Yemeni sea heroes tell their tale [Archives:2009/1227/Last Page]

January 22 2009

By: Alice Hackman
In 1956, seventeen year-old Abdu Ahmad Obeya, from Ibb, set sail from Aden with a brand new British passport to join his father and grandfather in South Shields, England. After several jobs in British Steel factories and over three grueling years shoveling coal in the engine rooms of a British merchant navy ship, he was promoted to crew on a deep sea ship and his exploration of the world began. Fifty three years and five continents later, he still lives in Britain.

“My life is like the 1,001 Nights,” says Obeya, “It's full of stories.”

Obeya's stories, along with those of 13 other Yemeni sailors from South Shields, are on display as part of an exhibition entitled Last of the Dictionary Men at the National Museum in Sana'a. Produced by Iranian-born filmmaker Tina Gharavi and featuring the artwork of Egyptian artist Youssef Nabil, the exhibition is an interactive one. Visitors are invited to move between 14 televisions and don earphones to listen, one by one, to these elderly men recount the tale of their extraordinary lives.

Since 1890, Yemenis have traveled to the port town of South Shields in the north-east of England to work on the merchant ships there. These hard workers were popular with ship masters -notably because they had the good reputation of being reliable and sober- and their work took them all over the world on merchant navy ships.

Obeya traveled the seas of the globe in company of British, Somali and other Yemeni sailors. He shared a room with three to six other sailors, and was in turn responsible for the stores and preparing food for the ship's Muslim crew in Ramadan.

“I sailed to America, Latin America, Australia, New Zeeland, Japan, the Philippines, Africa, and all of Arabia,” says Obeya. “I went to Peru, Trinidad, Jamaica – crazy people down there.”

Told in their own words and recorded for posterity, these men's stories are tender, funny, moving and, at times, epic. They tell of travel, war, love, poetry, religion, pensions, and even qat. But, first and foremost, they are stories of successful integration. Many of these Yemeni sailors arrived in Britain as young men and some married local English girls with whom they settled and had children.

Tina Gharavi, affectionately called “Princess Tina” by Obeya, worked with the remaining first-generation Yemenis of South Shields over the course of three years to produce both the exhibition and documentary of the same name. It all started when she moved to the small Tyneside coastal town a few years ago and heard that her childhood hero, boxing legend Muhammad Ali, was married in its mosque. As she set out to produce a documentary to commemorate the event, she met some of the elderly Yemenis living in town and learnt of their stories.

“It started a huge sense of responsibility, huge guilt,” she says. “I couldn't turn my back on it. Here was a story of contribution to British colonial history, a story of integration of Muslims in Britain that was really successful.”

“Historically, integration has happened,” she adds, “Recent hysteria about Islam is unjustified.”

Arabs have successfully integrated in Britain since the Roman era, explains Gharavi. The Roman fort in South Shields bears the name of Arbeia, which means Land of the Arabs in Arameic. In the fourth century AD, the Romans brought skilled bargemen over from Mesopotamia to Britain to patrol the river Tyne and supply the garrisons at Hadrian's Wall, an important military line of defense, upstream. These men, later called the Tigris Bargemen, probably never left Britain, but instead stayed founding families on English soil.

The project was motivated by a desire to rectify a distorted image of the Muslim community in Britain, one exacerbated by black and white “social” photographs and local literature that do not depict its members in their true light. Through the medium of scarcely-edited interviews, Gharavi chose to privilege the voices of the last of the South Shields Yemeni sailors to produce a positive representation of men that she describes as “sea heroes”.

“During the Second World war, about 700 men of those who died on the navy ships were Yemenis from South Shields,” she says, describing the figures as “staggering”.

To give the last of these Yemeni sailors the noble status they deserve, Gharavi commissioned Egyptian artist Youssef Nabil to produce portraits of them. The result is a series of 13 monumental hand-painted images on show at the exhibition. All but one of the dictionary men appear magnificent in an eclectic mixture of traditional Yemeni dress and British jumpers. A small navy identity picture represents the fourteenth story-teller, who unfortunately passed away before the project was completed.

The show is also about identity: as a Yemeni, as a Muslim and as a British citizen.

Obeya, for example, continues to this day to pray in the South Shields Al-Azhar mosque that his father, Ahmad Mohammad Obeya, helped build in 1971 and where Mohammad Ali has his wedding blessed in 1977. And he is, in his own words, the “very best man” at making aseed, a traditional Yemeni porridge. But, although Obeya, now retired, still visits his family in Sana'a and Ibb every year, when asked whether he is Yemeni or British, he proudly states he is British. And, perhaps surprisingly, he is particularly impressed with the country's tax system.

“In England, you have poll tax. The country builds itself. That's democracy,” he explains. “If there are more taxes for the government [in Yemen], we will build Yemen. I believe it myself.”

“You don't get any country like this,” he adds, “No matter British-born, Yemeni or African, [you get] your pension.”

Although the events of 9/11 triggered unprecedented hostility against Muslims in the community of South Shields, Obeya says that he is happy living on in Britain.

“Some people do [the attacks], but we get the blame. People make it like Irish stew,” he says, “Now it is better.”

In a modest effort to raise the profile of a religion that has come under attack since the beginning of the decade, Gharavi hopes to get permission to inaugurate a plaque outside South Shields' Al-Azhar mosque to commemorate Mohammad Ali's visit there in 1977. She also hopes in this way to protect the mosque from any further attacks by local arsonists.

“We hope, with the backing of the Foreign Secretary, to put it up on July 17,” she says, admitting with a smile that it has been a struggle to persuade the mosque's elders to put the plaque up outside the building where the non-Muslim world can see it, not inside on the wall of an office.

Last of the Dictionary Men is on until February 12 at the National Museum on Tahrir in Sana'a. Opening times are from 9:00 to 13:00 and 15:00 to 18:00 from Saturday to Wednesday and from 9:00 to 13:00 on Thursday.