United in our Heritage

August 22, 2011 9:13 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

In February this year, in his first speech as Prime Minister on the topic of radicalisation and the causes of terrorism, David Cameron aped German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a scathing attack on “multi-culturalism”.

At a security conference in Munich, the British Prime Minister argued that the UK needed a stronger national identity to prevent people from turning to extremism. For many Arabs within Great Britain, Cameron’s speech was merely an echo of the same ignorance first espoused by the previous Labour Government.

According to the Daily Mail, in an article first published in 2010, “most Britons are direct descendants of farmers who left modern day Iraq and Syria 10,000 years ago”. After studying the DNA of more than 2,000 British men, researchers claimed they had compelling evidence that “four out of every five white Europeans could trace their roots back to the Near East”.

In 2006, a DNA test carried out in association with the Channel Four documentary ‘100% English’, discovered that former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was a direct descendent of the Bedouin tribes of ancient Mesopotamia who, centuries ago, covered all of modern Iraq and large portions of contemporary Turkey, Syria and Iran.

In 2006, Charlotte Higgins, arts correspondent for the Guardian newspaper, reported that the ‘Notitia Dignitatum’ (a Roman document from AD400) described how battalions of Iraqis once patrolled the English North East frontier. Archers expatriated from conquered Middle Eastern lands were settled in close proximity to Hadrian’s Wall, where certain areas underwent a ‘name change’ to accommodate the Roman Empire’s Eastern soldiers.

In 1824, while travelling up the river Tigris, General George Keppel described an Arab population that “resembled the ancient heroes of Greece and Rome”, with boatmen being “hardy and muscular”, making “excellent models for a Hercules; and one in particular, with uncombed hair and a shaggy beard, struck us all with the resemblance he bore to statues of that deity.”

According to a paper published in 2004 titled ‘The Arab Population in the UK’, Dr Ismail al-Jalili noted that Britain is now home to more than 500,000 Arabs and that “in the 19th century, Yemeni seamen called the Lascars sailed with British ships”, with many settling within the UK to work on the docks and other related industries along with the burgeoning rail network. Dr Al-Jalili also noted that “…the traditional trading skills of Syrians and Lebanese brought them to ‘Cottonopolis’ – Manchester.”

He further remarked that “London’s East End, Tyneside, Liverpool and Cardiff became centres of small Arab communities. By 1948 there were nearly a thousand Arabs in Tyneside, some marrying local women, thus giving birth to the hybrid ‘British-Arab’ identity that many native-born British-Arabs, especially those of mixed ancestry, are now establishing”.

The BBC reported that “In 1916 the Military Cross was awarded to a Captain in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers for conspicuous gallantry during a raid on the enemy’s trenches”. The citation noted that he had braved “rifle and bomb fire” and that “owing to his courage and determination, all the killed and wounded were brought in”.
The military hero in question was the celebrated British poet Siegfried Sassoon, whose prose is a central feature to many in English literature. It is often overlooked that Siegfried Sassoon’s family were Sephardic Jews who had originally flourished in Basra. Sassoon’s grandfather was the first of his family to arrive in England in 1858, having come to Britain as a result of the Industrial Revolution.

The Arab historian Albert Hourani, born in Manchester in 1915, has published ‘A History of the Arab Peoples’. This book has been described by Harvard University Press as “the definitive story of Arab civilizations”. Upon publication Hourani’s book became “an instant classic”, with him being famed for having trained more academic historians of the modern Middle East, “than any other university historian of his generation”.

During the 20th Century, my own relatives lived and worked around coal mining areas in the North East of England, being based around Ashington Colliery which opened in 1867 and eventually closed in 1986. According to the Durham Mining Museum, the Ashington Colliery employed an estimated 2343 “underground” workers in 1902, with the number rising to 3997 in 1914. The number rose further to 4076 in 1921.

My great-grandfather died in the 1920’s, having suffered pneumoconiosis caused by the inhalation of coal dust. He left behind his wife and children. In the early 1990’s, at my grandmother’s funeral in Manchester, her elderly brother and my great uncle, a man described by the family as being a “Geordie Nationalist”, patted me on the head and asked my mother “when will you teach this lad English?” Protesting that I already spoke English, my relatives from the North East of England began to laugh as it was explained to me that, according to my uncle, who was “born and bred” in Newcastle, “You will only be Englishman when you speak like a Geordie”.

When debating the concept of multi-culturalism, the first thought that comes to my mind is a statement by Leon Trotsky, “to understand and perceive truly, to feel to the very bottom, the section of time in which we live, one has to know the past of mankind, one has to know the history of mankind, the picturesqueness and the personalities of contemporary life.” Through this discovery, we may find that within Great Britain there is much more than just a common heritage.

Hussein Al-Alak is chairman of the Iraq Solidarity Campaign

The paper by Dr Ismail Al-Jalili can be found at


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This post was written by Hussein Al-alak

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