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HIDDEN HISTORY, SECRET PRESENT: THE ORIGINS AND STATUS OF AFRICAN PALESTINIANS

By Susan Beckerleg, translated by Salah Al Zaroo

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

This project was made possible by a Nuffield Foundation, Social Science Award, administered by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

I wish to thank my colleagues working on European Union Avicenne Initiative Projects for their advice and support, in particular Salah Al Zaroo and Gillian Hundt. My husband Abudi Kibwana Sizi assisted during two visits to the Palestine. In the Nagab and Gaza many people helped to put me in touch with colleagues, neighbours and friends of African descent. They include Ibrahim Abu Jaffar, Adnan El Sanne, Fatme Kassim, and Shahada Ebbweini.
Last but not least, I wish to thank all the people of African descent who talked with me in Jeruslaem, Gaza and the Nagab. They are not named so that their privacy can be maintained.

 

INTRODUCTION

This report summarises the findings of a project has addressed a neglected and sensitive area of research about the history of Palestine. The history of the region has been turbulent and has involved the settlement of peoples from Asia, Africa and Europe. Since the establishment of Israel in 1948, Palestinians have had little time or inclination to study their origins prior to settlement in Palestine. Indeed, such studies could be counter-productive as they might pander to Israeli views that Palestinians are migrants to the region. In recent years, much international attention has focused on the Ethiopian Jews and their position within Israeli society. However, although peoples of African origin other than the Ethiopian Jews have been in Palestine for far longer, there are virtually no accounts of how they arrived in the region or their position and role within Middle Eastern society.

Interviews with black (sumr) Palestinians were conducted in Gaza, the Nagab and Jerusalem between September 1995 and January 1998. Contact, through introductions, was sought and people were interviewed informally in their homes in either English or Arabic. At the start of the project the 'peace process' under the Oslo Accords was in its early stages and many Palestinians were optimistic. However, as the political situation worsened it became more difficult to talk to people about the highly sensitive and political issues of ethnic origin, the legacy of slavery and their current status as Palestinian or Israeli citizens.

This study was made possible by the kind co-operation of Palestinians living in Jerusalem, Gaza and the Nagab. People of African descent told me what they knew of their parents and grandparents and their lives in Palestine. Some older people I spoke to Jerusalem had been born in Africa, while others in the Nagab and Gaza told me what they knew of how their ancestors came to Palestine. For many other people the link with Africa had been lost and all but forgotten. In London I searched libraries for historical accounts of the links between Africa and Palestine. I did not find much. This shortage of historical documentation makes the accounts of the people I spoke to all the more important.

 

EARLY CONTACT BETWEEN AFRICA AND ARABIA

Palestine lies at the crossroads of Africa, Asia and Europe. For thousands of years spices have passed along trade routes through Palestine. Ambergris and frankincense were brought from Somalia and Ethiopia. As well as trade, war, colonisation and pilgrimage all ensured that the peoples and cultures of north-eastern Africa and Arabia mingled.

In the seventh century there were Africans living in Arabia, and Mohammed's trusted companion, Bilal was an Ethiopian freed slave. Many, but not all, the Africans in Arabia were slaves. It is often forgotten that there were slaves from many parts of the world in the Middle East. For example Circassian people from the Asia Minor to the north were prized as slaves. Black male slaves were often soldiers or government administrators and some achieved high rank. Black women worked as household slaves or were the concubines of wealthy high status men. The children born to concubines were not slaves, and some with fathers of high rank became leaders.

