Britain’s First Muslims

 David Mayall on a story of Arabs in exile

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Reviewed by: David Mayall
Author: Fred Halliday
Publisher: IB Tauris
Price (RRP): £15.99

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In 1992, when this book was first published as Arabs in Exile: Yemeni Migrants in Urban Britain, the Yemenis were a largely invisible group in the UK and knowledge about, or even public interest in, the home country of Yemen was limited. Up to this point their presence was largely unnoticed and unrecorded and they are noticeably absent in the histories of immigration to Britain. If the context of its first publication was politically charged (the Rushdie affair, Kuwait and Iraq) then that is even more true today with the announcement in January 2010 of the suspension of direct flights between Yemen and the UK due to security concerns and the political and media attention given to alleged Al Qaeda connections.

The book covers the context for migration, their early presence in ports prior to the First World War, and the second wave of migration and settlement in the urban and industrial centres of the Midlands and the North in the 1970s and 1980s. Based largely on personal observation, Halliday provides a readable and accessible account of the Yemeni community. The theme of identity is present throughout, challenging the popular homogenisation of all Muslims in Britain, and showing how a group who maintained a separateness not only from mainstream British society but also from the wider Muslim community, were progressively becoming incorporated into British society and politics by the end of the period covered by the study in the 1980s.Hints are provided of fissures within the group and, given the significance of the changed political climate in the last 20 years, an update of the impact of this on the Yemenis would have been welcomed. Even so, this carefully-drawn case study of an immigrant community has much to commend it. 

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David Mayall, Sheffield Hallam University