at the depot, "Every time we go digging to mend our water pipes, all we find is coal." I was even more surprised to find that Ali (who, incidentally, was still driving a 1940 Ford Prefect) was bagging Welsh anthracite in his back yard. When I told him I was from Cardiff, his eyes raised into his brow and he said "Oh, Cardiff. When I was a boy, I would run around the port tugging at sailors and ask them ‘Where are you going?’ ‘Cardiff for coal.’ they would reply." Ali described how as a young man he had carried coal with his bare hands from barges to the bunkers.

There are even colloquial expressions about Cardiff in Yemeni Arabic. Shawki Bahumaid, head of English at Aden University, who had studied linguistics at Bangor, introduced me to a colleague who told me "We have a saying about people who throw their money about carelessly. We say in Arabic ‘He didn’t work hard for it in Cardiff’." Sulaiman Ghanem of the Yemeni embassy used another when opening the new Yemeni centre. He told of his childhood when his father would tell him off when he got above himself, saying "Don’t be like that, you’re not from Cardiff."

It was while living in the Arabian Peninsula in the early 1980s that I made my first visit to the Yemen and found a traditional Welsh blanket in an upstairs cupboard of Imam Ahmed’s palace. In his book ‘Arabs in Exile’, Fred Halliday has already pointed out that the Yemenis have a tradition of boasting that they came from Bilad al-Welsh (Land of the Welsh) and the Welsh blanket indicated this. Others took the Welsh flag, rather than the Union Jack on pilgrimage to Mecca.

Today many people in Cardiff are the result of British/Yemeni marriages. Shaikh Said Hassan Ismail, the present imam of the mosque in Alice Street, Cardiff, was born of a Welsh mother and a Yemeni father in South Shields. He moved to Cardiff at the age of nine after his father was killed in a ship that was torpedoed and sunk with a loss of all hands during the early part of the Second World War. Here he was fostered, brought up and trained at the mosque by Shaikh Hassan Ismail, one of the leaders of the Yemeni community in Britain. Shaikh Said accompanied his adoptive father to the Yemen after the war and tells the story of how, in 1948, he was taken by his father to meet Imam Ahmed. "My father told me I would have to bend and kiss his feet. I tried to do this, but the Imam put his hand under my chin and pushed me back," he said laughing. "As a result I knocked his clock over."

Nobody knows when the first Yemeni seaman set foot in Britain, it could be much earlier than we think. What we do know is that at the beginning of this century, Arab guest and lodging houses began to be set up.

Hinda Awadh, probably the only female Yemeni magistrate in Britain, grew up in Butetown’s famous ‘Cairo Cafe’, a cafe and boarding house. Her father was a Yemeni orphan who made his way down from North Yemen to Aden and on to Cardiff. He married her Welsh speaking mother, Olive, when she was sixteen, who converted to Islam and produced ten children. In the Cairo Cafe spices, Arab food, Arab bread and even ‘Halawah’ was prepared. Hinda speaks of how it was like a community centre; a network of friendship, social assistance and trust was formed. "Old folk, people playing drafts, seamen socialising, staying often for months before they joined another ship."

The present deputy minister of Culture and Tourism in the Yemen, Farouk al Hakimi, described to me how, after Yemen, "Cardiff is my second home, although I have never visited there, because of everything my grandfather achieved there." His grandfather was Shaikh Abdulla Ali al-Hakimi, the imam of the Butetown mosque from the 1930’s to the 1950’s and a leader of the Free Yemen Movement. He produced in Cardiff probably the first ever Arab newspaper in Britain - Al Salaam - that kept Yemenis aware of the outside world and expatriate Yemenis aware of what was happening inside their country.

The change from coal-powered to oil-powered ships had a dramatic effect on the Cardiff and South Wales Yemeni communities. Men moved to the Midlands, returned to the Yemen or found alternative local work.

Little has been recorded of the Yemeni community in Wales, so when the new Yemeni Community Centre was built this year, it was an excellent moment to put on a week of events to communicate the history of the community and show through pictures the unique architecture and landscape of the Yemen.

An open committee was formed to organise the Cardiff Yemeni Week, including members of the Cardiff Yemeni Community Association and the British-Yemeni Society.

Hostilities in the Yemen broke out a few weeks before the week was planned. Discussions were held about the continuance of the week’s events. It was decided that now more than ever the Cardiff Yemeni community should show their unity, determination, culture and history to the people of Wales to counteract the negative publicity that was filling the media.

The ‘Cardiff Yemeni Week’ began in the main hall of the new Community Centre at 3.30 on Sunday 23rd May. Shaikh Said Hassan, the religious leader of the Yemeni community, welcomed a large gathering of people and Farina Hashim, the wife of Abd al Gabbar, the chairman of the Yemeni Community Association, cooked and organised food worthy of any major banquet. An exhibition of photographs and text of the history of the Cardiff Yemeni community and photographs of the Yemen today hung around the room. A display case of artefacts, embroidery, pottery and jewellery from all parts of the Yemen was a major centrepiece. At 5.30 a number of invited Yemeni musicians with lutes and drums, performed Yemeni folk songs from both the northern and southern regions of Yemen. The folk music led some to rise and dance and the evening lifted the spirits of everyone present, worried about family in Yemen.

During the whole week, an exhibition of the Yemeni artists, Mazhar Nizar and Fuad al Futaih, was shown in the Norwegian Church Centre in the Bay and visited by many people including staff of the Arts Council of Wales.

The next day the evening events were repeated, with the addition of Wadi Said, a local seaman and poet, reading a work that obviously moved everyone in the room. On this second evening we were joined by an Middle East Broadcasting Centre film crew who filmed the events and made a 35 minute programme, which was broadcast worldwide, including Yemen on 7th July, the day the war in Yemen officially ceased. On the Wednesday there was a United Nations film on the architecture of Yemen and on the Friday, my husband, Charles and I gave a slide show of our travels through Yemen, with contributions of stories and history from the audience.

A children’s day was planned for the Saturday. Once again Fatma Hashim and her helpers produced another tremendous feast. Stories, henna decoration and arts and crafts activities were enjoyed by over sixty children.

In all, over one thousand people are believed to have come through the doors during the week’s events. For a new community centre, hidden behind a mosque, these are excellent figures that compare favourably with any well known gallery in the capital. The local press covered the events and the BBC broadcast two half hour programmes during the week on Welsh Yemeni connections, which spurred further interest by Asian arts and news programmes and eventually Woman’s Hour on Radio 4.

November 1994