With the spread of Islam and the conversion of Africans in Africa, more and more black people participated in the Haj. However there were also migrations from Araba to Africa and later back to Arabia to perform the Haj. The Palestinian historian Arif El-Arif reports that some people trace the historical roots of contemporary Africans in Jerusalem back to Arabia:

'The origins of the African community go back to pure Arabic roots. The majority of the members are derived from the Arab Muslim tribe called Al Salamat. This tribe was living in Jeddah, Hijaz (now in Saudi Arabia), and then migrated to Chad and Sudan and other African countries. However, members of the tribe kept up contact with Hijaz, especially Mecca and Medina for the Haj, and after the pilgrimage they went to Jerusalem to continue their worship in al Aqsa mosque, the place of the nocturnal journey of the prophet Mohammed to the Seven Heavens. So some of these visitors loved Jerusalem and stayed in it.' (Arif el-Arif, address given in Jerusalem in 1971)

 

 

GUARDIANS OAFRICANS ASF THE HOLY PLACES

European writers and travellers tell a different story and report that slaves of African origin guarded the Haram As-Sharif in Jerusalem. According to these accounts Africans were deployed by Mamluke and then Ottoman rulers to guard the holy places of Islam. Similar guards also existed in Mecca and Medina. Although they were slaves, they were respected, trusted and sometimes quite powerful.

The following information on the history of African Palestinians in Jerusalem is taken from their own account entitled 'The Palestinian Africans in Jerusalem: Between their Miserable Reality and Hopes for the Future'.

The Africans living in Jerusalem are proud of their historic role as guardians of the Islamic holy places since the time of the Mamluk in the thirteenth century. They occupy the Mamluk buildings on either side of Al'a Ad-Deen Street leading to Al Aqsa mosque. On one side are the Al'a Ad-Deen Busari buildings, completed in 1267 and named after the Mamluke founder of the quarter. On the other side are the Al Mansouri buildings which were completed in 1282. Originally the two Ribat were hostels for pilgrims worshipping at Al Asqa Mosque.

During the Ottoman period the Ribats were occupied by Africans who worked as guards of the mosque and waqf properties. Because of their honesty these Africans held keys to the gates of the mosque and were responsible for preventing non-Muslims from entering the mosque area. Towards the end of the Ottoman era the Ribats were converted into prisons: Ribat Ad-Deen bacame Habs Ad -Dam, while Ribat Mansouri became Habs Ar-Ribat. This situation continued until 1914.

After the British took over Palestine in 1918 the prisons were closed and responsibility for the buildings was returned to the waqf authorities who used the buildings for temporary housing for the poor, including Africans. When Imam Hussein, Al Mufti, who led the struggle against the British and Jews until 1948, took charge of the waqf in Jerusalem he rented the two Ribats to the Africans at a nominal rate. Some of the Africans continued their traditions and worked as bodyguards to the Mufti himself. The descendants of the Africans still live in the two Ribat, today.

In 1971 the care of the tomb of the founder of the quarter, Al'a Ad-Deen Al Busari, restored by the African community, was entrusted to them in a ceremony led by the ex-mayor of Jerusalem and historian, Arif el-Arif. In his speech he stated that:

'Members of the African community were devoted guards of Al Aqsa mosque. The African community is steadfast in Jerusalem and they did not leave even in crisis situations.'

 

CONTEMPORAY AFRICANS IN JERUSALEM
During interviews with members of the African community in Jerusalem I learnt of the recent history of Palestinians of African origin. Their written account, mentioned above, 'The African Palestinians in Jerusalem', provided more details.

Most contemporary members of the African community came to Jerusalem as pilgrims and workers under the British Mandate of Palestine (1917-1948). They came mostly from Senegal, Chad, Nigeria and Sudan. They regard themselves as Palestinian and played an active role in the Intifada. Some of the Africans arrived as part of the Egyptian led 'Salvation Army' which aimed to liberate the Palestinian areas held by Jews in 1948. After the defeat of that army and its retreat to Egypt many Africans returned to their original countries, while others preferred to stay in Palestine.

El Haj Jeddeh, who was born in Chad but traces his family origins to Jeddah in the Hijaz, is the Mukhtar of the African community and some other Arabs living in the vicinity. He has served under the British, the Jordanians and now the Israelis. In addition, he also takes care of the tomb of Al'a Ad-Deen Busari and acts as a spiritual leader to his community.

