Liverpool-Yemenis: A Sketch of a Hidden Community

 

David Harrison is currently working with the Liverpool-Yemeni community for his PhD research which questions UK Yemeni and Arab diaspora identity, their relationship with Liverpool, Yemen, religion, politics and language. He also works and volunteers at several community events and organisations in Liverpool. Other research interests include: Arabic and Semitic linguistics, Arabic dialectology, early and pre-Islamic Arabic literature, and politics of the Arab world.

Despite their long and vibrant history, with early records dating the arrival of the first Yemenis in the city in the late 19th century, the Liverpool-Yemeni community has received very little attention, both in the public eye and in scholarly accounts. The following is a ‘sketch’ of Liverpool’s unique Yemeni community in its current form as told by participants across a number of interviews.

The stories tell of seafaring grandfathers who leave the hardship of Yemen in pursuit of work aboard British ships, often the Merchant Navy, eventually reaching the major port towns of the UK in the early 20th century. But, this first wave of migration actually saw very few Yemeni sailors settling in Liverpool. Instead, Cardiff, Tyneside and Hull are more prominent in early accounts. Participants have told stories of their fathers and grandfathers having sailed to Madagascar, to France, and eventually to the UK, and although Yemen is often regarded as a backwater of the Arab world, an arid isolated place, it is worth remembering that it has historically had a rich network of seafaring connections with India and Southeast Asia.

If none of these initial arrivals settled in Liverpool, how did Liverpool become home to a well-established Yemeni community? A common theme has been that of employment in steel factories in previously industry-heavy cities, particularly Sheffield, followed by mass unemployment and redundancies (cf. Searle, 2009) in the 70s and 80s. This led Yemenis to seek opportunities elsewhere, and Liverpool proved to be a prime location with an opening in the market and cheap property prices, perhaps due to the undesirable nature of ‘riotous’ Toxteth at the time. Participants have recalled how, unlike elsewhere in the UK, South Asian communities had not set up newsagents and grocers in the city, allowing Yemenis to take advantage of this opening. It is from here that the Liverpool-Yemeni community really begins to prosper in the city, and uniquely, gives Islam in Liverpool a distinctive Arab character.

A broad question which has arisen from this research is whether we can speak of a ‘Muslim diaspora’ in a meaningful way, as religion, ethnicity and diaspora identity come together in complex ways. As individuals often relate to these categories in many varied ways, it is difficult to produce a single coherent narrative, but the majority of participants reveal a deep sense of connection to ‘Yemeniness’ enhanced by extended trips to Yemen, and various community organizations and initiatives in the city, in which Islam certainly plays a complementary role, but does not overshadow other elements of a typically ethnically-defined diaspora community Another question is whether a new hybrid Scouse-Yemeni identity is beginning to emerge as the community enters its 3rd (and even 4th) generations. A memorable and telling quote from a younger participant is that ‘Liverpool-Yemenis have double confidence:  the Arab confidence, and the Scouse confidence’, indicating a positive identification with Liverpool as a place in which elements of  ‘Arabness’ and ‘Scouseness’ come together. This is perhaps felt most keenly in the heart of the community in Toxteth, or L8, – a strong working-class neighbourhood which has seen decades of immigration. Although a strong connection with both Yemen and Liverpool is present, the question of visibility as a distinct ethnic group within the city remains, as Yemenis risk being subsumed under the discourse surrounding the racialization of ‘Muslims’ as a monolithic group.

Upon reflection at this stage of the research, a clear pattern of migration is emerging along with the more typical markers of ethnicity. It will be illuminating to speak with older members of the community, particularly shop-owners, to gather first-hand accounts of the journey from Yemen itself. During the initial stages of the research, I was particularly interested in the concept of the ummah among Liverpool-Yemenis and whether a strong notion of a global Muslim brother/sisterhood is present among the community, but it is becoming clear that such categories are rarely absolute and often even irrelevant to the daily lives of people. Nonetheless, I hope that the outcome of the thesis will be a portrait of the community which provides insight into broader scholarly questions concerning Islam in the UK, Arab diaspora communities and the history of Yemen and Liverpool. I must thank the participants’ generosity thus far and I look forward to continuing exploring this hidden corner of Liverpool.

By David Harrison

Image Credit: David Harrison

Yemen – a land of ancient civilizations, the homeland of Arabs, qat leaves, lush landscapes, and of course, coffee.

Liverpool – a once prosperous port-city with seafaring connections throughout the world, Europe’s oldest Chinatown, a city perhaps more Irish than English, and, home to a Yemeni diaspora community.

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