RAMALLAH, West Bank — As Jerusalemites protested at the gates of Al-Aqsa Mosque in July, in rejection of the Israeli decision to install metal detectors at the holy site, members of the city's African community offered protesters water and food. They also welcomed worshippers into their homes during the protests, as the hub of this community is located near Al-Aqsa, around the Council Gate (Bab al-Majlis).
Jerusalem's African community is relatively small and consists of nearly 50 families living in the Bab al-Majlis neighborhood of the Old City. The majority of the community comes from countries such as Chad, Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan. Their ancestors came to Jerusalem in successive periods, beginning in the Ottoman era and continuing into the British Mandate.
Moussa Qaws, a co-founder of the African Community Society in Bab al-Majlis, told Al-Monitor that Africans "immigrated to Palestine for two main reasons: the first is religious and consists of the hajj [to Al-Aqsa Mosque, which often follows the pilgrimage to Mecca]. In fact, Africans who used to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem were rewarded a privileged social status. The second reason is jihad and the [religious] bond [formed] in Jerusalem.”
Though Africans first began to visit Jerusalem in the Ottoman period, Qaws said they only started settling there in the 1940s, during the British Mandate. Most Africans came to the city as part of the Arab Liberation Army, which included volunteers from various Islamic countries who wanted to help the Palestinians in their fight against the British and the Zionists. Many African members of the army stayed in Jerusalem after the fighting concluded. According to Qaws, Jerusalem's African community numbers around 750 people at present.
Qaws' father came to Palestine from Chad in 1942 to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque after making the hajj to Mecca. He carried a French travel document since Chad was then under French rule. He ended up staying in Jerusalem and marrying a Palestinian woman.
When Jordan controlled East Jerusalem, from 1948-1967, the Jordanian government did not grant citizenship to Africans. Following the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem in 1967, Africans who lived in Jerusalem obtained identity cards.
Once they obtained identity cards, members of the African Palestinian community in Jerusalem were forced to travel with a document known as the “laissez-passer.” This prevented Qaws and his brothers from visiting their relatives in Chad due to the country's nonrecognition of Israel and the absence of diplomatic ties. “My father died in 1983, so I went to the French Embassy to ask for [French] nationality," he said, noting that his father had been a French citizen. "My request was rejected since Chad was no longer a French colony.”
Although the African community merged with Jerusalemites and adapted to the city's way of life, it has kept its own traditions and customs. Qaws said, “Even though we do not come from the same country, we were raised in Jerusalem as members of one family, and we have common traditions that we seek to maintain — such as those of death and marriage, as well as our shared popular dish of porridge known as Asida that we eat on special occasions.”
These traditions were in part preserved with the help of the African Community Society, which was established in 1983. The society seeks to connect its members to their varied African heritages, especially the youth, and also to introduce tourists in Jerusalem to their traditions.
The economic situation of the African community is no different from the rest of the Old City, where the poverty rate reached 82% in 2014, according to a study by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. Members of the city's African community are generally not landowners in the city; they primarily rent houses.
Ihab al-Jallad, a researcher on Jerusalem affairs at the Jerusalem Popular Committee, said this community is a central part of the city's social fabric, which is composed of many different groups that all acknowledge the sanctity of the city. However, members of the community tend to marry within the community, and can also face discrimination based on their skin color.
Jallad told Al-Monitor that African community members were "famous for their work as guards at the gates of Al-Aqsa Mosque over the years." He said the community does not have any singular political leaders, since members are often affiliated with a diverse range of authorities in Jerusalem.
Many years have passed since the African community's initial arrival in Jerusalem. Though they still feel an innate sense of connection to their ancestors' countries of origin, they have chosen to continue living in Jerusalem for its sanctity. It is in this tradition of fusion, Qaws said, that the African Community Society has embarked on a new project: to embroider a traditional silk African wedding gown using the stitched embroidery of the Palestinians.