Men who came from Africa to Jerusalem during this century married local women, many of whom were of African descent themselves. Ties with Jericho, where many black Palestinians live, are particularly strong. Others married Palestinian women who have no ties with Africa.

In their account of their history 'The Palestinian Africans in Jerusalem' they explain how when Israel occupied the West Bank many Africans were forced to become refugees in surrounding countries' leading to a 25% reduction of the numbers of African Palestinians living in Jerusalem. African Palestinians were particularly active during the Intifada and many confrontations with Israeli troops took place. One day the Israelis arrested all males aged between 10 and 45 years and insulted them telling them 'you are Africans, you have nothing to do with Palestine'.

 

MEMORIES OF SLAVERY IN BEDOUIN SOCIETY

Although Africans have been in Palestine for centuries, most people know little about this migration. For centuries, under the Ottoman Empire and before, slaves were brought from Africa. Some older people today remember stories told by their parents or grandparents of how they came to be in Palestine. Therefore it is possible to discover something of the later history of slavery. Several people mentioned that they had heard that there was a big slave market in Egypt and one 'white' Bedouin told me that his grandfather had been a slave trader who travelled regularly to Egypt. Most people with any idea of where their ancestors came from mention Sudan or Ethiopia. Sometimes they know the name of the town. Indeed, it is probable that many Africans came from these countries as they are near to Palestine. However, one woman I spoke to pointed out that 'we just say Sudan because we do not know and because the name means 'place of black people. It could just as easily have been Congo!' According to history books, slave traders and owners used to make a distinction between Ethiopians (Habash) and other Africans such as the Zanj from the East African Coast. In their racist way of thinking, they considered the Ethiopians to be superior to the other Africans.

In Gaza I spoke to people of Bedouin origin who had been living in the Nagab prior to 1948. In the Nagab I spoke with Bedouin of African descent who had stayed in the area after 1948. In Gaza, I also encountered black people of the Al Rubayn ashira who were settled Bedouin living around the area of Jaffa, before being driven from their villages as refugees in 1948. They said that they were unconnected to the Nagab Bedouin. Their name derived from Nabi Rubooyn who thousands of years ago used a well near their home area.

These people of Bedouin origin currently resident in Gaza and the Nagab recall being told by their elders how children were kidnapped or bought in slave markets and brought, sometimes carried in the camel saddle-bags, to live with important Bedouin families. This occurred in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. The children were often the only Africans living with the family. They looked after animals, grew wheat and barley and performed household tasks. People told me that the Bedouin did not use the girls as concubines, although in the West Bank they did 'marry' female slaves. Only big wealthy families owned and traded in slaves. Black people were scattered throughout Palestine living with white families who 'owned' them. However, some families needed slaves to help in self- defence when they were weak in number. It is possible that within the twentieth century adults were also brought from Africa and sold as slaves. One elderly man reported that in his youth he had come across African men who were strong, bore tribal scars on their faces and spoke little Arabic.

One 'white' Bedouin man told me that slaves used to be branded like animals, but that there were no papers concerning ownership or origins. In the family unit, there were sometimes also other slaves who were white, or low status dependants, such as hamran. But one man told me that a white slave would never have answered to a black slave.

Some African children were educated along with the other, free, children of the family. Once the children grew up their masters arranged for them to be married. They never married white people, even if they were also slaves. As there were not many Africans around, marriage often meant that girls moved away from the master's family. People also reported that, upon becoming adults, slaves could choose to take their chances with freedom or to remain attached to a family who would arrange marriage. This probably only occurred towards the end of the institution of slavery, during the British period, when it had already begun to fade away.

In the Nagab the Bedouin had a three tier social and political system. Sheikhs were drawn from the Samran, the original Bedouin. Attached to them as clients were the Hamran, families who were originally felaheen, but required protection and/or land from Samran families. The Abed, the slaves, were on the bottom tier and did not have the same rights or status as free people.

