Jerusalemʹs Africans

Alienation and counter-alienation

Yasser Qous, son of African-Palestinians, explains the feeling of foreignness experienced by Africans in 1970s Jerusalem and the alienation of African parishioners from each other at the time

African Jerusalemites, or the "Takarneh", as the Palestinian historian Aref al-Aref (1892-1973) described them in his comprehensive book on the history of Jerusalem (1961), are "one of Jerusalemʹs major families. They came there from Darfur and its environs. It is said that they are originally from Tikrit and that they belong to the Zawba branch of the Shammar tribe. The government used to employ them in the police force and they were entrusted with guarding the schools, which were held in the houses, homes and cloisters around the Haram al-Sharif. They are black, tall, and well-built."

In a pamphlet entitled "Muslim Africans in Jerusalem", which was published by the Islamic Endowments Department in Jerusalem (1984), the Palestinian researcher of African roots, Husni Shaheen, noted that they are "Muslims from a number of African countries, including Nigeria, Chad, French Sudan (which is now Mali) and Senegal. They are also descended from various African Arab tribes, including the Hausa, Salamat, Barqou, Zaghawa, Borno, Kanembu and Bulala."

"Black" Africans

This article endeavours to illuminate and make sense of the status of black Africans in Jerusalem. It examines the impact of skin colour, what that means in terms of profession and place of abode, and how this is all related to alienation.

Guard at The Auguste Viktoria Hospital in Palestine, 1928 (photo: © Library of Congress)
"Blood Prison" and "Ribat Prison": in 1929 the two buildings were converted into residential quarters for Jerusalemʹs African population. Ever since they have commonly been known as the "slave prisons", a name linked both to the buildingsʹ historical function and to the skin colour that people associate with slaves

Let us look first at the meaning of the word "black" in al-Maʹany dictionary. It refers, on the one hand, to skin colour and, on the other, to the place from which "black Africans" come.

The second definition clashes to some extent with that advanced by Aref al-Aref, which contends that they are from "Darfur and the surrounding area" i.e. from a specific geographical area with particular cultural and religious characteristics.

This leads us into a discussion about the impact and relationship of that geographical-cultural classification with the distinction which has developed in Palestinian eyes between the free black African and the kidnapped "slave".

We will also look at the impact and scale of this vis a vis the "Takruri" (singular form of Takarneh) African, based on the distinction between cultural status and that of the African "other".

Determining the social status of black Africans

Some may not even know that there are black Africans living in communities in various cities and refugee camps inside Palestine. Many researchers and historians e.g. Huda Lutfi, Aref al-Aref and Ali Qleibo, believe that the African connection with Palestine dates back to the Mamluk and Ottoman periods.

In Lutfiʹs study of the records and documents of the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem during the Mamluk period, she distinguishes between the status of the black "Takruri" African within the Islamic Ummah and the non-Muslim black African who was, to all intents and purposes, a "slave".

Meanwhile, Aref al-Aref and Ali Qleibo both agree that the "Takruri" Africans were used as guards and to serve in the holy places in Jerusalem and Mecca during the Mamluk and Ottoman eras. And letʹs stop here at the notion of "service", since it is misleading.

Qlaqshandi notes that it is a title which was bestowed by the Sultan. In "Lisan al-ʹArab", and subject to the specific role and task involved, it refers to "anyone who serves someone else, be they male or female, a young male or female slave." This begs the question: to what extent did this distinction among black Africans re-shape the cultural identity of the "Takruri" African?

The problematic relationship between skin colour, profession and place of abode

In an attempt to connect skin colour with the African heritage and the impact of this on the cultural identity of African Jerusalemites, I recall from memory the words that my uncle Hajj Jibril Ould Shine, rest his soul, used to recite to me, "Weʹre not slaves, weʹre free."

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