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The African Palestinian Community in the Old City of Jerusalem

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 30.07.2007:

By Dzouyi Therese Konanga-Nicolas

When we think of Africans and Islam, it always brings to mind the famous Bilal Ibn Rabah, the first Muezzin or caller to prayer in Mecca. Bilal was an Abyssinian slave who was mistreated by his master for accepting Islam. To rectify this inequity, Abu Bakr Al Sidiq, successor of the prophet and the first Caliph, helped to free him from his oppressors. When Muslims won the war and entered Mecca, Bilal went up on one of the roofs and called the Muslims to prayer. Bilal continued to be loyal to the prophet Mohammad and his followers and later moved to Syria where he became governor and most probably died there.

This spirit of resilience and perseverance has always been manifested among the residents of the hidden quarter of the African Palestinian community inside the Old City of Jerusalem. Not only have most of the patriotic men – old and young – served in Israeli prisons during the first Intifada, but a woman from the community became one of the first females in Palestine ever to be sentenced for 30 years and imprisoned for 13 years. She was later deported but came back with Chairman Arafat and currently holds a senior position in the government.

As you roam around trying to explore the maze of the winding streets of the Old City of Jerusalem, you might stumble onto a narrow, fascinating neighbourhood that dates to the Mamluk period (1260 BC), where on both sides of the street lies the famous “prison” known in Arabic as Habs El Abeed (the Prison of Slaves), inhabited to this day by African Palestinians.

Their arrival in the Holy Land can be traced back a few centuries when peoples from various parts of Africa – Chad, Senegal, Sudan, and Nigeria – migrated to Palestine; deeply devoted to their religious beliefs, some came for the jihad (struggle or resistance) and have been pivotal figures in defending the Muslim Nation in Palestine, and some came for pilgrimage purposes. One of the factors in their decision to settle in the Holy Land was their belief concerning Judgment Day. For Muslims, Jerusalem is the third most important holy site after Mecca and Medina. In Jerusalem lies the magnificent Dome of the Rock with 11 gates that lead to it. Seven gates are open and four are closed. One of the closed gates is the Golden Gate, known also as the Mercy Gate (Bab El Rahma) which, according to some, is the Gate of Eternal Life from which the final judgment will take place. Therefore, being so close to the Haram Al Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) and, most important, to the Mercy Gate, Africans opted to stay and live here.

I had the opportunity to meet with one important figure in the African community: Mr. Ali Muhammed Jiddah, an activist, a tour guide, and a second-generation community member. He was kind enough to share some of his knowledge and inherited experience about the community with me. He told me that in the early seventh century (c. 636), Africans came with the Caliph Omar Ibn Al Khatab, a successor of the Prophet Mohammad and the one who conquered Jerusalem in 638 CE. To prove his point, Mr. Jiddah asked one of the young, beautiful ladies present to bring a portrait that has been in his family for years and that portrays the event commemorating the Caliph’s grand entrance into Jerusalem. In the portrait, the Caliph is pulling a horse, while an African is sitting on its back.

I asked Mr. Jiddah if he could elaborate on the usage of the term, Habs Al Abeed (Prison of Slaves) since I had always found the term to be extremely derogatory to the entire African community. He explained:

“The building was originally used as an inn for Muslim pilgrims visiting the Holy Land from outside the country. Later during the Ottoman period (1517-1917), the two sections of the building became prisons for Arab rebels; one section for those who were serving life terms and the other section for those who were sentenced to death. The African community exhibited much zeal for the Haram Al Sharif and for their faith. Recognizing this enthusiasm and commitment, the Ottomans granted special privileges to the African community, specifically task to guard the mosques on the Haram Al Sharif, which was literally only a few steps away from where they lived. They were also appointed as wardens for the prisons. Ever since that time, they have been known as the guardians of the Haram Al Sharif. Later generations mistakenly concluded that since the African community still lives in what used to be prisons, they must have been the slaves who were imprisoned there.

I asked a couple of the active young men at the community centre what they think of the term. They responded: “We do not fault people for their mistaken beliefs, particularly the older generations and those who were uneducated. We do, however, lay the blame on and are disappointed by the educated ones who continue to use the term erroneously.” I fully agree with these young men and feel distinctly uncomfortable when I hear the term being used. Since most Palestinians are well educated and knowledgeable about the history of their land, they should be aware enough to advocate against and refrain from using the term.

At present, thirty eight to forty families live together in the neighbourhood as “one big family.” In this way, they are able to monitor the lifestyle of each other in a loving and warm manner and to ensure adherence to the African Palestinian and Muslim traditions and lifestyle. They are very organized and unified. They refer to one another as “brother” and “sister.” African Palestinian youth are very active in sports and fitness as well as in fighting drug abuse and helping others. They are involved in projects such as “Jerusalem through the Eyes of Youth,” various renovation and restoration projects for old houses and historical sites, community activities and services, and training for women and children in various fields. They even have a well-known football team. The sight of these young, outgoing, and gregarious men and women in action is a delight to the eyes. They possess impeccable manners and taste; one cannot help but view them with admiration. The women have exquisite beauty and are multi-talented. One can see them braiding their daughter’s hair at the same time as they review school assignments with their sons and plan household chores and the evening meal!

Although the African Palestinian community is seemingly a secluded and isolated neighbourhood, its members live a lifestyle that allows them to comfortably and peacefully follow their beliefs and traditions. Most important, they are well-loved and respected by their neighbours mainly due to their contribution to the national struggle. The neighbourhood provides an agreeable atmosphere for passing time with friends and family.

Though a large community still lives there, the mostly third-generation descendents had to leave Jerusalem and move to other parts of Palestine. Some went to Jericho because of the milder weather, and some moved to Jenin or Rafah. There is a large number of Africans in the Tulkarem Refugee Camp and in the El Qarara quarter of Khan Younis. In 1967, many were forced to move to Jordan because their other family members who came from Africa to Jordan had more financial stability and were better able to provide much-needed support.

One wonders about the future of this community in the Old City! Despite the few who have left for other countries due to the engulfing hardships, their population has grown over the years, and their love for the Holy City encourages them to stay.

Dzouyi Therese Konanga-Nicolas, also known as Joy, is a psychologist and licensed tour guide. She currently works for UNDP/PAPP.


This Week in Palestine

August 2007

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