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Al Aqsa – The African Connection

Al Aqsa – The African Connection
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13 April 2017 | Salaamedia | Image: FrontPageMage.com

This weekend, Jerusalem archaeologist, Masjid al Aqsa employee and Salaamedia special guest Abeer Zayyad will visit South Africa’s first official mosque and join commemorations around Macassar in the Western Cape, home to the legendary Sheikh Yusuf and the nation’s first Muslim community. Check out full details of her tour here.

Zayyad, who was born in the Old City of Jerusalem, just metres away from the Al Aqsa mosque, is an active proponent of preserving Muslim cultural heritage in the Holy City, and maintains a keen eye on daily developments in the city, ever wary of any efforts to undermine the delicate status quo.

It is no coincidence then that her itinerary includes two stop overs at the ground-zero of Islamic heritage in South Africa.

A common faith outlook and penchant for history may be one reason that draws this Jerusalemite to the earliest Muslim community at the Cape. But it is hardly the only one.

Unbeknownst to many, the very environs Zayyad was born in and continues to tread every day, also sport rich African connections.

Whilst the Old City of Jerusalem is commonly discussed along the lines of its historic ‘quarters’: Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Jewish respectively, several of these regions have their own sub-divisions, each with a unique heritage.

In particular, 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.

abeer zayyad

In an informative interview with Salaamedia prior to her arrival in South Africa, Zayyad drew attention to the 450 member strong African community concentrated in two buildings facing each other, a few meters away from one of the main gates to the al-Aqsa mosque. The gate is known as Bab al-Nazir or Bab al-Majlis.

The current residents of the area had the roots planted by forebears, devout Muslims from countries such as Chad, Sudan, Nigeria and Senegal, who trekked across continents to perform the Haj, and subsequently visited al Aqsa.

Historians estimate the African presence in Jerusalem dating back to the 7th century when African Muslims accompanied the second Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab during his conquest of the city. From the Mamluk to the Ottoman period, Africans had an important role in the city as the guardians of the Holy Sites. They also have historically held the keys to the Islamic holy sites.

According to Joharah Baker, writing for the New Arab, some arrived, fell in love with the city and decided never to leave. It was, however, not until the 1940s, when 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.

Charismatic Afro-Palestinian community leader, Ali Mohammad Jiddah, explains that the Africans settled in an area of the Old City that is over 800 years years old, built by the Mamluks, mainly for visiting Muslim pilgrims. “From the Ottoman 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 buildings are called al-Ribat al-Mansouri (or al-Ribat al-Kurdi) and al-Ribat Aladdin al-Bassir. The Mansuri building was dubbed “The Blood Prison”; it is where prisoners condemned to death for revolting against Ottoman rule were jailed and executed.

The buildings were handed over to the Old City’s Islamic trusteeship during the British Mandate, and were subsequently declared an Islamic Waqf, a religious trust.

In the early 1930s, Palestinian political and religious leader Sheikh Amin al-Husseini leased them to Jerusalem’s Africans.

As the Africans moved in, the inner courtyards were compartmentalised into a beehive of adjoining rooms. Its residents pay a largely symbolic rent to the Islamic Waqf, which still owns the property.

A second wave of Africans came during the Nakba of 1948, with Africans serving in the Egyptian military or as volunteers, and then remaining after the war.

According to Grassroots Jerusalem, African community members actively participated in defending Jerusalem from the Zionist occupation during the 1948 catastophe. One of the most remembered battles they participated in was the battle of Jabal al-Mukaber. It was led by TareqAlIfriq, a Nigerian, who united Palestinian and Jordanian soldiers to defend the southern neighbourhood of Jabal al-Mukaber and its surroundings.

Africans also suffered their fair share of displacement during the Nakba with almost one-quarter of the original African population in Jerusalem becoming refugees in neighbouring countries.

All of those who remained have had to forgo the passports of their country of origin and if they ever travel, do so on an Israeli travel document which, “says, place of birth Israel, citizenship Jordanian”. Some also have fully-fledged Jordanian passports.

Identity

In spite of the uncertainty in officialdom about their citizenship status, the Africans of Jerusalem consider themselves unashamedly Palestinian.

“More Catholic than the Pope? We are more Palestinian than Palestinians,” Jiddah told the Associated Press.

