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Last of the Dictionary Men
The memories of the remaining first generation Yemenis in South Shields have been recorded for posterity.
The Yemeni community in South Shields is one of the oldest Arab communities in Britain.
Seamen from the Middle Eastern country began to settle in South Shields from the end of the 19th Century, finding employment in the shipping and coal industries – particularly as firemen in the ships.
Initially the men lodged together in boarding houses as they were prevented by law from staying with local families, but over the years the community has expanded and integrated with the local society.
Now only a handful of the first generation seamen are left and their unique stories have been recorded for posterity as part of a three-year project by Bridge + Tunnel Productions in Newcastle.
Hugely important stories
Tina Gharavi, creative director of Bridge + Tunnel Productions and a lecturer in Digital Media at Newcastle University, says the project grew naturally out of her research into Muhammad Ali's visit to South Shields.
Portraits by Youssef Nabil are also on show
As she interviewed the young men who had met Ali she felt the camera being drawn towards the more elderly men who also wanted to tell their stories.
"A lot of the men I was meeting at the boarding houses were in their 70s, 80s and 90s and it was very, very clear that their stories were hugely important, hadn't been recorded, and needed a kind of context," Tina says.
"I don't do history documentaries and I'm not really a historian but I almost kind of felt the responsibility to record it.
"They're the last men who worked on the ships."
Fourteen men were interviewed for the project but sadly one has since passed away. Tina says she felt an "urgency" to record their memories.
"Their stories are just staggering. These men have travelled all over the world and some of them worked on the ships for like forty years and have these amazing anecdotes."
She was most surprised by the story of Muhammed Nasser.
"He was one of the men who worked in the Royal Navy rather than the Merchant Navy, so slightly different. He was in the Falklands War and was taken hostage in Argentina and tortured for a few days.
The recordings will be displayed on TVs
"And then Mr As-Sayadi who is the chairman of the mosque [in South Shields], and who's definitely in his 90s, had been in the World War II efforts.
"It kind of gives you a complete sense of the contribution that this community had to [this] society and this country - and it's totally unrecognised, totally uncommemorated and unknown."
As well as providing a lasting record of these men's experiences, Tina hopes the recordings and exhibition will also challenge the common assertion in the media that the riots in South Shields in 1919 and 1930 were race riots.
"That's what we're trying to actually set straight," she says.
"It was a trade union dispute that happened between a communist union and another group trying to get equal pay for the Yemeni men and it kind of erupted. That's not a race riot…
"This is the thing that the community is being remembered for but it's such a red herring because in fact the history of the community has been largely really successful integration."
She adds: "I hope that that's what the community are remembered for – for being really loyal subjects."
The portraits are hand-tinted
The 14 video interviews were displayed at Baltic in Newcastle in April 2008 as part of an exhibition entitled Last of the Dictionary Men.
The interviews were shown virtually unedited, as the main thrust of the project was to allow the men to tell their own stories, in their own words.
Each video was shown on a TV screen positioned at the height of the man, so visitors felt like they were "meeting" each of them face to face.
So what is Tina's lasting memory of meeting the Yemeni men?
"I just think they're an amazing, remarkable group of men; so warm.
"It's been a great project to work on because the characters and men are really just wonderful people."
last updated: 06/05/2008 at 10:57