Yemeni Diaspora: South Shields, a home away from home

Published on 13 February 2014 in Variety
Daniel Johnson (author), Daniel Johnson (photographer)

Daniel Johnson


Daniel Johnson

The Al Azhar Mosque in South Shields, where Muhammed Ali once stopped by to have his marriage blessed by the local imam.

The Al Azhar Mosque in South Shields, where Muhammed Ali once stopped by to have his marriage blessed by the local imam.

There is another sky,

Ever serene and fair,

And there is another sunshine,

Though it be darkness there;

—There Is Another Sky, Emily Dickinson

A cursory glance at a map of the Yemeni diaspora throws up certain themes. From the Swahili coast to Singapore, Yemenis enjoy settling in hot climates in the lush tropical countryside. There is one place on the Yemeni Diaspora map of the world which bucks that desire in the most dramatic way imaginable.

South Shields, a small former industrial backwater famous for fish and chips and alcohol fuelled violence, has been home to one of Britain’s oldest Muslim communities – the Yemeni Muslim community – since the late Victorian era.  Nestled among the smoke blackened chimneys and ship yards, cheek by jowl with the rickety, sclerotic locals, this unlikely Arab colony established itself so successfully that it is now an unquestioned and accepted part of the area’s cultural identity.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, travelling from Aden on British ships powered by Arab sweat, the Yemenis landed at South Shields and took a shine to the cold, dark sulphur spewing hovel. Young, single and healthy, it wasn’t long before they married local lasses and changed the genetic makeup of the area forever. In fact they spread their genes so successfully that to this day a considerable number of South Shields residents (nicknamed “Sand Dancers” by inhabitants of rival towns and cities) with no apparent links to the Yemeni community bear names like Kevin Hassan and Jacqueline Abdul.

The nascent community experienced teething problems in the form of Britain’s first ever race riots. Despite the sacrifices of 400 South Shields Yemenis who were killed serving on British ships during the First World War, in 1919 and 1930 economic pressures turned local opinion against newcomers, and Yemenis bore the brunt of anti-immigrant violence. Such extreme hostility however was the exception rather than the rule, and the Yemeni community prospered, numbering several thousand by the 1930s.

Although South Shields’ Yemeni Community has never produced its own pop or sports star (unlike Birmingham and Sheffield, which produced UB40’s Norman Hassan and Boxer “Prince” Naseem Hamed, respectively), it has had its very own 15 minutes of fame courtesy of the greatest sporting hero of all time. In 1977 the South Shields Yemeni Community played host at their ground breaking Al Azhar Mosque (one of the first purpose built mosques in the UK) to boxing superstar Muhammad Ali. Ali, who was touring the region at the time promoting various charitable causes, popped into the mosque to have his marriage to actress and model Veronica Porsche “blessed” by local Yemeni Imam Abdul Ali. Lining the streets to greet Ali (who arrived in an open top bus led by a marching jazz band!) were thousands of locals and members of the national media. Inside the mosque delegates of the Yemeni community welcomed Ali, who was dressed in a dazzling white suit, and joined in a congregational du’aa (an invocation of blessing) for Ali, his wife and daughter.  

Despite the ready availability in local stores of qat and malawah bread, since the 1970s the decline of heavy industry in Northern England has driven many Yemenis to other parts of the UK and back to Yemen. Al Azhar Mosque continues to serve the shrunken Yemeni community and still maintains a distinctly Yemeni flavour, but most of the worshippers are of Bangladeshi or other Asian stock.

Most of the Yemenis may have followed the example of earlier Arab immigrants - 4th century Iraqi Roman soldiers stationed in South Shields – and returned to their sunnier motherland, but over 100 years of largely successful integration and coexistence have left an indelible mark on the area.

Several hundred Yemeni families, including first generation immigrants, still call South Shields their home, and the Yemeni legacy lives on in the distinctly non-European hair, eyes and noses of many a local Englishman. So long as there remain Arabic speaking Muslims of Yemeni descent, Al-Azhar Mosque and the Arabic school, South Shields -  an otherwise bland and mono-cultural provincial town – can still boast to be home to one of Western Europe’s most successful and longstanding Muslim communities.