African Diaspora in the Holy Land

In a spacious, mellow room in Jeruaslem’s Old City, a crew of Arabic-speaking youngsters chats about football, oud, and Allah.

Although these young Jerusalemites at the Qalawun Center consider themselves wholly Palestinian, there is something noteworthy that distinguishes most of the people in this community center from their coreligionists in East Jerusalem – African origin.

“We are proud to be Palestinians of African descent,” said Haithan Jaddah, a Political Science student at al-Quds University and a local boxing champion.

Haithan motions towards a few of his friends who are playing ping pong a few meters away and sweepingly affirms, “Although you would not expect to find our community here, we have been in this land for hundreds of years.”

Indeed, small concentrations of Afro-Palestinians are found in Jerusalem’s Old City, the Gaza Strip, Akko, and several other locales, but the largest cluster by far is in Jericho.

Holy City

The Old City’s Afro-Arab community resides next to Ba’ab al-Majles (the Prison Gate) and numbers about four hundred. Most members of the community live in fourteenth-century Mamluk-era buildings on either side of Al’a ad-Deen street – a block from the Temple Mount entrance, just north of the Western Wall, and adjacent to the Via Dolorosa.

The current generation is largely descended from male pilgrims from Chad and Sudan who remained in Jerusalem to guard the al-Aqsa Mosque after completing the hajj to Mecca – many of whom later wedded Palestinian Arab women.

Both the Mamluks and Ottomans commissioned African Muslims to guard al-Haram al-Sharif – the Temple Mount – in addition to Muslim holy sites in Mecca and Medina.

Some Afro-Jerusalemites arrived as laborers during the early part of the British Mandate period. Others fought with the Egyptian Army during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence and then remained in East Jerusalem.

“For the most part, we are well-integrated into the broader Palestinian culture,” said Yasser Quos, the cultural affairs coordinator at Qalawun Center, who also works at Al-Quds University’s Centre for Jerusalem Studies. His brother, Nasser Quos, serves as the Afro-Palestinian community’s leader.

The Qalawun Center promotes African cultural solidarity with recreational activities and events that highlight distinctly African clothes, food, and music.

The group’s logo is an altered rendering of the African continent, inclusive of Israel and a prominent Dome of the Rock illustration.

Though he considers himself a Palestinian, Quos said he feels kinship with the rest of the African diaspora, from Brazil to Iraq.

Quos emphasized that the Palestinian identity is not monolithic. “Just as we understand the Israeli identity to encompass a range of ethnic origins, so too can Palestinians be of Bedouin, African, or other origin.”

“Yet, many other Palestinians are unaware of our relatively assimilated community’s existence,” said Quos, who also alluded to the traditional stigma of dark skin in Arab society.

May 16th marked the 40th Anniversary of Jerusalem’s unification by Israel and thus the continuation of legal limbo for the Old City Afro-Palestinians.

Despite the tumultuous political situation, Quos said that he and other Afro-Palestinians “would readily welcome a multiethnic, democratic solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

City of the Moon

A half hour drive eastward from Jerusalem, in a desert clime with placid oases 400 meters below sea level, resides the biggest Afro-Palestinian community.

The first Palestinian city to achieve self-rule and the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, Jericho is a sleepy, scorching, and tourist-starved town these days. Hisham’s Palace, the Mount of Temptation, and Tel es-Sultan attract far fewer tourists than in the days prior to the 2nd Intifada. The once-booming Israeli-run Oasis casino remains closed.

Nestled between the Judean Mountains and the Jordan River, the calm city remains distinct from the rest of the West Bank, not least due to the prevalence of African heritage.

“Jericho is different because of its beautiful nature and its people’s attitudes, and we try not to get involved in the political mess,” said Nasser Hassan Ermelia.

Ermelia is an Afro-Palestinian from Ain Diouk, which along with Nuweima, forms an area of predominantly Afro-Palestinian settlement at the north end of Jericho. The approximately 4,000 people are comparatively poor and tend to work in agriculture.

“I personally treat all people the same, whatever their nationality,” said Ermelia, who has spent most of his life working on Israeli settlements in the Jordan Valley. Ermelia said he is currently a taxi driver because it is difficult to find decent employment amidst closures resulting from the 2nd Intifada.

An avid fan of Israeli folk music and an eager Hebrew speaker, Ermelia said he has a natural affinity for Israel. He suggested that many Afro-Palestinians feel similarly and added that Israeli soldiers tend to treat Afro-Palestinians more favorably than other Palestinians.

Locals suggest that Jericho’s Afro-Palestinians, like many other Afro-Arabs throughout the Middle East, are descended from Ethiopians and Sudanese brought by Bedouins as slaves many centuries ago. Indeed, Afro-Palestinians are still generally considered Bedouins.

Some Palestinians continue to refer in Arabic to Afro-Palestinians as “abid” (slaves), but the term “sumr” (black) is more polite.

While some scholars speculate that the blacks at the foot of the Judean Mountains in Jericho are the city’s indigenous inhabitants, other historians contend that the community descends from Nubian warriors who fought against the Assyrian empire.

Though rather distinct from each other, the Afro-Palestinian communities in Jerusalem and Jericho have primarily fulfilled manual labor and military roles.

Several Jerusalemite Afro-Palestinians said they had strengthened relations with the Jericho community in recent years.

“Generally, despite some discrimination, we identify as Palestinians with a unique cultural identity”, said Quos. “Many of us have spent significant time in Israeli security prisons and are inclined to feel more Palestinian than African.”

Meanwhile, Quos said that the Qalawun Center will continue to strengthen ties with black Bedouins, Ethiopians, and the Dimona-based black Hebrews.

“We aim to establish relations with other African communities that share our roots,” said Quos.” He added, “The things that connect us are stronger than the political differences that divide the African diaspora.”

Haaretz Article Link
Chad English-language news site

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