The little-known story of the Yemeni sailors of South Shields
Portraits courtesy the A.M. Qattan Foundation
A history spanning a hundred years saw generations of seamen from Yemen settling along the River Tyne in England’s North Eastern region of South Shields, in search of new opportunities abroad. Far from the Arabian Peninsula, these seamen not only made South Shields their home, but some 800 of them fought and died alongside the British in the Second World War. To add to its intriguing history, South Shields is also home to Al Azhar, Britain’s first mosque, witness to boxing legend Muhammad Ali’s wedding in 1977.
Highlighting the stories of these sailors is Last of the Dictionary Men, a somewhat unexpected and unanticipated exhibition, currently showing at the Mosaic Rooms in Southwest London. I say unexpected, because it is a part of history I would have unlikely been exposed to otherwise, which adds to its significance. The Mosaic Rooms is a cultural centre renowned for such exhibitions. As the UK arm of the A.M. Qattan Foundation, its mission is to uncover aspects of Arab culture that are often overlooked by the media. Set in a beautifully refurbished townhouse in Kensington, it is the perfect location for the facilitation and fostering of cross-cultural dialogue between different communities in London, giving a voice to the Arab world in an exciting and progressive way.
Telling the stories of 14 Yemeni sailors, Last of the Dictionary Men is a multimedia exhibition that relays the history of England’s Northeast region and its proud maritime and industrial heritage, as well as its inspiring Middle Eastern connection. This connection is experienced through a series of interviews with, and portraits of the last survivors of the first generation of Yemeni settlers in South Shields.
The historical narrative is centred on the ‘King’ of South Shields, Muhammad Ali. Hailed as a hero, Ali’s story is held up as an example for all Muslims. Through a film, audiences relive the experiences of the Yemeni-British men who met Ali on his 1977 visit to the North East of England. Iranian film director Tina Gharavi tells me her reasons for embarking on this project. ‘I am a massive Muhammad Ali fan’, she states simply. Gharavi is an artist, writer, director, and producer. Her past films have won numerous awards, and her current exhibition ties in with a recent Bafta nomination. Educated in the US and France, Gharavi is a character, animated and engaged. She recalls her first meeting with Ali a year ago – a meeting that was the result of the friendship forged between Tina and Ali’s daughter in the process of filming the documentary. Tina’s excitement is tangible and highly infectious. She scrolls through her iPhone to show me the photograph she had taken with the legend on his 70th birthday.
As I sit in the quiet, darkened room watching the 24 minutes of The King of South Shields, an elderly Arab gentleman behind me suddenly chants patriotically, ‘Muhammad Ali!’ as the hero pops up on the screen. In an interview, Ali talks about his faith, and how he would not have had his physical sense as an athlete if it weren’t for his spiritual sense as a Muslim. What I enjoy most about the interview is Ali’s honesty. When asked if he conforms to the structured regime of five prayers a day, he admits that he does not; he is either training, on an aeroplane, or in the ring. This is not an excuse for escaping his duties, he says, humbly adding that ‘I do my best … sometimes I just close my eyes and say a prayer’.
The exhibition brings to life a history and set of stories that would have otherwise disappeared in the annals of time
Gharavi’s personal link to the story of this boxing legend was sown when she embarked on a journey to discover the legacy of Ali’s visit to South Shields in 1977. The stories of the 14 Yemeni sailors were stumbled upon by accident while filming at the Al Azhar mosque, and Gharavi decided that the story of these remarkable men should be recorded and their story be told, which is how they’ve come to be featured in the exhibition. This is an exhibition built on a range of media, telling a number of different histories in various voices. The film footage is gritty; it is not pretty, and is devoid of any ‘fluff’. It is real, and ties in well with the portraits of the sailors on display. To complement the audio/visual installation, Gharavi commissioned the internationally-renowned Egyptian photographer Youssef Nabil to create a series of photographs and portraits. Gharavi says that this was not so much a curatorial process, but an art project aggrandising these hard-working men as historical figures. ‘These portraits are not [reflective of] dirty social realism; [the subjects] are presented as heroes in Nabil’s portraiture’, she mentions. These photographs tell of their stories, their faces, and their experiences, fitting suitably within the multimedia collection of oral histories and the 3D documentary.
The technique Nabil has used in these portraits is impressive, and most certainly grandiose. Having grown up in the ‘Hollywood of the Nile’ during Cairo’s golden age of cinema, Nabil is familiar with the glamour of this era of black-and-white film. Through this nostalgia, one experiences his melodramatic methods of photographic expression. Paying homage to the mise-en-scène movement, he captures his photographs in black-and-white before hand-painting them, replicating the age-old technique then-popular in his native Cairo. As he notes:
Until very recently you could still find hand-painted movie posters on the streets of Cairo, and in most houses a hand-coloured black-and-white family portrait. This was so much a part of my world that I decided to incorporate it into my work and combine this old technique with my contemporary images.
Though some may see this technique as detracting from reality in its hyperbolic portraiture, I see these images as being representative of pride and accomplishment, particularly with respect to the replication of a classic artistic technique used to depict exemplary figures of days gone by.
It is ironic that most of the Yemeni sailors have never been to an exhibition before, and more so, never imagined that one could visit them for free; and yet, here they are opening their own exhibition
After viewing the portraits and the video interviews, we are guided to the Lower Grand Room. Here, videos are projected onto retro television screens from the 50s to the 80s. The nostalgia is tangible, and the scene is very much set for these oral histories. Each video stands on a plinth at the original height of the interviewee, with every man telling the story of his life and his journey in settling in South Shields. I am surprised at the length of time I find myself listening to these stories. They are incredibly engaging, told with a rich, bold, and guttural Yemeni accent. I find many Arabs to be strong public speakers; their diction is well-paced, placing emphasis on intonations and pausing dramatically for effect. These dialogues are intriguing to follow, and flow more like a story than a set of interview questions.
Gharavi’s decision to create this installation of films is simple: it allows the audience to choose whom they listen to, and for how long they listen to them. Like me, Gharavi is surprised at the length of time people spend watching each video. Perhaps this is because a history is being portrayed that people didn’t expect to encounter, and they are keen to find out more – a fine indicator of success for the exhibition, and the concept as a whole. When I ask Gharavi about her most profound moment in the project, she pauses to reflect. She then tells me about the opening of the exhibition in the Baltic Centre in the North East, which was attended by the Yemeni Ambassador to the UK. ‘I was really proud that these men had that recognition from the Ambassador for the work that they achieved.’
It is ironic that most of the Yemeni sailors have never been to an exhibition before, and more so, never imagined that one could visit them for free; and yet, here they are opening their own exhibition for all to see and experience with them.
And what about the title of the exhibition, one might ask? I also wondered about this. The Last of the Dictionary Men; I have seen the entire exhibition, and yet cannot work out the link. Gharavi explains the reasoning behind the title. Firstly, ‘it gets people to ask why’, and secondly, Yemen is known as the ‘Dictionary Land’ because it is where the Arabic language originated. I feel like I have learned many things from this exhibition, upon which I can reflect. This brings me back to my initial remark that this is a somewhat unexpected exhibition. I did not expect to learn what I did through the histories of these men and their life stories, and although Muhammad Ali is known as the King of South Shields, there are many other heroes to be remembered and rewarded for their work and their place in history.
Gharavi and Nabil have achieved something very special in creating this exhibition. It brings to life a history and set of stories that would have otherwise disappeared in the annals of time. It is an exhibition that inspires a remarkable sense of curiosity, making one think about what other narratives lie hidden in history, and the great potential to uncover, exhibit, and celebrate them.