David Harrison is a WRoCAH PhD student in the department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds.
Tell us a little about your ‘research journey’ – how did you get to where you are right now?
The journey into my research on the Liverpool-Yemeni community was sparked by a combination of factors and experiences. I have always been intensely interested in the various communities and local histories of Liverpool, having had connections with the Chinese and Arab communities since childhood. After completing my BA in Arabic language at Leeds, I taught in several settings across Merseyside – both schools and community centres, including the Liverpool Arabic Centre during which time I also completed my MA on Andalusian-Arabic poetry, but I decided that a career in education was not for me.
My primary interest has always been languages and linguistics, so in that sense my journey into research has meandered quite a bit – I certainly hadn’t planned to be researching in the field of diaspora studies, but I think this also represents a natural progression in some ways, in that my early exposure to languages such as Chinese and Arabic was a direct result of Liverpool’s diaspora communities. I had always been aware that Liverpool had a Yemeni community, but after some initial searching I discovered there was very little material or research on the long-established and vibrant history of Yemenis in Liverpool and so I applied for a PhD scholarship, which was granted by WRoCAH.
Who, or what, sparked your interest to work on your particular research area?
The Liverpool-Yemeni community themselves, of course! My research interests are broad, but they ultimately stem from a love of language and linguistics. Through Arabic, I have been able to connect with the community and be an active participant which is a real privilege. The initial ideas for my research also came about when the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen was escalating. I was impressed with the dedication of the community to fundraising and organizing awareness campaigns, but I was also aware that many members of the community have a strong dedication to and identification with Liverpool. The combination of a uniquely Yemeni-Scouse identity is fascinating to me, as both Yemen and Liverpool are often seen as ‘outliers’ in their respective regions. The (often negative) attention Islam receives in the media and the narrative of Muslims as a single homogenous group goes contrary to my own experiences with Liverpool-Yemenis who, although largely Muslim, maintain a distinct identity which can’t just be boiled down to ‘Islam’. It is this combination of intersecting aspects of diaspora communities, ethnicity, language and religion, which really interests me. Yemen itself is also very captivating as it has a rich history and diverse geography which is often overlooked, but which contributes greatly to Yemenis’ self-understanding and identification.
What are you currently, or about to start, working on?
I am currently writing my PhD thesis which is tentatively titled:
“Yemeni, Muslim and Scouse: Locality, ethnicity, religion and diaspora in constructions of a British-Arab Muslim identity”
The thesis is the result of a year of fieldwork within the community talking to individuals on a great range of subjects and participating in community events. Although the thesis will provide a historical background of the community, I also hope it will provide a contemporary account of what it means to be Yemeni in Liverpool today and how this is expressed. Although Islam undoubtedly plays a large role in the life of the community, the ‘racialisation’ of Islam seems to be at odds with how religion functions in people’s daily lives. I hope the thesis will highlight the complexity of the interaction between religion, ethnicity and migration in our globalized age. Some of the most memorable experiences during fieldwork were being able to attend a Yemeni wedding, sharing iftar dinners during Ramadan, and the great hospitality people showed towards me throughout.
In what way(s) do you feel your research examines the role of religion in public life and the relationship between the two?
My research sits at an intersection of various disciplines, which is to be expected due to the nature of studying diaspora communities. In one sense, the research is a ‘traditional’ ethnography in that I examine people’s everyday lives through interviews and observations to gain a deeper understanding of how various categories such as ‘ethnicity’, ‘religion’, ‘language’ function and come together or even compete. Public life in the context of my research is localized, but nonetheless it is one of the main themes of my thesis in that I examine how Islam interacts with the Yemeni community’s everyday sense of ‘Yemeniness’ and ‘Scouseness’.
I ask questions such as how outsider perceptions of Islam have impacted the community, the perception of various mosques in the city and how they relate (or don’t) to ethnicity, the role of religion in community centres and why it might be explicitly included or excluded from certain spheres. In this sense, it is often difficult to untangle where ethnicity begins and where religion ends as the two are intimately connected in many ways. My thesis is an exploration of how individuals navigate between the two, and perhaps utilize them in different ways or contexts both in public and private spheres, i.e. sometimes it is invoked as a ‘marker’ of a common ethnicity in certain situations, other times it appears as a more over-arching bond linking Muslims globally. I also ask how individual members of the community respond to the common media narratives on Islam and how this impacts them. These questions allow me to present a nuanced picture of what it means to be Yemeni, Muslim and Scouse in a difficult time when Islam is often demonized in the public eye and as Yemen itself suffers incredibly from the conflict.