The Africans have intermarried, and despite the occasional prejudice still surfacing, are now well integrated within Palestinian society.

“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,” Jiddah says.

The Afro-Palestinians of Jerusalem constitute 40 families, with each family comprising between five to seven persons. Like fellow Palestinians, many worked extensively in agriculture, as street vendors and shop owners.The African Community Society, the neighbourhood’s community centre, regularly hosts political and cultural events as well as art exhibitions and social initiatives.

Proud of their heritage, events and ceremonies are periodically convened to commemorate important African anniversaries. In 2013, a candlelight vigil was held by African-Palestinians in the Old City to pay tribute to former South African President, Nelson Mandela, upon his demise.

Whilst over time, many African traditions have eroded amongst the community, elder members still remember them fondly and share them with their 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, Jiddah says. “Really, I miss such a tradition.”

Another senior community member, Zuhra al-Qadi, remembered a feeding tradition Africans had brought to Jerusalem.

“Every Friday, the men would slaughter a sheep right here,” she told the New Arab, 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 remembered.

Struggle credentials

Israel has treated members of the Afro-Palestinian community just like other Palestinians with varying degrees of rights depending on whether they live in east Jerusalem, the West Bank or Gaza.

They have faced similar discrimination, with a common gripe amongst community members living in the Old City specifically being the effects of stringent Israeli regulations on building and extending homes. Permits for this purpose are costly and take long to procure. If the system is circumvented, penalties can be even more costly, and residents are often faced with no choice but to demolish their own homes.

In resisting the over-arching controls Israel is imposing on their lives, Afro-Palestinians have consistently been part of the myriad of structures that characterise Palestinian political life.

But, it has been the willingness of members of this community to go beyond the call of duty in serving Masjid al Aqsa and the Palestinian cause that has earned them deep respect among fellow Palestinians.

“We used to be and still are the avant-garde,” Jiddah said. “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.”

Jiddah himself, together with a cousin Mahmoud, were sentenced to 20 years jail time by Israel, of which he served 17. He was also a spokesman for Palestinian political prisoners for some 15 years.

Afro-Palestinians also lay claim to ‘bragging rights’ over the first Palestinian killed during the second intifada. Osama Jiddah, a member of the African community, was shot dead by Israeli forces on 29 September 2000 while on his way to donate blood in al-Maqased hospital on the Mount of Olives.

Ali Jiddah is resolute that the solution to his community’s challenges are 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.

That said, the obscure status of the African Palestinian community, sometimes renders it even more vulnerable to the crimes of the Israeli Occupation than their Arab compatriots.

“We face a twofold oppression by the Israeli occupation,” Jiddah says. “First because we are Palestinian; and second because we are black”.

“If you take our situation on the Israeli side, Palestinians are oppressed but as Afro-Palestinians we are doubly-oppressed: as Palestinians and secondly because of our colour. They call us ‘Kushi’, which means nigger, or sambo. Whenever there are political tensions between Palestinians and Israelis, the first sector to be affected by such measures is the Afro-Palestinians,” Mr Jiddah said. Afro-Palestinians are the first to lose their jobs in businesses run by Jewish Israelis, he added.

African responsibility

The commitment of Afro-Palestinians to the cause of justice in the region, and their integration into wider Palestinian society, experts say, should be instructive in how well-wishers from Africa and other regions approach their solidarity to the Palestinians.

Al Aqsa researcher, Dr Abdullah Umar Ma’roof believes more can be done amongst ordinary citizens to internalise the Palestinian cause, and not consider it a ‘foreign conflict’.

Palestinians in Jerusalem, he said, saw themselves as custodians of the Holy Lands on behalf of all justice loving people, and did not approach events in the city merely considering their personal interest.

The researcher went on to explain how Al Quds is replete with locations that reflect its custodianship by the entire Muslim Ummah.

“There is an African quarter in Jerusalem, there is a Moroccan quarter in Jerusalem, there is an Indian Sufi corner in Jerusalem and there are many other places related to every single race on earth. It is your city, and when the Muslims outside feel that it is their city, they will know how to act towards it.”

Jerusalem archaeologist AbeerZayyad visits South Africa from 13-22 April 2017. Check out full details of her tour here. Follow updates on her visit on Salaamedia and official social media platforms

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