Saturday, February 09, 2013

Last of the Dictionary Men: a Mosaic Rooms exhibition on the Yemenis of South Shields

Saeed Mohamed Aklan Ghaleb (R) and Adnan Sayyadi in front of Saeed's portrait

Over the decades Arabs of various nationalities have settled in Britain, and there are now sizeable communities of Palestinians, Lebanese, Iraqis, Egyptians, Libyans and others. In the summer Britain hosts a large number of visitors from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries.

But the oldest Arab (and Muslim) community in Britain is one of the least known - that of the Yemenis, whose presence goes back well over a century. Many first came as merchant seamen sailors who settled in ports such as Hull, Liverpool and the Welsh capital, Cardiff. Others were drawn by industry, including the Yemenis of Sheffield who worked in often dangerous conditions in the steel industry for which Sheffield used to be famed.

Leyla Seyyadi in front of the portrait of her grandfather Mohammed Al-Sayyadi

Leyla's brother Adnan Sayyadi

The exhibition Last of the Dictionary Men, which opened at the Mosaic Rooms at the Qattan Foundation in London a week ago and runs until 22 March, pays tribute through portraits and video to the Yemeni community in the port town of South Shields in the north-east of England. The town is located at the mouth of the River Tyne and is some five miles from the city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

The maritime and industrial heritage of the North East along the River Tyne was a magnet to Yemenis looking for employment away from their impoverished country. Thousands of seamen from Yemen settled in the small town and made it home. The region's industrial and shipping tradition is  now in sharp decline.

'our land is the dictionary of our people'

The exhibition's title is inspired by the blind Yemeni poet and writer Abdullah al-Baradduni (b 1929 - this 1999 obituary appeared in the Guardian). In 1995 Al-Baradduni wrote: "Our land is the dictionary of our people - this land of far horizons where the graves of our ancestors sleep, this earth trodden by processions of sons and sons of sons."

The exhibition is the brainchild of Iranian film director Tina Gharavi, a Lecturer in English (Digital Media) at the University of Newcastle who was educated in the US and France. She is founder and creative director of independent media production company Bridge + Tunnel whose project the exhibition is.

 Tina Gharavi

The exhibition takes the form of interviews with, and portraits of, 14 men who are the last survivors of the first generation of Yemenis to settle in South Shields. The striking large photographic portraits around the walls of the ground floor exhibition space of the Mosaic Rooms are by the renowned Egyptian photographer Youssef Nabil. He uses hand-colouring, an old-fashioned technique which was popular in Cairo. As his website puts it, this technique "removes the blemishes of reality, and recalls the heyday of Egyptian film." It gives his photographs of the Yemeni men an ageless, nostalgic and poignant quality.

Visitors to the private show of the exhibition on 2 February were able to meet one of the Dictionary Men - Saeed Mohamed Aklan Ghaleb, originally from the Yemeni city of Taiz. He chatted about his 38 years as a seaman during which he travelled to many destinations including Japan, Argentina, Ghana, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, the USA. He had vivid recollections of how difficult it was for the sailors when they arrived in East German ports during the Cold War. 

Also present at the private view were Adnan Sayyadi and his sister Leyla. They are grandchildren of Dictionary Man Mohammed Al-Sayyadi, now 99 years old, a former Sheikh of the South Shields Al Azhar Mosque who came originally from the town of Ibb. The mosque is one of the first purpose-built mosques in Britain. The MP of the solidly Labour South Shields  constituency is former Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who visits the Mosque from time to time to connect with the town's Yemeni and Muslim community.

Fadia Faqir

The Jordanian-British novelist Fadia Faqir had also travelled down from the North-east of England for the private view of the exhibition. Faqir, who is Writing Fellow at St Aidan's College, Durham University, is a trustee of Bridge + Tunnel Productions, a charity.

She said of the exhibition "We are so excited that we managed to bring it here. We worked really hard with the Qattan Foundation - and they were wonderful." Asked about the development of culture in the North-east of England, Faqir said "I think because we are not in London we are growing in our own ways."  She says the North-east has never before been presented the way it is in the Bridge + Tunnel feature film I Am Nasrine.  The film, set in the North-east, is "about an Iranian woman who had to leave her country, and comes here with her brother, and then the journey she and her brother make through this society - an initiation into Britain."

Gharavi was recently nominated for a BAFTA for the film, in the category ‘Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer’. It won the Best Screenplay Award at the Brooklyn Film Festival last year. The film is set in modern day Tehran and the UK.

Faqir said Bridge + Tunnel has another project "brewing", Video-Pal. "We are going to teach kids in the North-east and Palestine to use cameras and then document their lives, and Tina Gharavi is going to turn it into a documentary film. And then we have another documentary film brewing and another feature film". 

video installation on old-model TV sets 

In the downstairs space of the Mosaic Rooms is a video installation with multiple screens, each on a TV set which is a domestic model commonly seen in British homes from the 1950s to 1980s. Each TV stands on a plinth, at the real-life height of the individual subject. Each of the 14 Dictionary Men tells the story of his life and his journey towards becoming settled in South Shields, while visitors listen over headphones. 

The exhibition also includes the official trailer of the film The King of South Shields, made by Gharavi.
The film is an experimental documentary looking at the day in 1977 (the year of  the Queen's Silver Jubilee) that boxing champion Mohammad Ali came to Tyneside and had his marriage blessed at the town's Al-Azhar Mosque. The film explores the effect this event had on the young Yemeni-British men who attended the Mosque. It examines the emerging Arab/British identity, and briefly introduces the historic Yemeni community. The BBC website has this article on the film. A DVD of the film is on sale in the Mosaic Rooms shop.

The Mosaic Rooms has commissioned a new short video to be developed by Bridge + Tunnel, to be screened during the latter part of the exhibition. This video will capture oral histories recorded from a range of participants from the Yemeni community in London. An oral histories workshop with Gharavi is to be held on the weekend of 2-3 March (Yemenis who would like to participate and share their stories are invited to email for more information, or to call 020 7370 9990. Places are limited to a maximum of 15 people).  

Gharavi initiated the Last of the Dictionary Men project in 2005. The exhibition was first shown in 2008, initially at the BALTIC arts centre at Gateshead and then in Yemen at the Al-Saeed Cultural Centre in Taiz and the National Museum in Sana'a.

On Saturday 2 March at the Mosaic Rooms at 12pm Gharavi will be in conversation about Last of the Dictionary Men and The King of South Shields with Venetia Porter, Assistant Keeper of the Islamic and Contemporary Middle East at the British Museum.

Several other events at the Mosaic Rooms this month and next also relate to the exhibition. For example in Qat, Coffee and Qambus to be held at 7pm on 28 February DJ and record collector Chris Menist is to play rare Yemeni vinyl singles from the ‘60s and ‘70s, featuring vintage oud and vocal music. In a 2012 article in the Guardian Chris described record-hunting in Yemen.
report and photos by Susannah Tarbush

from the video installation: caption reads "I was brought up as an Arab, but I have lived in Britain all my life." 

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