Arab arts champion Taher Qassim never forgets his remote Yemen roots

The leading public health practitioner and Liverpool Arab Arts Festival founder has gone far, but memories of his shepherd upbringing remain strong

Through the tailoring skills acquired in Aden, a young Taher Qassim paid for language classes that he would make abundant use of years later in bringing to an audience in England the culture and art of his Arabic heritage. Darren Robinson for The National
Powered by automated translation

From the top of a mountain in the highlands of Yemen, a young Taher Qassim would gaze longingly at the horizon and dream.

Barely seven or eight years old, surrounded by his goats and sheep, the boy shepherd was standing at an elevation of some 1,500 metres above the Red Sea to the west, but his sights were set on the city of Aden.

“I wanted to go and explore,” Qassim, the founder of the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival, tells The National. “In the village, what was around me? Only my cousins, my uncles, the field and to be a shepherd. That’s all. I did not want that.”

He was born in Al Karaba, a poor, remote area where the inhabitants lived in centuries-old houses of stone, with wells and no electricity, much as their ancestors before them.

His father died early in Qassim's life, perhaps of malaria or smallpox, he thinks, which were rife at the time. A camel trader, he had taken the boy’s half-brother, Ismail, to Aden to seek work when the family’s only beast broke its leg and there was no money to buy another. Qassim never saw him again.

Stories, however, made their way to the villagers from the port, and his youthful self became fascinated. The so-called “permanent garrison East of Suez” had been under British rule since 1937 and news arrived one day that Ismail, a naval clerk, had learnt English, known then as “ajami”.

“I wanted to do something like that,” Qassim says.

Eventually his mother, who he calls “my mentor”, still heartbroken at the loss of her husband and of little financial means, nonetheless let her nine-year-old go. Qassim acquired tailoring skills to pay for language classes and schooling, of which he would make abundant use decades later in bringing to an audience in England the culture and art of his Arabic heritage.

There was, though, Qassim says, a “big drama” the day he left. His two uncles who lived in the village of Al Miragha were divided over the decision – one telling his mother that she needed a man to support her, the other saying that making him remain as a shepherd would not help his future – and elders were consulted.

Just when he thought his wish would never come true, “I saw my mother with running tears, saying that the advice she got was to let me leave”.

The distance from Al Miragha to the Land Rover taxi that arrived in the village only a couple of times a month was not far but, to Qassim, the journey on foot felt endless. “That 15 minutes was like walking 15 kilometres or more,” he says. “I thought I would never make it … my mother was crying all the way. She wanted to make sure that I would not forget her.”

Leaving the mountains was his “first big triumph” but he concedes that life in Aden certainly was not easy. The upbringing that caused him to marvel at seeing running water from a tap also drew teasing from his fellow pupils who called him “jalabi”, or “mountain boy”, when he enrolled at school for the first time.

In spite of it all, and the civil war that intermittently interrupted his learning, Qassim achieved surprisingly good grades.

After a two-year voluntary stint in the army, during which he married his first wife, Husn, he found his vocation at a nursing school in the American Baptist hospital in Jibla. It was a gruelling, three-and-a-half-year programme with a 50 per cent drop-out rate.

“Oh, I loved it,” he says of the time when he was exposed to further education, a library, sports and a different way of thinking. He goes so far as to describe it as an “intilaqa”, or renaissance.

He would later join a Swedish-affiliated hospital, where he began the work that set him on his career path in public health and met his second wife, Maj-Britt. They moved to Vaxjo, in Sweden, where Qassim studied for a nursing diploma and worked in the profession.

Five years on, he went to work with international non-government organisations in Yemen for a decade, meeting his third wife, Ann Hoskins, an Irish doctor who was setting up a primary healthcare system for the locals in the rural area of Rayma.

Qassim talks of how Ann visited all the villages on foot because they were not accessible by car, and that, to rendezvous, he had to walk straight uphill for six hours.

On arrival, he was invariably exhausted but for the exhilaration of being able to see the clouds beneath him along the way. “Yemen was and still is the place where I get my refreshment and stimulation,” he says.

When he left his homeland for England, he and Ann undertook postgraduate studies before settling with their two daughters in Liverpool.

They had envisioned tapping into a dynamic Yemeni community that had grown markedly over the many years since the first of the seafarers landed on Britain’s northern coast looking for work in the early 1900s.

“I assumed that my fellow Yemenis in Liverpool would be well involved in the society, well educated and prosperous,” Qassim says. “Yemenis were the majority of the Arabs there at that time.