Slaves did not count in blood feuds between families. Several people told me that if a black man killed a white man, the death of that black man would not count. Payment (sulha) could be made in money or by the giving of a slave of a certain height. If a black man kills a white, the family of the deceased may kill the 'owners' of the black man. Recently, in Rahat in the Nagab, a black boy eloped with a white girl. They were discovered and the girl killed by her family. However, the boy survived and subsequently married a black girl.

Under the old system slaves could not sit in the shig at the same level as their masters. In some places this is still observed, with the role of the black people being to serve tea and coffee to the white people. One man told me that there were some shig that he would not go to because they would ask him who he 'belonged to'. But in other shig this no longer happens and black and whites sit happily together. In one shig in Gaza, the black sheikh presides, while white people take responsibility for serving tea and coffee.


CHANGES BEFORE AND AFTER 1948

Slavery appears to have been an active institution under Ottoman rule. The British Mandate of Palestine was established in 1917. Slaves were not given release papers and there appears that the British made little formal effort to end the system of slavery in Palestine. Rather, as economic and social conditions changed, the institution faded away in some areas, but still operated other areas until the 1950s.

The groups of black people living in the Nagab and as refugees in Gaza today are the descendants of slaves of the Bedouin. As the peoples of Gaza and the Nagab have only been separated by frequently closed borders since 1948 (when Israel was established and the majority of the Nagab Bedouin became refugees in Gaza and Jordan), the various communities retain kin ties.

Prior to 1948 a political and social system of tribal affiliation operated in the Nagab. There were four gabail: the Gdarat, the Azazme, the Turabeen and the Dlam. Of these, the Tarabeen probably had the most black slaves. Each Gabila was sub-divided in ashira or hamula, and these were, in turn, divided into extended families ('ayla). Within each 'ayla were individual families (asira).

Jama'an Abu Jurmi, of the Tarabeen, was a powerful black Sheikh to whom all black people could turn. However, during the war of 1948 the hamula of Abu Jurmi was dispersed and is now in Sinai, or possibly Jordan or Gaza.

Many black people in the Nagab are now affiliated to the Abu Bilal. There is some confusion amongst many Bedouin as to the origins of the Abu Bilal: some people say that the Israelis invented the Abu Bilal to represent all black Bedouin, and named the hamula after Bilal, the Ethiopian companion of the Prophet Mohammed, because he was black. However, the son of the current Sheikh of the Abu Bilal tells a different story. Five or six generations ago a child, Bilal, was stolen from Africa and taken to Sinai. The boy became a slave of the family who purchased him, and although his own family found him and asked him to come home, he was used to his new life and refused. He married and had descendants, and up to now, the Abu Bilal have land in Sinai. However, the descendants moved to the Nagab.

Bilal's grandson, Sulemain was very clever and a natural leader. During and after the war of 1948 he was appointed as a Sheikh by the Israelis and negotiated with the Israeli Military Authority and many poor people, both black and white, asked him to speak on their behalf. This was a time when all Bedouin had to be affiliated with a Sheikh in order to get rations and travel permits. After 1950 Sheikhs, such as Sulemian, were formally appointed by the Israelis. In 1952, when a census was carried out, many black people registered as Abu Bilal, despite the fact that they had been attached to other families.

For example, one elderly man told me how he took the opportunity of registering as a member of Abu Bilal as a means of disassociating himself from the descendants of his grandfather's masters who had anyway lost their land. He explained: 'Sulemain Abu Bilal was a very clever and strong man, although he could not read and write. Many went to join him. Before 1948 Abu Bilal was a family. Bilal was a slave living in Sinai.' The elderly man told me that he and his family had lived a nomadic existence in the West Bank with the Abu Bilal for about 10 years. That way of life ended with the war of 1967.

