A member of the forgotten African-Palestinian community, Mahmoud Jiddah was born in Jerusalem around the time of the Nakba. He grew up witnessing the takeover of Palestine and joined in the resistance against Israel’s occupation of his home.
JERUSALEM — Born nine days before the birth of Israel, Mahmoud Jiddah has lived his whole life in Jerusalem. His family was forced to flee to Jordan after the Nakba – ‘catastrophe’ in Arabic – when Israel triumphantly declared itself a state. There he stayed for two years until his family was able to return to Jerusalem in 1950, after Jordan formalised its annexation of the West Bank. Returning to Jerusalem was not just a homecoming for Jiddah; remaining in the city despite the odds became a form of resistance for him.
Jiddah identifies himself as a Palestinian. His father travelled from Chad at the beginning of the 20th Century to Mecca to perform the Hajj pilgrimage. He then made a stop to visit the holy lands, which were still under Ottoman rule at the time. Looking around, he said, “What more do we need in this world?” and decided to stay and settle there.
Jiddah was born and raised in Jerusalem in a small but growing African diaspora community, hailing mostly from Nigeria, Sudan, Senegal, and Chad. They lived in areas next to the Haram Sharif – or Noble Sanctuary – that houses Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.
Nestled just outside the gate that sits across from the Dome of the Rock, and along the northern part of the same wall that extends south to the well-known Western Wall that is holy to the Jews, the African community steadily grew over the years to its current number of around 350 people.
They took up menial jobs cleaning and guarding the holy precincts. “They were the best people to defend the holy sites,” he remembers. Of the different ethnic sub-communities in East Jerusalem, Jiddah says the African group is the most integrated.
They live in a small compound that passed through the rule of different authorities. Under the Mamluks, the two main buildings served as hostels for Muslim pilgrims visiting the holy lands. During the Arab revolt of the early 20th Century, Ottoman authorities turned the hostels into prisons – one of the buildings was referred to as ‘The Blood Prison’, where those condemned to death were jailed and executed.
The African community started to take up residence there in the 1930s. Until 1968, they lived in cramped quarters, often eight people to a room of 7.5 square metres. But over time the community grew along with the compound, which is currently still owned by the Islamic Waqf. They are not associated, however, with the new wave of African refugees currently facing deportation by the Israeli government.
Hailing from African roots comes with its own challenges. “We are discriminated against twice,” Jiddah says. “Once for being Palestinian and once for being black.”
The third of three boys and three girls, Jiddah lived a relatively normal life as a child. He was interested in sports, caring mostly about basketball, football, and handball. He wanted to get a proper education to make something of himself in the world. He wasn’t very interested or involved in politics.
But everything changed in 1967. It was after the Six-Day War that the Israeli occupation of Palestine began, and life as he knew it would never be the same again.
Saleh Abdel Jawad of Birzeit University in the West Bank says that the war happened very quickly. “It started on Monday, June 5 at 11 o’clock on the Jordanian front. By nine o’clock the next day there were waves of refugees. There were aerial bombardments. Israel used napalm against civilians. The situation changed from euphoria and victory to total desperation.”
He adds that the military governor of Jerusalem, Chaim Herzog, started implementing laws that would affect each part of daily life. “These were already planned by the Israeli military in 1964 before the war and were available only in Hebrew.”
By September of that year, Jiddah remembers that they had enforced a new curriculum in all schools, changing all of the books to Israeli textbooks. In response, the students and teachers boycotted the curriculum, and refused to submit to the invading authorities. Instead, for the next three to four years, teachers turned their homes into schools, where they continued to teach their regular curriculum to their students.
Jiddah decided to join the resistance against the Israeli occupation, in an attempt to return to the life he had once known. He was arrested on September 5, 1968, and was subsequently sentenced to 25 years in prison. Israel has Jiddah and his cousin Ali listed as terrorists. The two of them planned attacks against Israeli forces that had taken over their towns. The Jiddahs called it their right to resist.
After serving 17 of those years, he was released early through the Jibril Exchange prisoner swap in 1985. A couple of years later, he was arrested again after joining in the First Intifada, spending another year in prison for what Israel called “renewed activity”.
“We were beaten, clubbed, and tortured,” says Jiddah. Israel maintains that the Palestinian detainees are not prisoners of war, and thus international law does not apply to them. Israeli authorities classify them as criminals and terrorists.
One of the incentives provided by Israeli authorities to prisoners when offering them early release is to be freed at a foreign destination. But Jiddah and most other prisoners refused, saying their only home was Jerusalem.
The occupation not only changed daily life, it also restricted and disrupted movement. Before the Oslo agreement came into effect in 1993, Jiddah could visit the Gaza Strip in an hour and a half. But after Oslo, he was restricted from even travelling there.
He mentions a woman named Fatima who lives in Gaza and whose sister lives in Nablus. The two places are only 160km apart, but the only way they were able to visit each other was to meet in Germany.
“Israel’s expansion by three-fold has become an irreversible physical, and thus political, reality,” explains author and journalist Ramzy Baroud, who is currently a non-resident scholar at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “All of this created a new reality and allowed Israel to keep much of its gains to this day, despite the fact that it violates international law.”
Baroud goes on to say that the legal term 'military occupation' is used by the United Nations to dictate what is expected of occupying powers and their treatment of the occupied.
He adds: "In the case of Israel and the Palestinians, military occupation has now become a permanent occupation."
Jiddah was present during many of the events that unfolded. “Whether it’s my good or bad luck,” he says, “I was there to witness the Aqsa massacre of 1996.
“People were holding a sit-in to protest the building of a tunnel by the Israeli government along the Temple Mount. They were clubbed and beaten. 72 people were shot dead,” he says, pointing to the bullet holes that still remain on the walls of the Dome of the Rock.
Having spent much of his life in prison, Jiddah feels conflicted when asked about his age. “I tell people that I have two ages, 34 and 70. The second for my real age, and the first from the moment I restarted my life after being released from prison.
“I didn’t have a proper education or a job.”
But Jiddah turned a new page. He started taking courses about computing and learning English. He now lives in Beit Hanina and has two grown sons.
“In January, an American lady contacted me to help document the numerous rights violations committed by Israel,” says Jiddah. He now works with the Palestine Human Rights Center, established under the auspices of the Arab Studies Society as an independent, non-governmental organisation.
“We want to charge Israel for its crimes, including killings, torture, prisoner rights violations, house demolitions, illegal deportations, etc.” he says. “We document all human rights violations, both by Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
“The most important thing is not to lose hope. Keep hope alive. Raise your head. Survive.”