The African Palestinian community of Jerusalem is in the heart of the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. Walk through the busy Damascus Gate and the market streets, passing the 4th and 5th Stations of the Cross. The paving stones have been polished by foot traffic for 2000 years or more. Spice aromas, the Muezzin calls and church bells ringing lead to the almost hidden African Palestinian quarter. Here, the African Palestinians live on both sides of Al’a ad Deen Street, ending at the great door of the Haram al Sherif (Noble Sanctuary Plaza).
Some 50 families, comprising 300 or more people, live in apartment blocks on both sides of the street. Called Ribats, these apartment blocks were originally built as hostels for pilgrims of the 13th century Mamluk period. The Habs Ad Dam, a prison during the latter part of the Ottoman era for those condemned to death, stands across the street from the Habs Al Ribat, built for short-term prisoners. At the start of the British Mandate period (1918), the former prisons (Habs) were given by the Islamic Wapf authorities to the African Palestinian families to serve as residences, and they remain so today. The wrought iron prison bars still define small windows and entry gates.
It is noteworthy that the African Palestinians of Jerusalem consider themselves proud, steadfast Palestinians. Since the 1967 war and occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, most of the community has been directly involved in the resistance. Many have served long sentences in Israeli prisons, as have many other Palestinians in the territories. With the 1967 war, a quarter of the African Palestinian community became refugees in surrounding countries, particularly Jordan and Lebanon. They currently cannot return.
Ali Jiddah says that he and all Palestinians now live in a larger prison defined by the eight-meter high “separation wall,” snaking 400 miles through Jerusalem and the West Bank. The wall protects Jewish settlements—and bifurcates Palestinian villages and farmlands. Ordinary family visits or commutes to work become difficult and humiliating journeys, caused by the Jewish-only roads, military checkpoints, and the wall.
African Palestinians came to the Holy City as Hajj pilgrims, mainly from Chad, Sudan, Niger and Senegal. Among the African ethnic groups are the Al Salamat, Al Housa, Al Barquo, Al Falata and Al Balata. And Qanembou and Boulala.
As early as the Mamluk era, the Jerusalem Wapf (Islamic authority) honored the African Palestinian community with an historic role as Guardians of the Mosque, due to both their proximity to the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Haram Al Sherif, and their high regard in the larger Palestinian community. Known for their integrity and courage, even today some from the community are bodyguards at East Jerusalem consulates and embassies, and for the Palestinian leadership.
Because Israel has annexed all of Jerusalem and is expanding the municipality, the African Palestinians, and all other East Jerusalem residents, cannot avail themselves of Palestinian passports and travel documents. Instead, they must choose (or not) to obtain Israeli identification for foreign travel. They live in legal limbo.
One can see and feel Sumoud on the faces—and sense it in the words and the bearing —of the African Palestinians in Jerusalem. Their quiet perseverance and resilience endures, just footsteps away from both the omnipresent Israeli occupation and the treasured historical holy sites.