In some areas slavery as a way of life appears to have continued into the 1950s. One black (sumr) man who came to Palestine as a migrant worker from Egypt and was caught up in the war of 1948 recalls life for black people attached to the Al Huzail. He had been working in the orchards near Rishon with black people of the Abu Barakat. When war broke out they fled back to their home area of the Al Huzail where Rahat has now been constructed. When the Egyptian man arrived there he found black people growing wheat for Al Huzail. They were given food and, if they requested it for a special purpose, money. Slaves and masters lived separately in black tents. There was no intermarriage and no concubinage. The Egyptian man slept in the Sheikh's shig and worked as a shepherd, but received no wages. The Sheikh arranged his marriage to a white girl from Gaza. However, after 1952 under the Israelis, when the census was taken, slavery as an institution faded away.

After 1948 the most of the Nagab Bedouin lost their land and those who had not left the area to become refugees in Gaza and Jordan, were confined to a small military zone around Beersheba. Many Bedouin, including black families appear to have moved around working in the orchards to the north around Rishon, Rehovot and 'Atir or labouring or herding animals in the West Bank. One family, now resident in Rahat told me that they had moved nine times between 1956 and 1958. After the 1967 war it became much harder to move around.

In the late 1960s the Israelis started developing planned settlements to house the Nagab Bedouin. Currently, about half the Nagab Bedouin live in these towns, while the other half have resisted moving and remain in shanty settlements or in emcampments. Many black families moved into the planned towns, the biggest of which is Rahat. Of about 30,000 people who live in Rahat, about a third are black (sumr) and are concentrated in three areas of the town. Many, but not all, of these families are registered as Abu Bilal.

MARRIAGE

Everybody I spoke to stressed that they had been told that in the past marriage between black and white slaves was not permitted. In addition, there seemed to be no evidence that slave owners took black women as concubines. Rather black slaves were married to other black slaves belonging to other families. Nevertheless, not all blacks were slaves and most people of African origin living in Palestine have some white ancestry. Family histories reveal intermarriage for several generations, at least, between people of African origin and other Palestinians.

In the twentieth century, particularly after 1948, there were changes. Black men of slave descent married white women from fellahen backgrounds from the West Bank, Gaza or Galilee, but never Bedouin women. Rarely a white Bedouin man might marry a black Bedouin woman. Hence, most people who are considered black are of mixed descent. The male line is all-important in reckoning descent. I met one man of black African appearance in Gaza. His family had come from the Nagab after 1948. However, he claimed that technically he was white, because his father's father had been white. Conversely, I met a man of white appearance in Rahat, who was black because his father was black, although his mother was white.

Black Bedouin also continued to marry other black Bedouin, usually within the ashira, thereby conforming to the cultural preference in Arab society to marry relatives. One man told me that cousin marriage is becoming more common among black Bedouin. However, after 1956 it became relatively easy for black Nagab Bedouin men to arrange marriages with white fellahen women. One result was that left some women without husbands. Therefore black Bedouin have recently started marrying between ashira, for example between Abu Rqaiq and Abu Bilal.

Although the African Palestinians of Jeruslaem are a separate community from the black Bedouin, some intermarriage occurs. For example, one of the wives of a man of I met in Jerusalem was from a family of Nagab Bedouin originally from Beersheba, but now living in a refugee camp in Bethlehem.
However, many of the Jerusalem community have intermarried with families from Jericho, some of whom are clearly of African origin, although few people seem to know when or how Africans came to Jericho. Several people told me that Jericho suited black people because the weather was hot!

THE STATUS AND IDENTITY OF PALESTINIANS OF AFRICAN DESCENT

As the Bedouin of African descent have been geographically dispersed and caught up as individuals and families in the enormous political changes affecting the region, there has been little opportunity to develop a sense of identity as Africans. Some are Israeli or Jordanian citizens while others are registered as Palestinian refugees and hold UNRWA papers. Others were dispersed to Lebanon and Tunisia and have achieved military rank in the PLO. Many families are dispersed and may not be able to meet often separated as they are by frequently closed borders.

Living within such a complex political and daily reality, where ethnic identity and citizenship are so important it is hardly surprising that most black people do not have a developed sense of being of African descent. Those still living in the Nagab spoke of a changing sense of identity from being Bedouin to being Arab and /or Palestinian. Although they were also Israeli citizens, many said that there was little room for them within the Jewish state.

