The African-Palestinians: Muslim pilgrims who never went home

The African-Palestinians: Muslim pilgrims who never went home
The African-Palestinian community has survived in the tiny African quarter of Jerusalem and are fiercely proud of their origins and newly-forged identity.
6 min read
26 December, 2014
African-Palestinians are told the stories of how their grandfather's came to Jerusalem [Baker]

Tucked away deep within the Muslim Quarter of the Old City is one of Jerusalem's most distinctive sub-quarters, the Afro-Palestinian Quarter. Little heard of, African-Palestinians, like all the other groups that make up the patchwork of people unique to this city, are both an integral part of Jerusalem's Palestinian identity and a distinct and proud unit on their own.

At present, some 450 people live in two compounds, both abutting one of the main entrances to the Aqsa Mosque. This is no coincidence. African-Palestinians have a long history and strong ties with Islam's third holiest site, ties that are centuries old.

     Like the ancient stones of the Old City, Jerusalem's African-Palestinians are part of Jerusalem. They belong there.

Devout Muslims, Africans from countries such as Chad, Sudan, Nigeria and Senegal, trekked across continents to perform the original Muslim pilgrimage of the Haj - first to Mecca, then to al-Aqsa.

Such pilgrimages date back to as early as 636 AD, after Omar Ibn Khatab took Jerusalem from the Byzantine Empire. Some arrived, fell in love with the city and decided never to leave. It was not until the 1940s, however, that the Africans who made the trip with the intention of returning home were forced to take on a more permanent status in the holy city.

Stranded by the tides of history

The Muslim Africans who made the long trip from Africa to Jerusalem prior to 1947 soon realised they had picked one of the most tumultuous times in the region's history, and that their decision would have lifelong consequences. In 1948, war between Arab armies and Zionist forces broke out, and culminated in the creation of the state of Israel. Many African Muslims found themselves haveing to make more permanent arrangements.

The borders had been hermetically sealed and the Africans, citizens of countries with no diplomatic ties to the newly-founded state, were unable to return to their homelands and the families they had left behind.

Some chose to stay, even fighting alongside the Palestinians in defence of Jerusalem and al-Aqsa. The patriarch of the Qous family for example, Mohammed Mousa Qous, who passed away in 1983, had three children and a wife back home in his mother country, Chad. After settling in Jerusalem, he remarried, this time to a Palestinian woman, and bore another four boys and two girls.

Qous's half-Palestinian children, all adults today, have never met their half-siblings. They are a memory from a life they have never experienced in a country they have never known. Nonetheless, their father's heritage is an inextricable part of their identity that they have never denied.

Zuhra al-Qadi makes sure her grandchildren know their origins [Joharah Baker]

Luckily, the Islamic Waqf, the caretaker of Muslim holy sites and grounds, allowed the pious Muslim Africans, so loyal to their faith and to al-Aqsa, to stay in the two quarters, previously used as prisons during the Ottoman Empire. There they made their homes, first temporarily and then permanently, eventually marrying Palestinian women and bearing Palestinian children, leaving their former lives in Africa behind them forever.

Zuhra al-Qadi is now 75. She has been a widow for over a decade. Her late husband, Mohammed al-Qadi came to Jerusalem in the mid-40s after making the pilgrimage to Mecca. He had planned to pray at al-Aqsa, stay for a while, and go home. But as his wife put it, "That was not in the stars," and Qadi, who also had a family back in his homeland Nigeria, married Zuhra and settled down in the quarter.

Zuhra is also of African heritage, her father is from Sudan. Zuhra, or Um Ahmad, as she is known (after the name of her oldest son), has fond memories of her husband and the traditions he brought with him from Nigeria.

"Every Friday, the men would slaughter a sheep right here," she said, pointing to a small courtyard outside her home under a large old mulberry tree.

"They would make semolina porridge and a mixture of dried okra and molokhiya (a green leafy vegetable), and serve people from all over the city. There would be a line of people waiting for a plate," she remembers.

A juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern

Today, the quarters Ribat Alaa ed-Din and Ribat Mansouri are a unique blend of the archaic and the modern. The houses are small, directly adjacent to one another with narrow pathways in between. The stones of many homes, built somewhere between 1267 and 1382, are massive; good insulation during cold winter nights and perfect for keeping cool during the hot Palestinian summer. 

On the low rooftops are the modern trappings of today's world. Huge satellite dishes are balanced precariously and telephone and electricity lines crisscross between the buildings. Air conditioning and heating units sit awkwardly in renovated windows, the uneven stony walls unsuited to such contemporary fixtures.

     Unlike their fathers who originally came from Africa and were mostly illiterate, their children are now educated.

This juxtaposition of the modern and traditional is mirrored in the community itself. The mostly conservative community continues to maintain the piety of their forefathers. When the nearby minaret from the Aqsa Mosque calls the faithful to prayer, there are always more than a few African-featured Muslims heeding the call. But unlike their fathers who originally came from Africa and were mostly illiterate, their children are now educated. Many are university graduates, artists and community workers.

These Palestinian-Africans have also been part of the Palestinian resistance and have suffered under the harsh Israeli occupation. Fatimeh Barnawi, a Palestinian-African, was one of the first Palestinian female prisoners after the 1967 Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem. She was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Cousins Mahmoud and Ali Jeddah were both sentenced to 20 years in prison in 1968, and in October 2000, 23-year old Osama Jedda was shot and killed by Israeli army troops during confrontations at the start of al-Aqsa Intifada.

Today, while African pride is alive and stories about their fathers are vividly recounted, the complexions of the quarters' residents are becoming more and more Middle Eastern with each passing generation. The original Africans have all passed away and members of the community naturally intermarry with the rest of Palestinian society. Most have never travelled to the homeland of their forefathers, which means the traditions, languages and cuisines the men brought with them from Africa are slowly dying out.

In their stead, a new identity has emerged. The members of the community are both Palestinian and African, wearing their heritage proudly on their sleeves. Um Ahmad still has her husband's clothes and cloth turban he wore when he arrived in Jerusalem. Her children and grandchildren have all heard the stories of her husband's journey to the holy land, his customs and traditions. Like the ancient stones of the Old City, Jerusalem's African-Palestinians are part of Jerusalem. They belong there.