The Old City’s African secret

The Old City’s African secret

A community of African Muslims has lived for generations in two former prison buildings right next to the Temple Mount. Today, it numbers 350 staunchly Palestinian members

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

The African Quarter of the Old City, with the Council Gate to the Temple Mount at center. (photo credit: Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)
The African Quarter of the Old City, with the Council Gate to the Temple Mount at center. (photo credit: Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)

Deep in the heart of the Old City, nestled against the Temple Mount, sit two former Turkish prisons, today the home to a tiny — and nearly forgotten — community of African Muslims who have lived there for centuries.

Mohammed, a wizened, white-bearded elder of the community, and his son Ahmed sit outside Ribat al-Mansuri, once known as the “The Blood Prison,” selling trinkets. Nearly a century ago, his grandfather left Chad to settle in Jerusalem, a familiar story among the 350 or so people who make up the Afro-Palestinian community here.

For centuries there have been small numbers of black Muslims living in Jerusalem; they often served as guards at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. Most of those who inhabit today’s largely unknown “African Quarter,” however, are the descendants of Africans from Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan and Chad who made the pilgrimage to Mecca in recent generations, then visited Jerusalem, married Arab women and stayed. Others joined the Arab Liberation Army to fight the nascent State of Israel in 1948 and remained in Jordanian-held East Jerusalem.

Jerusalem’s Old City is popularly divided into the Christian, Armenian, Muslim and Jewish Quarters — a term that actually refers to residences and not fourths. The African Quarter is one of several micro-communities, which include Indians, Domari Gypsies, Afghans, and Moroccans, that inhabit the Muslim Quarter, the walled city’s largest and most populous district.

Finding the Africans is not a simple task. Few academics contacted by The Times of Israel were familiar with the group. Walking through the Old City, however, inquiries after the Hai al-Afaarika — the African neighborhood — yielded instructions. Turn right at one of Suleiman the Magnificent’s fountains, and onto Aladdin Street, named after a 13th century Mamluk emir. Police had closed off the streets leading to the Temple Mount on the day I visited and barred the path. Instead, an Arab woman led the way through a door a block down, into a passage bisecting the block that circumvented the cordon.

Two buildings, Ribat al-Baseri and Ribat al-Mansuri, face one another on Aladdin Street and house the 350-member community.

A map of Jerusalem's Old City, with the African Quarter circled in red (photo credit: public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
A map of Jerusalem’s Old City, with the African Quarter circled in red (photo credit: public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Standing just a few meters from the entrance to the Temple Mount, they were constructed in the late 13th century by Jerusalem’s Mamluk overlords to serve as hostels for Muslim pilgrims. During the Arab Revolt of 1914-1917, the Ottoman Turks converted the two hostels into prisons. The Mansuri building was dubbed “The Blood Prison”; it is where prisoners condemned to death were jailed and executed. Vestigial iron bars still cover the windows and doors, testament to the buildings’ grisly past.

In his 1990 book “Jerusalem Curiosities,” Abraham Millgram writes that Jerusalem’s black community, which he refers to as “Little Harlem,” originated with African laborers conscripted by the British Army to lay railroads and infrastructure during General Edmund Allenby’s conquest of Palestine during the First World War.

“When the black laborers returned to their homes in central Africa, they told their families and friends of the wonder they beheld and experienced in the Holy City,” he wrote. “These marvelous accounts kindled in the hearts of many of their co-religionists fervent yearnings to visit that marvelous city and at the same time make the Haj [sic].”

Yasser Qous, a 30-something son of a Chadian who settled down in Jerusalem after performing the hajj, runs the African Community Society, a welfare organization. He said the Africans who came to Jerusalem mostly worked as servants or as guards on the Temple Mount. After one of the African guards, Jibril Tahruri, took a bullet for the grand mufti of Jerusalem, a grateful Hajj Amin al-Husseini rented out the two former prisons to the community. As the Africans moved in, the inner courtyards were filled in with a beehive of adjoining rooms. Now the Blood Prison is a tidy, byzantine tangle of narrow passageways. Its residents pay a largely symbolic rent to the Islamic Waqf, which still owns the property.

“The African community wasn’t just residing here. They were occupying different [places] inside the city, but the majority used to live here,” Qous said. “They started to think, ‘How can we be supportive of one another in order to get much more integrated with the Palestinian society?'” They therefore congregated as a single community in the ribats.

Milling about the gateways of the two massive buildings are a constant colony of under-10s — wisecracking, good natured, gap-toothed kids trying to sell a few baked goods to passersby ascending to the Temple Mount for prayer. Inside, attentive matriarchs in bright patterned veils see to the business of keeping a spartan house in order. A teen couple, enjoying the early spring sunlight, engage in casual chatter, oblivious to the adults nearby.

Members of the African community in Jerusalem's Old City (photo credit: Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel)
Members of the African community in Jerusalem’s Old City (photo credit: Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel)

“All of us, we feel as though we are one family,” he said. “If we have a wedding… all of the community will support each other… We feel like blood brothers,” he added.

Mohammad, the trinket-seller, said he identifies strongly with the Palestinian cause. Yet like many East Jerusalemites, he possesses a blue Israeli residency ID card, and also has a Jordanian passport — as do many members of the community. Having lived under Israeli rule for most of his life, his Arabic is peppered with loanwords from Hebrew.

