The Middle-Eastern heritage of South Shields

The Guardian: Less Cookson, more Ali: Tyneside town finds hidden Muslim history

The Guardian today printed this feature on the history of South Shields, a town in the conurbation of Newcastle in England, which has a history of settlement by Yemenis going back to the 19th century when an Arab sailors’ boarding house was opened there (and there were Arab soldiers in the area during Roman times as well, from Iraq of all places, helping to guard Hadrian’s Wall). The town’s mosque was where the boxer Muhammad Ali held his religious marriage, on a visit to support a local boxing club. However, a pleasantly interesting part was how integrated the community became:

[Tina Gharavi, director of a film about Muhammad Ali’s visit] said the most striking thing about the Muslim community was how peacefully integrated it had become. “It’s hard to make a film about nothing happening but that’s the truth, not much has happened because the integration has been successful. They are the first Muslim settled community in Britain and there were a few letters to the paper, but when you follow and read the discussions it was all about integration. Local women were marrying Yemenis and they were saying it was because they didn’t drink and they made good husbands. There’s certainly not a debate about the fact that they are Muslims.

While I’m not suggesting that all Muslim men today should follow these sailors’ examples, it’s nice that they were known (back in the dark ages!) as good husbands - unlike some yobs from Algeria who were busted in Finsbury Park last week for running a criminal empire out of a street near there, who were known for harrassing “unsuitably dressed” women. However, the community also spread to Cardiff, and the imam at one of the mosques in the Cardiff Bay district is (or was, in 2000 when I visited) of Yemeni origin (his daughters married in Yemen) and comes from Newcastle. It’s one of the most pleasant and peaceful mosques I’ve ever prayed in.

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