The African Community in Jerusalem
Contributed by African Jerusalem on 22.03.2007:
With the spread of Islam and the conversion of Africans in Africa, more and more black people participated in the Haj. However there were also migrations from Arabia to Africa and later back to Arabia to perform the Haj. The Palestinian historian Al Aref El-Aref reported that some people trace the historical of contemporary Africans in Jerusalem back to Arabia.
The origins of the African community go back to pure Arabic roots. The majority of the members are derived from the Arab Muslim tribe called Al Salamat. The tribe was living in Jeddah, Hijaz (now in Saudi Arabia), and then migrated to chad and Sudan and other African countries. However, members of the tribe kept up contact with Hijaz, especially Mecca and Medina for the Haj, and after the pilgrimage they went to Jerusalem to continue their worship in al Aqsa mosque, the place of the nocturnal journey of the prophet Mohammed to the Seven Heavens.
Settling in the Old City
Most contemporary members of the African community came to Jerusalem as pilgrims. They also came to Jerusalem to defend Muslims holy shrines in Jerusalem.
On the other hand, some of them came as workers under the British Mandate of Palestine (1917-1948). They came mostly from Senegal, Chad, Nigeria and Sudan. Some of the Africans arrived as part of the Egyptian led ‘salvation Army’ which aimed to liberate the Palestinian areas held by Jews in 1948. After the defeat of that army and its retreat to Egypt many Africans returned to their original countries, while others preferred to stay in Palestine.
More over, the Africans living in Jerusalem are proud of their historic role as guardians of the Islamic holy places since the time of the Mamluk in the thirteenth century. They occupy the Mamluk buildings on either side of Al’a Ad-Deen street leading to Al Aqsa mosque. On one side are the Al’a Ad-Deen Busari buildings, completed in 1267 and named after the Mamluke founder of the quarter. On the other side are the Al Mansouri buildings which were completed in 1282. Originally the two Ribat were hostels for pilgrims worshipping at Al Aqsa Mosque.
During the Ottoman period the Ribats were occupied by Africans who worked as guards of the mosque and waqf properties. Because of their honestly these Africans held keys to the gates of the mosque and were responsible for preventing non-Muslims from entering the mosque area. Towards the end of the Ottoman era the Ribats were converted into prisons: Ribat Ad-Deen became Habs Ad-Dam while Ribat Mansouri became Habs Ar-Ribat. This situation continued until 1914.
After the British took over Palestine in 1918 the prisons were closed and responsibility for the building was returned to the waqf authorities who used the buildings for temporary housing for the poor, including Africans. When Haj Amin Al Husseini, Al Mufti, who led the struggle against the British and Jews until 1948, took charge of the waqf in Jerusalem he rented the two Ribats to the Africans at a nominal rate. Some of the Africans continued their traditions and worked as bodyguards to the Mufti himself. Haj Othman Al Takrori lost his live at the gates of al Aqsa mosque when he tried to protect Haj Amin, from being arrested by the British mandate forces.
Moreover, because of their courage and integrity many Africans also worked as guards for some churches and Monasteries in the 19th and 20th century, like Saleh Bin Adam Takkrori who worked as a guard for the Roman Catholic Church in 1890. like other members of the local main society; Africans worked in many fields, like water carriers (Saqa), selling water in the Old city and around Jerusalem, also worked as masons, and in the agricultural fields, farms, and streets vendors, humble shops, near the community homes, selling different kinds of commodities, especially the famous Sudanese roasted peanuts.
Jerusalemites can forget the aroma and the nice smell coming from the small round smoky grill of the late Um Al Abed, well known for her roasted peanuts. She used to have her own designated space in one of the corners of Damascus Gate.
Men who came from Africa to Jerusalem during this century married local women, many of whom were of African descent themselves. Ties with different Palestinian cities and town where many African communities exist are particularly strong, like Jericho, Acre, etc. Other married Palestinian women who have no ties with Africa. Although African-Palestinians of Jerusalem are a separate community from the black Bedouin, some intermarriage occurs.
Although, often when a member of the African community seeks a spouse outside the community, he or she meets solid resistance. In the end, it usually is up to the strength of the couple and whether they can stand up to their families.
Struggling the Israeli Occupation
Africans in Jerusalem regard themselves as Palestinian and played an active role in the Palestinian resistance. Many members of the African community did not hesitate in joining the Palestinian revolution, Fatma Al Barnawi was one of the first woman to join the revolution, who got arrested by the Israeli authorities in 1967. Ali Jadda spent 17 years in Israeli prisons for resisting the occupation as well as his cousin and comrade Mohamoud Jaddah. This Community has paid heavy scarfices in every uprising for the Palestinian people. In 1982, Haj Bakr al Singali got killed when he was praying in the Aqsa mosque when the Jewish settler, Allan Goodman committed a bloody massacre in the Holy shrine. Usama Jadda was one of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs in September 2000.
It is estimated that 80% of the community members have been incarcerated and jailed, serving different terms of prison sentences. Many Palestinian Africans have heroically managed to retain their presence in the important and highly symbolic space even while the oppressive closure policies, and building the racist separation wall by the government of Israel made the life of African community increasingly difficult in all kinds of ways, especially in connecting with other African communities in Palestine.
The Current Situation
The descendants of the Africans still live in the two Ribats. The African quarter homes have been expanded into the once open courtyard, then built upwards on top of each other until there is little room left to grow.
Today some forty to fifty African families, about 350 members live inside the Old City. They would fight with anybody who referred to them in any of the sensitive racial terms. Actually, this does not often happen as their place within Palestinian society and their role in the struggle is generally acknowledged by the citizens of Jerusalem. They also clearly identify themselves as Africans and Palestinian.
However, they have different problems in establishing their identity, particularly when applying for travel documents. Unlike other Palestinians in the West Bank, the Jordanian government does not recognize the African Palestinians as Jordanian citizens. They cannot obtain Palestinian passports because they live in Jerusalem which is excluded from the Oslo agreement. As a result, the majority of Africans living in Jerusalem have no passports, and the only option for overseas travel is to obtain Israeli documents. The majority refuse this option.
The current living situation in the African community inside the Old city is not different from the troubled current situation in Jerusalem. Lack of schools, and insufficient classrooms inside the old city, made the drop rates in this community higher than the average. Bad economical situation in Jerusalem, also added to this reason. Many African youths had to drop out from school to work in factories, hotels, restaurants to help their families in getting a descent living. Therefore, the percentage of African-Palestinians who finished their higher studies and degrees is less than the average of the main society.
African pupils do not have any daycare or pre school inside or close to their community. Most of them play inside the community’s courtyards, and in the streets of the old city of Jerusalem.
Palestinian Africans have struggled to keep up some of the clubs they have established and initiated the in past, but unfortunately without success because of the bad economical situation, the lack of funding, and the discriminatory measure from the Israeli authorities.
However, in the late eighties, some activist leaders in the community have managed to establish, The Palestinian African Community center. And, now its is one of the most active centers in the old city and has multiple youth program throughout the year. The center founders are very active in broader civic affairs Palestinians and some of them often serve as alternative tour guides to the city. They proudly mention that they were visited by Imam W.D. Mohammed and other African American in the late 90s. They have formed a creative dynamic relationship with many NGOs and institutions in Jerusalem.
No longer do any Palestinian Africans guard the Holy Site. Indeed, many of the community’s members are politically affiliated with secular and leftist Palestinian factions. Through the years, it seems, the religious devotion to Jerusalem of the original African pilgrims has been replaced by a political commitment to the city and the Palestinian cause.
The African Community in Jerusalem