He said much of the community, including his family members, moved to Amman, Jordan, leading up to and after the 1967 war. He also said a handful of other Afro-Palestinians live in the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Beit Hanina and A-Tur.

When asked about the African migrants who have flocked to Israel from Eritrea and Sudan in recent years, Qous said that initially they tried to help them, “but most of the time we’ve been faced [with the fact] that they have good recognition of the State of Israel, and… we have a bad perspective about the [Israeli] occupation.”

The Afro-Palestinians are fervently committed to the Palestinian nationalist cause. According to Qous, most of the Afro-Palestinians of Jerusalem have served time in Israeli prison and the police know they are “a bad group.” As we spoke in his office, he was informed that his brother was arrested at a demonstration at the Damascus Gate protesting the IDF’s shooting of three Palestinians in Jenin.

“What can we do? My brother’s been arrested 100 times. He’ll have 24 hours [in jail] and after that they will release him and he’ll do it again,” said Qous.

According to the website of the Grassroots Al-Quds Network, a human rights NGO in East Jerusalem, the constant arrests cause serious financial and social stress in an already impoverished community. “Many young people are forced to drop out of school and work low-paying manual labor jobs to support their families,” it says.

Several members of the community have been convicted and imprisoned for terrorist attacks in Jerusalem. Ali Jiddah planted four hand grenades on Strauss Street in downtown Jerusalem in 1968. The blasts injured nine Israelis and Jiddah spent 17 years in Israeli prison. His cousin Mahmoud also served 17 years for a similar attack; the two were released in 1985 in a prisoner swap. Fatima Barnawi, daughter of a Nigerian father and Palestinian mother, has the dubious distinction of being the first female Palestinian arrested on terrorism charges. As a member of Fatah, she planted a bomb in the Zion Theater in downtown Jerusalem in October 1967. Although it didn’t explode, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison, of which she served 10 before being exiled. 

After his release from prison in 1985, Jiddah worked first as a journalist, then started giving alternative tours of Jerusalem’s Old City, showing the Palestinian perspective of life under Israeli rule.

“Due to the responses from my clients I am satisfied, and I am convinced that the work I am doing today is more effective than the bomb I planted in 1968,” he said.

“Due to the responses from my clients I am satisfied, and I am convinced that the work I am doing today is more effective than the bomb I placed in 1968,” he said.

When we met, Jiddah, 64, was sitting on a couch, the April sunbeams streaming through a window and perforating the pirouetting column of smoke emanating from his fresh-lit cigarette. His father was from Chad, a member of the Salamat tribe who hailed from somewhere near the capital, N’Djamena.

He said that unfortunately some of the traditions brought by his father’s generation have been lost. The tribal languages spoken by his father and his comrades from their ancestral homelands of the Sahel are not spoken by Ali’s generation or his children.

“Each Friday our fathers used to gather under this big tree… and after eating they served tea and began talking [in Arabic] about their homelands,” whether they were in Senegal, Chad, or elsewhere, he said. “Really, I miss such a tradition.”

“Today we have a serious problem: Most of the newly married brothers are obliged to move out of the African Quarter because the space [has remained] the same since our fathers came here, but the population has [risen],” Jiddah said. “To add any room is a big risk.”

Outside the window to his living room, construction on a new level to a house built in the now cluttered courtyard continued apace. Illegal construction, Jiddah said, is heavily penalized by Israeli authorities and, if it’s not demolished by the property owner, the government destroys it and sends them the bill. Consequently, the growing population moves out of the quarter into more expensive neighborhoods outside the Old City.

Ali Jiddah, resident of the African Quarter. (photo credit: Nate Sugarman)
Ali Jiddah, resident of the African Quarter. (photo credit: Nate Sugarman)

“In order to maintain ourselves, to stand strong, not to be absorbed by the outside world, you have to put an emphasis on the organization,” he said. “We are well united, well organized.”

In spite of their strong identification as Palestinians, there is nonetheless a degree of racial discrimination against them by the broader Arab population. 

“Some Palestinians still refer to those with dark skin as ‘abeed,’ literally translated as ‘slaves,'” Charmaine Seitz wrote in a Jerusalem Quarterly article on the African community in 2002. “Racial slurs against blacks are oddly frequent in a society that has experienced its own share of prejudice and discrimination at home and abroad.”

But Jiddah said he “never feels discriminated” because of his color by fellow Palestinians, because of the Afro-Palestinian community’s “contribution in the national struggle.” Israelis, however, discriminate against the Afro-Palestinians for both the color of their skin and for being Palestinian, he charged.

When the Africans first came to British Mandate Palestine, said Qous, they faced “a lot of difficulties in order to be accepted in [Palestinian] society.” After the first generation of immigrants married local Arab women, they became better integrated.

“Now we don’t have this kind of problem here, because we are not a Scandinavian country, you know?” he said. “Jerusalem is a mosaic society. It’s a multicultural society.”

Elsewhere, like Ramallah, he said, it might have been more difficult.

“Black, white,” said Mohammed, the elderly merchant, “we’re all one.”

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