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Arabic arts festival comes to Liverpool

The distorting lens of news, focussed on the dramatic and unusual, can give the impression that the Arab world is synonymous with turmoil and war. A week in Liverpool will show otherwise.

Liverpool has long had connections with the Arab world, particularly with Yemen. In common with other port cities such as Cardiff and South Shields, Yemeni sailors formed the origins of a substantial community over a century ago.

For all the colder temperatures and Atlantic rain, they enjoyed the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the great port, which was then the principal gateway in the UK, and for much of Europe, to the burgeoning United States.

Most Liverpudlians of Arabic origin today trace their ancestry to the Yemen; few remain in shipping but they have flourished as newsagents, with members of the community owning some 400 corner shops. The Liverpool Arabic Centre, founded in 1997, has run a marvellous project called Moving Here, publishing online memories contributed by its members and their friends and neighbours.

Here's Marie, for instance, on her childhood in the 1960s:

I had a happy time growing up in Liverpool. My father was a lorry driver in here and my mother was British. I was growing up, trying to be a Muslim in England but it was in the 60s/70s and there weren't really any Mosques around or anything like that. Not like today. There was a 'Zawia' and we used to go there to learn the Quran and Arabic as children. We'd have our own parties at the David Lewis Hotel. It was great really, I was really happy.

And here's another, which I hope you'll agree is worth quoting at length:

Hello, my name in Mohamed Rajeh. I moved to Liverpool from Yemen in 1943.

I was a farmer in the 1930s. I was cultivating the land and we were very happy. At that time, there was nothing in Yemen except agriculture. People though started to protest against Great Britain while the Second World War needed people (to enlist). We moved to Aden. English welcome more people, we had passports, they gave us 200 French Ryals each and put us in boats and took us to Britain. I lived in England since then.

In Yemen, I suppose, I was looking for a job in the sea. It was a war time and all boats arrived to Yemen ports empty. There was no-one there who could help me go out and work at sea. Anyhow if you had British passport or 'chash book' you were given the opportunity to go. So I joined up and they put us in boats with others. Some people they were jumping off the boat, they were afraid of war and of facing the danger of sinking in the sea! Others took the risk. I was one of those people who took the risk. We moved from one country to another until finally we arrived here.

The trip wasn't difficult. In Aden we were happy, we had food and drinks, the soldier came and checked our papers. Nobody could have a job in the sea unless the soldier agreed. It was war time. However, on the boats we didn't know what to do, we knew nothing. The soldier patiently started to teach us what to do. It was not like nowadays, if you don't know how to do a job they tell you to 'go away!'. Though then, they were in need of human resources.

At the beginning we arrived at Middlesbrough. I had a British passport but they said, 'you don't have the right to enter Britain just yet, unless you do another trip on the boat'. I went back to the boat where we went to Africa for two months and when I came back they said, 'ok, you are allowed to enter Britain'. Afterwards I don't remember where I moved to … I think to Liverpool in 1943.

I knew nothing of the language at that time, I was living in Parr St. in the China Town. Anything I needed was easy to get hold of and when I got lost and couldn't find my house, the policeman would take your hand right to the doorstep. It was a different time where policemen were good and Arabs were good. When you can't find your address all you have to do is to give your address to the policeman and he would take you to there.

An Arabic Arts Festival in Liverpool now hopes to illuminate more of that context to life's dramatic, 'newsy' events, as Mr Rajeh himself does so richly. From July 6-15, the city will host a wide range of events covering most genres of art, craft and music.

Venues include the Bluecoat, FACT, the Kasbah, the Philharmonic, Unity Theatre, Walker Art Gallery, St George's Hall, Sahara Restaurant, Liverpool Arabic Centre, as well as outdoor events at Sefton Park (which will see a family day) and Liverpool One.

Films, literary readings, drama, dance workshops, ballet, readings, art exhibitions and concerts will feature, along with discussions on recent events in the Arab world. They will highlight diverse Arab cultures from Morocco to Iraq. Some events are free, while there is a charge for others.

Razanne Carmey, the festival's executive director, says:

In Liverpool, a city that can say much about its art and culture coming through change and turmoil, we look beyond reports of riots, war and politics to celebrate the arts, culture and life behind the news.

Good to end, perhaps, with Rajeh's conclusion, especially if you cross-refer it to some of the comments on the threads to the Northerner's recent posts on Sheffield's campaign against the deportation of Lemlem Hussein Abdu. See here and here. And here's Rajeh:

The British never hurt anybody, they are the best people, and they never use bad words with you. They respect you in offices. They are honest with you. They care for you if you are ill as if your own Mum and Dad would do. They will bring you anything you need. In Yemen only your own people would take care of you. Even some of my family they might ignore an old man like me. They would say I'm a drunk or naughty!

As for where I consider my home, I can't deny Yemen. You can't deny the country where you have been born. I have to go back to Yemen one day but I don't want to leave my daughter here. However, Britain is a very good country, I do love it, I do love it. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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