Traveller's tales

Friday, May 26, 2006

The 'Shelty Arabs' - the Yemeni community of South Shields, County Durham

South Shields and North Shields lie either side of the Tyne before it opens at Tynemouth and the North Sea.

Today, the two small towns are linked by a ferry that runs regularly across this once busiest of England's northern rivers.

Ships were built on the Tyne, and sailed from her docks to ports all over the world.

Ships also came from the five continents across the roughest seas and oceans of the world to bring cargo to Tyneside. Among those cargoes, and working as boilermen, stokers or labouring men, were men from the Yemen, called Lascars. Ships frequently sailed from the port of Aden, and men from those shores came to Tyneside and settled - many are still there today.

The first Arab Seamen's boarding house opened along the riverside in 1909. By the end of the first World War, the Yemenis living in South Shields numbered 3,000. Unfortunately, by 1919, campaigns were underway to drive these people out. Jobs were scarce after the war, and violence erupted, culminating in riots. Eight Arabs were sent to prison for their part in them.

Since then, shipping interests: shipbuilding, and the dockyards that coped with incoming cargo, have declined. People of Yemeni origin still live in the town, and happily in a more cordial atmosphere.

Oddly enough, the hill fort dating back to Roman times, is called Arbei, meaning 'the place of the Arabs' in the Arameic language, the native language of the last people stationed at the fort.

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