Little is known about the African community that lives in the Old City of occupied Jerusalem, which in itself is sub-divided into the Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Jewish quarters.
Ali Mohammad Jiddah, a sprightly man dressed in a black T-shirt and brown suit, rendezvouses with me outside the popular Palestinian eatery, Abu Shukri, and then leads the way to the venue where a whole contingent of brothers and sisters is busy making arrangements for the Nelson Mandela Day festival, ending with an iftar.
He settles down and begins with a huge smile, “I am a candle which burns itself to give light to others, like Mandela,” and somehow he does, in a sense, bear a resemblance to his idol.
Jiddah narrates the unique history of how the African community ended up in the Old City of occupied Jerusalem: “My father came from Chad and he was part of the first generation that came from Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan. There were two waves. The first came for purely religious reasons: during their pilgrimage to Makkah and Madinah, they stayed here. That was during the British mandate.
“The second wave came during the war of 1948, with Africans serving in the Egyptian military or as volunteers, and they remained here after the war. I am the second generation and we have progressed to three generations since.”
The Afro-Palestinians, as Jiddah likes to call them, settled in an area of the Old City that is 830 years old, built by the Mamlukes, mainly for visiting pilgrims. “From the Turkish period to the Arab revolt,” Jiddah points out, “the two sections wherein we live today were used as jails. One for persons serving sentences for more than ten years and the other for prisoners awaiting the gallows.”
The Afro-Palestinians, who now live in these two sections, constitute 40 families, with each family comprising between five to seven persons. Jiddah adds, “Some brothers have been obliged to move outside the Old City, as the space has stayed the same although the population has grown, and that is a big problem.”
There is anger in his voice when he says, “To even add one room is trouble. Five years ago, one brother built a room on the roof of his parents’ house. The Israelis fined him 30,000 shekels (Dh31,269) and he had to demolish the room himself. If you apply for a permit to build, it costs money, and the response from the Israelis takes a long time and is always negative.”
Despite living in a permanent state of limbo, with some moving out because of space constraints, Jiddah proudly affirms, “We are well accepted and deeply respected by the Arab Palestinians. Our brothers and sisters have married them and we have never felt discriminated against because of our colour.”
He attributes their acceptance to the fact that they are the most open group, “on a social level, with our contacts with our neighbours. At our parties, we do not separate the genders as compared to other Palestinian groups.”
When asked about their contribution to the Palestinian struggle, Jiddah becomes animated and explains, “We used to be and still are the avant-garde. The first Palestinian female to go to an Israeli jail came from the African quarter of the Old City: Sister Fatima Barnawi was born here and her father came from Nigeria and mother was a Palestinian. She was sentenced to 30 years. As a member of Al Fatah, she placed a bomb in a cinema in occupied West Jerusalem. The bomb did not go off. After serving 11 years, she was deported but she returned with Arafat and today she is the Chief of the Palestinian Female Police Corps.”
About his own contribution to the struggle, Jiddah explains: “In 1968, my cousin Mahmoud and I were sentenced to 20 years, of which I served 17. I was released in 1985 in a prisoner-exchange deal. We were the members of The Popular Front and we placed a bomb in Jaffa Street, injuring nine Israelis.
“This was in reprisal for Israeli aerial bombardment of El Salt, a Jordanian city. Our intention was to send a message to the Israeli public — if you don’t protest against the brutality of your government, you will pay the price.”
Jiddah proudly adds, “I was the spokesman for Palestinian political prisoners for 15 years and many in the leadership today were mentored by me.”
As a community in limbo, between Palestinians who have accepted them and Israelis who have not, and the fact that they live in occupied Jerusalem, Jiddah points out, “Racism and discrimination is an ideology on the Israeli side. Even the African Jews (Falasha) have lots of social problems and they have created a wall of isolation around them but we do have good contacts with Ethiopian Christians in Israel.”
Economically, the Afro-Palestinians are one of the poorest sections among Palestinians, and Jiddah explains the reason behind it: “We mainly depend on our own limited resources and most of our brothers and sisters are obliged to quit school and go to work, mainly to support their families. Most of the males work in restaurants, hotels and Israeli factories, while the females are employed in hospitals and factories. They don’t get to attend university but they are politically very active and belong to the various Palestinian political factions, including Hamas.”
He is adamant that their solution is inherently linked to the general solution of the Palestinian issue, as they are, for all intents and purposes, Palestinians. “We regard ourselves an organic part of the Palestinian nation and for that we are committed to the struggle of the other sections of Palestinian people in order to obtain the right to self-determination and mainly to get rid of the occupation which is the source of all troubles and sufferings of Palestinian people,” he says.
Interestingly, Jiddah states emphatically that “the best solution for the whole conflict which will put an end to the suffering of Palestinians and Israelis is to have one secular, binational state for both of us.”
When asked about the other Africans in Palestine, especially the large community in Jericho, Jiddah says, “They have been here for generations and have spread out, from south Hebron to the North of Tulkarem and even in Khan Younis in Gaza.
“The difference between us and them is that they have no roots in Africa, whereas we know our roots.”
And then he points to Ali, who is sitting nearby, and says, “Here’s Ali, his roots are in Chad.”
All of them have had to forgo the passports of their country of origin and if they ever travel, they do so on an Israeli travel document which, according to Jiddah, “says, place of birth Israel, citizenship Jordanian”. On the other hand, some of them even have Jordanian passports.
While walking with Jiddah through the narrow, cobblestone alleyways of the Old City and observing how everyone knows and greets him, he is quick to point out, “People look at me as a symbol and a leader. Although I live on a meagre allowance that the Palestinian government gives me for having been a long-term prisoner, I am rich and people give me a warm feeling.”
As the Afro-Palestinians arrive to celebrate Mandela Day and then partake of the iftar, they relish moments such as these, which provide temporary reprieve from their plight — a community caught in the middle of a protracted conflict.
Rafique Gangat, author of “Ye Shall Bowl on Grass”, is based in occupied Jerusalem.