Many Palestinians of African descent are poor and disadvantaged, even compared with other Palestinians. However, some black people (Sumr) have achieved leadership roles. The roles of Al Hajj Jeddeh in Jeruslaem and the Sheikh of the Abu Bilal have already been discussed. In Gaza I also encountered, several people of African/ Nagab Bedouin or Al Rubayn descent who were prominent local leaders. For example, one elderly Bedouin Sheikh hears cases and settles disputes for both black and white people from his shig in Zuwaida. His wife hears cases concerning women. Until closures made movement difficult, the Sheikh returned to Tel Sabaa in the Nagab to hear cases. He said that his family had played an important role in dispute settlement since the days of the British. His work is recognised by the Palestinian Authority and since 1995 he has been registered under the Bedouin Association. Another black local leader, I was told about but did not meet, is the Mukhtar who lives in the Yaramouk area of Gaza who settles disputes within the Al Rubayn community. In addition, many black Palestinians of Bedouin origin, in Gaza and in Jordan, continue the military tradition of people of African descent serving in the armed forces and police.

Over and beyond citizenship and rights, many black people associated with the Bedouin talked about the strong affinity and sense of common roots they felt with black people they encountered or saw on television. Indeed, in the Nagab and Gaza it is common for all black men to refer to each other as khali, or my mother's brother. One woman explained that the term khal indicated respect and affection. If somebody was referred as 'am (father's brother) it was a sign that the speaker wanted something because there were obligations between these categories of kin that did not exist between maternal uncle and nephew. The term is used to address all black people and is recognition of shared ancestry and common roots. People told me that the term is used in relation to the Black Hebrews, who migrated from the USA to live in Dimona as a Jewish group. However, 'khali' would not be used to address Ethiopian Jews, who, although clearly African, were more closely associated with the state of Israel.
Black people in the Nagab, Gaza and Jerusalem refer to themselves as the sumr. This is stark contrast to many other Palestinians who persist in referring to all black people as abed, a term that is synonmous with 'slaves'. In addition, some older black people still use the term 'abed' as a means of self referral, while younger people avoid the term. Indeed, many younger people know little or nothing of their history. One young woman upon hearing from her grandmother tales of slavery was shocked and asked for reassurance that such things only happened centuries ago.

Although some white Palestinians claim that 'abed' is not an abusive name and that any connotations with slavery have been lost, others are embarrassed to even hear the word mentioned. Clearly the issue of the origins, identity and terminology used to describe people of African origin is a highly sensitive one. When I spoke to some white Palestinians they denied that black people were ever slaves in the region, and said that rather they had been soldiers of the Ottoman Empire. When I pointed out that this was not the case, one man almost whispered to me 'we never talk about it'. Yet, white Palestinians by persisting in calling people of African origin 'abed, perpetuate discrimination.

The African Palestinians living in Jerusalem told me that they would fight with anybody who referred to them as 'abed'. They added that this does not often happen as their place within Palestinian society and their role in the struggle is generally acknowledged by the citizens of Jerusalem. They also clearly identify themselves as African and Palestinian. However, they have different problems in establishing their identity, particularly when applying for travel documents. Unlike other Palestinians in the West Bank, the Jordanian government does not recognise the African Palestinians as Jordanian citizens. They cannot obtain Palestinian passports because they live in Jerusalem which is excluded from the Oslo Agreement. As a result, the majority of Africans living in Jerusalem have no passports, and the only option for overseas travel is to obtain Israeli documents. The majority refuse this option.

 

DISSEMINATION OF FINDINGS

It is hoped that this document will be of interest to individuals and community groups in the Nagab, Gaza and Jerusalem that it will engender a strengthened sense of identity and community so that they will be encouraged to renew and strengthen contacts between themselves.

If anybody wishes to correct or add to any of the contents of this document please write to:

Dr Susan Beckerleg
Health Promotion Research Unit
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
Keppel Street

E mail : s.beckerleg@lshtm.ac.uk