My uncleʹs words were a barometer to measure the extent to which the concept of cultural separation had come into being, thus creating an identity that was estranged from its African forebear. It emphasised the genealogical links with the Arabian Peninsula. "Weʹre originally from Jeddah," as the Mukhtar Mohammed Jiddah suggests in an interview with him in 1997.

If we look at the connection between profession, skin colour and physical traits, "being black, tall and well-built," as al-Aref puts it in his book, was the reason why African Jerusalemites were chosen for security jobs. Herein is another indicator that allows us to gauge the relationship and role of these three key elements in determining the social status of black Africans. They adhere closely to the stereotype i.e. work that requires physical effort, not mental.

Turkish soldiers at the entrance to a prison in Jerusalem, photo taken between 1889 and 1914, Palestine (photo: © Library of Congress)
Yasser Qous writes that today the cultural boundaries between Palestinian society and the Takruri Africans as part of the Islamic community are blurred. Racist differentiation still exists, however, which is why the black African remains "the black slave" in the Arab imagination

The last link is the place of abode. In the case of Jerusalem, most Africans live in the African Quarter. It consists of two historical buildings, "Ribat al-Mansouri" and "Ribat al-Basiri" (ribat: a fortified complex, mostly used as a pilgrims' hostel, but able to fulfil several functions), both of which were built during the Mamluk era in the 12th century near the Inspectorʹs Gate, which leads to the Haram al-Sharif.

From pilgrimsʹ hostels to prisons

At the end of the Ottoman era, specifically between 1898 and 1914, the two ribats were used as prisons by the Ottoman authorities. Ribat al-Basiri was reserved for Arab prisoners on death row and was known as the "jail of blood".

Ribat al-Mansouri, the "ribat jail", was reserved for Arab prisoners given custodial sentences. After 1929, both ribats were used as homes for the African Jerusalemites. 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.

Some Jerusalemites try to soften the racist overtones of this labelling, with an over-idealistic view of Palestinian society: "weʹre all one, weʹre all brothers and weʹre all equals".

Rather than implying any cultural or social racism towards black Africans, their use of this designation merely reflects their ignorance. Indeed, in their scenario, racism does not exist in Palestinian society as we are all "Godʹs slaves" in a religious sense.

The enduring image of black slaves

I wonder if we are really like that and whether itʹs true. After all, how can a utopian view explain or justify the continued use of a term such as "the slaves of Duyuk" when talking about the black-skinned population in northern Jericho near Ein al-Duyuk? Similarly, how can we still use the "slavesʹ quarter" as a label for those neighbourhoods inhabited mostly by black people in certain cities, towns and refugee camps inside the Green Line and in the West Bank?

In conclusion, the problems of differing definitions and a stereotype based on skin colour, profession and place of abode, are the cornerstones for understanding the status of black Africans in Palestinian society.

On the one hand, the term ʹblack Africanʹ has been subject to a process of appropriation and cultural exchange (as in the case of the African Takruri). On the other hand, it referred to a specific time in history (to the spread of Islam in Africa), as if al-Aref is saying that African people had no culture until the Islamisation and Arabisation of African society.

Notwithstanding this, I have tried in the above examples to show how the barriers between Jerusalemites and the African Takruri declined because they were all part of the Muslim community. At the same time, discrimination is still based on ethnic parameters: whether they are called Takruri or otherwise, the African remains the "black slave" in the Arab cultural psyche.

Yasser Qous

© Goethe-Institut/Perspectives 2019

Yasser Qous is a master’s student at the Department of History and Civilization of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris. His research interests revolve around the social history of Palestine, with a focus on the historical development of the Afro-Palestinian community in Jerusalem.

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