Zane Billal was born in Liverpool just before the Second World War, and became a successful publisher, founding Gateacre Press in 1980. He is, he says, the son of two remarkable people whose extraordinary story is in many ways typical of Liverpool’s multicultural tradition. ‘For my parents,’ says Zane, ‘it was a love story. They were potty about each other until they died.’
His parents’ story begins in the Yemeni highlands in 1923 where Zane’s father Ahmed Bilail, a 16-year old shepherd boy, dreamed of making his fortune in Britain. ‘My father had no education,’ says Zane, ‘but he was highly intelligent, courageous and ambitious.’
The Yemen port of Aden was then a British Protectorate and it was possible to get a British passport and a job as stoker on a ship plying between England and India, then part of the British Empire.
Ahmed and two friends crossed the desert to Aden and talked themselves into seafaring jobs, but the ship that Ahmed joined ended up not in Britain but New York. He jumped ship and made his way to Michigan, where there was a Yemeni community in Dearborn, just outside Detroit – home to the Ford Motor Company.
Says Zane: ‘My father worked for Ford for about a year, then went into business for himself. I often ask myself how? He had no education, couldn’t read or write in Arabic, let alone English. But somehow he built his haulage business and within a few years owned three trucks.’
But although he had his British passport, he had no American papers, and when the authorities caught up with him he was sent to Ellis Island and deported. He was put on the first British ship out of New York, which landed him in South Wales, at Barry Docks.
As in all the deep sea ports of Britain, Barry had a thriving Yemeni community, and Ahmed quickly found friends. After almost ten years’ hard work in America, Ahmed was once more forced to start from scratch.
It was in Barry that Ahmed met his future wife, Christina: the blue-eyed, 15 year old daughter of a Danish seafarer. George Jorgenson was second-in-command on his ship, and was also the padre. Says Zane: ‘The Jorgenson family were very upset about this romance, and ordered Christina to give up this illiterate, penniless Arab. Knowing they would not be allowed to stay together in Wales, Christina and Ahmed eloped, with her family chasing after them.
‘My parents went first to South Shields – another deep sea port – and then to Liverpool, where they were married in 1934; my mother was 16, my father 26. By this time my mother had converted to Islam.’
It was soon afterwards that Christina’s family caught up with them, but seeing that the pair were married and they would not be split up, Christina’s family had to make a choice. Says Zane: ‘Instead of losing his daughter, my grandfather decided to make friends with this Arab gentleman she had chosen, and my mother and her family were reconciled.’
In the mid-1930s, there were only about 700 Yemenis in Liverpool, but there was a steady flow of seaferers through Liverpool, and Zane’s parents opened a boarding house and cafe in Park Lane, near the Swedish Church. Their customers were seafarers and merchants from all over North Africa and the Middle East – the Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, Yemen. ‘It was my mother who learned several languages and some obscure Arabic dialects; she became famous in the Muslim community and was highly respected. Over 500 people came to her funeral.’
By a strange coincidence, one of the Yemeni boys that went with Ahmed to Aden en route to England, Ahmed Hobarbi, also ended up in Liverpool and by the time Ahmed Bilail arrived, Hobarbi had become an agent and banker for Yemeni sailors in the UK. Eventually Hobarbi bought a ship, the Star of Aden, and went into the import/export business.
The Yemeni community in Liverpool thrived, and in 1948 the Yemeni ruling family came to Liverpool to see their countrymen and made gifts to the community. By the Millennium, the Yemeni population of Liverpool had grown to around 9,000: one of the largest in the UK.
Zane’s father, who never did learn to read or write, neverthless built another successful business in Liverpool with the help of his young wife. Zane remembers a day in 1950 that showed just how successful a business partnership his parents had. ‘I used to go to Martin’s Bank, on the corner of Great George Street (the building is still there), to pay in the takings. This particular day I paid in a cheque for £14,000, which in 1950 was a huge amount of money. It has stuck in my memory all these years – it must have made a deep impression on me.’
As well as the boarding house and cafe, the Billals had a shop selling a thousand different lines to Arabs, Africans, Chinese, Lascars and Irish (it was a Catholic street); Zane remembers the best sellers were spices and perfumes – great sacks of ginger and frankincense.
The business lasted till the recession of the late 1960s and 1970s, when the south docks declined, the inner city population moved out to the suburbs, and supermarkets began. Ahmed became very ill and went back to Yemen for the hot climate, and although Yemen was a strange country, Christina could speak the language and anyway could not bear to be parted from her husband.
They were together in Yemen for several years, until Christina got cancer and had to come back to the UK for treatment. She longed to go back to Ahmed in Yemen, but was too ill to travel and died in Liverpool. News of his beloved wife’s death broke Ahmed’s heart, and he died six months later.
Zane explains the difference in spelling between his father’s name (Bilail) and his own (Billal). ‘The family name, Bilail, means ‘people of the night’; the family were from a tribe of fortune-tellers. But they did not read or write, so there is no precise spelling. When my father came to England, his name was written down as Billal, so that’s now my family name.’