Walking from Damascus Gate and down Ala’ Eldin Street in the Old City of Jerusalem, you will reach the main entrance to Al-Aqsa Mosque. Before you get there, you will first pass what is known as the African Quarter, comprised of two compounds: Ribat al-Mansouri, on your right, and Ribat Ala’ Eldin al-Busairy, on the left.Residents of these compounds are Palestinians of African descent who hail from four countries: Chad, Sudan, Nigeria, and Senegal. Their ancestors, all Muslims, immigrated to Jerusalem for religious purposes and preferred to stay close to Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. The first African Muslim migration to Jerusalem began after 634, when the city came under Islamic rule, under the leadership of Caliph Omar Ben al-Khatab. Bilal Ibn Rabah, the first muezzin in the history of Islam, is believed to be one of the first Muslim Africans to visit and call for prayers in the city.The Mamluks built Ribat al-Busairy in 1267 and Ribat al-Mansouri in 1282 to host Muslim pilgrims and the poor people of the Old City. When their rule over Jerusalem ended, particularly after the Arab revolt against them, the Ottomans transformed the two compounds into prisons.During the Ottoman Empire (1516–1918), Africans served as guardians of the mosque. They were very strict, denying access to non-Muslims. According to the Palestinian historian Aref al-Aref, Jerusalem’s Ottoman governor was forced to imprison the African guards just so a European guest could visit the mosque.
During the British Mandate in Palestine, which began in 1917, the Islamic Waqf leased the two compounds to the Africans, largely because of their loyalty and dedication to guarding the nearby Aqsa Mosque. Not everyone agreed with the decision, though. Four Jerusalemite families petitioned the British High Commissioner, objecting to the arrangement, but the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, whose six bodyguards were of African descent, tipped the scales with Waqf authorities and the property was leased to the Africans.
This African loyalty was to the death, literally. One of the Mufti’s African guards, Haj Othman Takrouri, was shot dead by British forces when he tried to stop British troops from arresting the Mufti on his way to pray in the Aqsa. Then, in 1948, the commander of the Arab League’s battalion that prevented the fall of Jabal al-Mukabber, a Jerusalem neighborhood, was Muhammad Tariq al-Afriqi, of Nigerian descent.
When the Africans migrated to Jerusalem, their countries were under colonial rule. Given this fact, many of them came to Jerusalem on French passports. However, during Jordan’s rule in Jerusalem (1948–1967), African descendants were denied Jordanian citizenship, granted to all other Palestinians of the West Bank, and deemed “foreign’’ to the new occupying power. Meanwhile, the former colonizers, namely France, refused to issue their descendants French citizenship on the premise that their countries of origin are no longer under French rule.
According to Israeli laws, permanent Palestinian residents of Jerusalem may lose their right to residency in the city if they apply for citizenship of another country, which effectively means that the majority of the 450 members of the African community are stateless. The only way they can travel outside the country is with an Israeli-issued travel document, which ironically considers them Jordanians.
Life is not easy for Jerusalemites, the African community included, with 72 percent of the population of East Jerusalem living below the poverty line. Hence, most of the community’s youth are forced to drop out of school to find work in order to support their families. Even the few university degree holders within the African community do not always have a promising future to look forward to.
Still, Afro-Palestinians are an integral part of Palestinian society and its national identity, including being involved in the resistance to Israeli occupation. Fatimah Barnawi, of Nigerian origin, was the first Palestinian female prisoner after Israel occupied Jerusalem in 1967. She was sentenced to 30 years in prison but was released 10 years later as part of a prisoner exchange, only to be deported to Jordan.
When the PLO signed the Oslo Accords with Israel in 1993, Barnawi returned to Palestine and helped to establish and then run the Palestinian women’s police force. She passed away in an Egyptian hospital on November 3, 2022.
Cousins Ali and Mahmoud Jaddeh were also active members of the resistance. They were arrested in 1968, and both served 17 years in prison until their release in 1985 as part of a prisoner exchange deal between the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s General Command and Israel. What’s more, in the first Intifada, several members of the African community were imprisoned by Israel.
During the second Intifada in 2000, the African community lost one of its own. Osama Jiddah was killed by Israeli forces on September 29 while on his way to donate blood to injured protesters after the notorious visit of then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to Al-Aqsa Mosque. He was shot dead at the entrance to Maqassed Hospital on the Mount of Olives.
Since 2015, Israeli police have established two permanent checkpoints at both entrances to Ala’ Eldin Street, allowing entry only to Muslims. Often, members of the community have to intervene to convince the police manning the checkpoints to allow their non-Muslim visitors to cross into the community.
In 1983, Afro-Palestinians established their community organization, the African Community Society, ACS, but only began activities 14 years later, after the late Palestinian leader Faisal Al-Husseini had helped with the renovations of its headquarters. Today, its activities serve Palestinians of the Old City in particular, and the whole of Jerusalem, in general. ACS refuses to accept any conditioned funding, whether from the United States or the European Union, that equates resistance to occupation with terrorism.
ACS is one of the founding institutions of the Regional Network for Development and Anti-Racism in the MENA region which was established in 2022. The network comprises 30 organizations that work on the development of people of African descent. ACS is now active in promoting Palestinian culture and heritage. During the COVID-19 lockdown, members of the community danced to the song “Jerusalema” by the South African singer Nomcebo Zikode to release their stress in times of isolation and quarantine.
Even today, Palestinians of African descent continue to honor the old tradition of collecting money from the community to help each other during weddings and funerals. Occasionally, they gather to have traditional African food such as
asida, a porridge made of semolina and dried akra (a root vegetable).
While taking pride in their African roots, Afro-Palestinians are also proud Palestinians. Their fathers and forefathers hailed from the African continent, traveling miles away from their homes, but their descendants are as Palestinian as the ancient stone of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem’s African community is always welcoming visitors.
*#JerusalemaDanceChallenge performed in Jerusalem! – YouTube