“I learnt that Yemenis left their villages, just as I did, and formed a new village in Liverpool, and I'm sure it’s the same picture elsewhere in England where Yemenis reside.”

Qassim decided to apply what he had learnt during his masters degree in community public health at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine to better understand his compatriots.

I am not an artist at all … but I love art. It's a powerful medium
Taher Qassim

For decades, his role as public health manager for two of Liverpool’s five healthcare neighbourhoods put him in regular contact with police, teachers, councillors and housing officials, revealing crucial insights.

“I found out about the size of the Yemeni community, where they live, what they do, what their health concerns in Liverpool were,” Qassim says.

He discovered that Yemenis had some of the lowest educational outcomes in the city, an issue that often remained unresolved because of the prevalent mistrust parents had towards the teachers they felt were prejudiced against their children.

Establishing the Merseyside Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic consortium to mediate would, Qassim hoped, foster meaningful dialogue with schools as well as provide housing and health improvement projects in the city. It did, and he was made an MBE.

Cultural heritage, Qassim felt, was another way to help, particularly with the barrier to integration and success caused by intergenerational differences within families living “between two, sometimes four different worlds”.

Representing Arab culture and Arab people in a positive way became a decades-long passion for Qassim, who is a firm believer in “art’s curious ability to allow one person, with one set of life experiences, to speak directly to the heart of another”.

We are talking at the Bluecoat arts centre, where the seeds of the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival were sown as a series of small weekenders that grew into the longest-running and most successful annual event of its kind in the UK.

“I am not an artist at all … but I love art,” Qassim says. “Especially when I got involved with the Liverpool festival. I could see how much art can change mountains. It's a powerful medium. Many people underestimate the power of art.”

The festival, though, had to first overcome the timing of its launch. The 9/11 attacks took place shortly before the inaugural event, causing some on the committee to fear a backlash against such a celebration of Arab culture and heritage.

“There was a big debate whether we should do it or not,” Qassim says. “And there were two teams. One thought it was a big risk, and the other one was saying, ‘If you don't do it now, you will never be able to do it.’ For me, there was no question … I wasn’t afraid.”

From the outset, the public appetite and appreciation for the activities was gratifying, which stoked Qassim’s motivation to persevere. That is except, perhaps, for the response from a local mosque where the singing and dancing was not in keeping with conservative preferences.

Over the subsequent 20-plus years, however, the few detractors have joined the festival’s multitude of supporters. One particular edition stands out in Qassim’s memory, when a family day at Sefton Park Palm House illustrated the LAAF’s ability to bring the community together.

“It was buzzing,” he says. “People came from all over the North-West and beyond. It was the first time the imam, the rabbi and the priest were all there. That was the best success the LAAF has achieved.”

Qassim stepped down as chair of the festival two years ago, a position now held by his eldest daughter, Afrah. In all, he has five children with three wives and speaks proudly of their many creative talents, from art and music to writing.

Retirement for Qassim and Ann, who left her role as deputy director of public health in the north-west of England, has not quite gone to plan. It was supposed to involve travel but the pandemic put paid to that.

Qassim spends his spare time gardening, playing a variety of racquet sports – tennis, badminton, ping-pong – and indulging that other favourite pastime: talking. “I’m interested in people,” he says, with a wide smile.

The couple’s enduring love of Yemen and common expertise have drawn them together on the board of the Yemen Special Interest Group, which aims to improve healthcare provision for the population during the conflict and beyond.

Involvement in this group and another he has set up makes Qassim feel less impotent about the protracted crisis. “It's the hardest to see my country, where I was born and grew up, and have lots of friends, being bombed and destroyed, day in, day out,” he says. “And feeling helpless is the worst part of it.”

He is resolute about doing whatever he can, no matter how small the contribution may be. If he fails, Qassim says, he has failed many times before. He is philosophical that triumph and tribulation “go hand in hand” as part of daily lived experience.

It is one of the many lessons he has embraced during a peripatetic life. He talks about how, at the age of 69, he still learns something new every day. Looking back over the accrued wisdom, he cites the importance of always “being who I am and not pretending to be someone else”.

“This means recognising where I come from, with all that’s positive and negative,” he says.

Wanderlust may have long ago separated Qassim from his goats and sheep in the mountains of Yemen, but never the boy shepherd from the man.

Updated: August 11, 2022, 8:09 AM