Yemenis in Britain [Archives:1997/44/Culture]

November 3 1997

By: Alan Osborn, London Press Services Special Correspondent
MEET the British Yemenis – the men and women from the Republic of Yemen who by their own choice or that of their parents have come to live in the United Kingdom. Anis Shamsan is the Information, Education and Cultural Officer for the “miniature Yemen” within the Welsh city of Cardiff. Since coming to Wales in 1975 Anis has involved himself in helping handicapped children and their families, in particular those in the ethnic communities, and has served as a link between his own countrymen and those of Britain. With a Yemeni father, an Irish mother and a grandfather who fought in the British army, Nadia Audhali, who lives in Birmingham in the English Midlands, has mixed loyalties. She says: “I love England, but my strongest feelings are for Yemen.” Mohammed Shaif Kassim is an accomplished footballer, born and raised in the English industrial city of Sheffield in northern England. He wants his son to bee fully integrated into British life “but I’ll make sure he knows about Yemen.” The lives and thoughts of these three and many others were the subject of “Yemenis in Britain” – a traveling exhibition of photos and text put together by the British Council and was shown in a number of big British cities in September and October this year. The show also covered the historical links between the two countries. At the same time the British charity, World Circuit Arts organized a major program of Yemeni music, dance, poetry and art in London. This was sponsored by the Yemeni Ambassador to Britain, Dr. Hussein Al-Amri; the former British Ambassador in Sana’a, Mr. Douglas Scrafton; the British-Yemeni boxer Prince Naseem Hamed; the British Council and the UK Foreign Office, together with art organizations and British and Yemeni companies. There are an estimated 70-80,000 Yemenis living in Britain. It is not a large settlement but it sends out powerful signals. The Yemenis are the longest-established Arab and Muslim community in the UK with a lifestyle that to many observers stands as a model of how devotion to Islam can be honorably conducted within the traditions and customs of a western country.
Britain’s first links with Yemen can be traced back to the coffee trade of the early 17th century. Aden subsequently became a major port-of-call for British shipping, assuming greater importance with the opening of the Suez Canal. The port played a significant part in the two world wars: it was through Aden in those years that many Yemenis found their way into Britain. Most of the early immigrants were seamen, settling in ports like Cardiff in south Wales, Liverpool in north-west England and South Shields, in north-east England. Later generations moved to inland industrial cities in search of work. The post-war years saw further changes as wives and children came to join their men folk, the range of occupations widened and Yemeni settlers made clear decisions to enter fully into British life, taking courses in the English language and culture throughout Britain. Yet most Yemenis in Britain today are employed as semi-skilled or unskilled laborers or own small retail shops, this pattern may not last much longer. The very latest generation of Yemenis in Britain – the children and grandchildren of the post-war immigrants – are achieving high academic qualifications in British schools and universities and seem destined for high-profile jobs. In almost all cases these will be in Britain. Few of the young Yemenis interviewed for the British Council exhibition intend to return permanently to the land of their parents although all adhere to deep Islamic convictions. For Britain this is a bonus. There is little doubt that the British government strongly favors a strengthened relationship with Yemen. A Foreign Office official said: “The year is the 30th anniversary of our withdrawal from Aden. We want to emphasize that the relationship between the two countries is now very forward-looking with growing trade and increasing numbers of Yemeni people wanting to study in the UK.” In fact, UK-Yemeni relations have improved markedly since the civil war of 1994, as before they had been strained due the 1990 Gulf war. Today relations are now officially described as “very good.” Britain is now providing direct aid through the British Partnership Scheme operated by the British Embassy in Sana’a as well as contributing to the European Union and World Bank aid programs. This warmer relationship is attested to by many ministerial visits in the past 18 months including a meeting between Dr. Iryani, the Yemen Foreign Mister, and the British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook in July. The meeting, which touched on some regional disputes, showed “a will to take the relationship further” according to officials. Britain is keen to stress its support for a united Yemen in which all citizens feel at home. Britain sent its own observers to the 1997 parliamentary elections and shares the international consensus that these were generally free and fair. UK government officials welcome the fact that the country has established the institutions of democracy such as a parliament, opposition and elections. After culture and politics, the third strand of Britain’s relationship with Yemen is economic. Britain is the third largest exporter to Yemen after the US and France, with about 12.4 per cent of the total exports to the country in 1995. The main British exports, which are growing strongly, are tobacco and beverages, machinery and transport equipment. The UK is also a leading foreign investor in Yemen with assets put at 15 million pounds sterling on a net book value basis in 1995. This is expected to grow. An investment seminar held on the Royal Yacht Britannia when it docked in Aden earlier this year was hugely successful according to trade department officials in London and this was followed up by an “Invest in Yemen” seminar in September. British trade officials believe that the current redevelopment of Aden harbor will equip the port to seize a much larger share of cargo traffic in the region and leading UK companies are being alerted to the possibilities. In British eyes, Yemen is a spectacular country, unique in its geographical position, landscape, architecture and traditions. The port of Aden is imprinted in British history as a trading post and as a bridge between the east and west. Many Britons cherish Yemen as a land of myth, be it the home of the Queen of Sheeba, the supposed location of the Garden of Paradise or the cradle of civilization for the Arab World. This autumn, British people had a chance to deepen their understanding. The Yemeni arts festival with its poets, musicians and dancers and the “Yemenis in Britain” exhibitions have captivated media attention on a country that seems to hold a fascination for Britons that far exceeds its size.
People in Yemen will have the chance to see the “Yemenis in Britain” exhibition which was part of the Yemen Festival in London. According to Ms. Katharine Potter, the Cultural Events Coordinator at the British Council in Sanaa, the exhibition will be part of the British Week activities, due to take place late in November. “Yemenis in Britain” will be on display at Dar Al-Kutub, Sanaa. “The exhibition presents the profiles of several different Yemeni people living in Britain, ranging from the international boxing champion to the honored war hero, the religious leader, the retail shop owner, etc,” said Ms. Potter.