I write this blog belatedly about a visit to the Old City of Jerusalem and Yasser Qous, an Afro-Palestinian who runs a youth center in a cavernous stone structure dating back to the twelfth century. And because this is about two visits in June that now feel like a decade ago, I need to acknowledge the murder of the three Hebron settler youth and the frightening revenge/pogrom- like behavior that now characterizes the Israeli military and some of its citizens. Perhaps if you get to know some of the folks who are now at risk (I.e., any Palestinian), although they were at risk before, it was just more invisible, you too will be filled with dread and worry and horror.
Yasser Qous is wearing a dashiki and has a warm, open face, a shaved head, and a rolled cigarette in his mouth. He is dark, has very expressive hands, and an intelligent, laid back manner. He says, “The Old City is like our house,” and welcomes us as if we are his personal guests. He grew up here, became active as a student at Bethlehem University, his father came from Chad in 1952. He works with city youth doing photography and alternative media, and he is involved in psychosocial interventions around issues like drugs and sexual abuse. He comments that there are no addiction treatment centers, that drug use is a symptom of hopelessness and lack of opportunity, and thus it is a political problem. His program is preventive rather than treatment-oriented. He finds that the Israeli government is only concerned with drug use when it starts affecting Jewish youth. There are the usual stories of house demolitions and a new policy of house arrest for teens.
We see a drop-in caf? with sprawling couches, drinks, and ice cream, and a TV that is nonstop World Cup. He is very excited about the upcoming Ramadan events; there is a competition between neighborhoods for the best light decorations. (The Old City is starting to look a bit like Christmas in Queens.) He explains that the rituals of Ramadan include all night celebrations with Sufi dancing and music, followed by quiet (thirsty) days. I am told that hunger is less of an issue around day three of the fast, which lasts from the morning prayer (three to four-ish a.m.) until sunset (in the unforgiving Mediterranean heat).
Since unemployment is such a huge problem in East Jerusalem (60% poverty rate for Palestinians in East Jerusalem), the center is involved in training and supporting small business. They are part of a tourism coalition that sells handicrafts, but the crafts are all from Nablus and Hebron. “What is the East Jerusalem identity?” he asks. The center is involved in reviving East Jerusalem handicrafts based on research and training. They have a good relationship with a French development agency and an upcoming project involves supporting ten street sellers (they all need permission from Israel). Twenty youth will be trained to create a photo studio on Al-Wad Street (the main street); they will take photos of the Old City and sell them, create and sell handmade accessories, and do alternative, socially oriented tours from four p.m. To midnight. They also do art and music, have a band, dance dabke (traditional Palestinian dance), hip-hop, and Brazilian capoeira. They have made good relationships with African American students from the United States and did an event for a South African representative.
Yasser explains that most Africans came in the fifteenth century to Jerusalem as Muslim pilgrims on the hajj (to pray at Mecca and Al Aqsa), but many settled here, particularly towards the end of the Ottoman Empire and during the British Mandate when it became more difficult to go home. This youth center was previously a prison after the Arab revolt, before that a compound/hospice called a ribat [see Wikipedia: “a ribat (Arabic: ???? ) riba?t, hospice, hostel, base or retreat? These fortifications later served to protect commercial routes, and as centers for isolated Muslim communities.
Ribats were first seen in the 8th century.”]. This compound is the oldest ribat in Jerusalem, founded by a Mamluk sultan who brought slaves from Egypt.
With the British Mandate, the property went to the Mufti and the African community settled here. After 1948, half left to Jordan, some to Lebanon, and others to Jericho, Tulkarem, Khan Younis in Gaza, and the Negev. There are now 350 mostly Afro- Palestinians in Jerusalem out of a total 183,000 Palestinians in the East Jerusalem municipality; they call themselves “coconuts,” Black outside, Palestinian inside. Their main connection with each other lies with the hajj. They have been part of Palestinian resistance, martyrs in all the wars, and many have been imprisoned. The first female political prisoner was Afro-Palestinian and she spent thirteen years incarcerated. The neighborhood is subjected to frequent collective punishment at the hands of Israeli security. Many have intermarried with Palestinians; “marriage is between families, not individuals; we want someone from the same class.” They are proud of their roots but not well-connected to Africa, are Muslims and Christians, and face discrimination (Black, Palestinian, lower class) and high unemployment in Jerusalem. Most are from Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan, and Chad.
A week later, he takes the delegation on a tour of East Jerusalem, through the many Muslim and Christian sites. Warning: I find religion very problematic here. We are talking the BIG ONES like the Fourteen Stations of the Cross and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher?where Christ was crucified, for the Jews and atheists and generally uninformed in the group. We are swarmed with teeming Christians of all colors and stripes, each tour in different colored tee shirts or hats; they are obviously deeply moved by the religious holiness experience that seeps in everywhere in this ancient, complicated city. Interesting tidbit: by legal tradition, a Muslim family opens and closes the Church of the Holy Sepulcher each day because there was too much fighting for the honor between the many Christian sects. (Sigh, Christian values?) He keeps advising us to “stay in the shadow” so we won’t get roasted by the sun. A right-wing Jewish group, Ateret Cohanim, which conveniently has established a yeshiva in the Muslim Quarter, using Palestinian collaborators, rents and sells houses to Jews and displaces Palestinians.
(Jewish values? Oops, displacement is the goal). We see four Jewish families in their gated and guarded home, armed guards walk the Jews out of the Muslim Quarter to the Jewish Quarter (which was depopulated of Jews in 1948 when it was taken by the Jordanians).
Yasser explains that not only are these folks expanding into Muslim and Christian sectors (no one else can get permits FYI), but they are creating a Jewish ghetto for themselves. In the Jewish sector, which is obviously well-funded and pristine from an archeological and touristic point of view, along with the arty shops, great jewelry, etc., there is evidence of all the different conquerors who built on top of the preexisting civilizations lo these many centuries. We wander down the Cardo, the ancient Roman market with a multistory excavation that goes deep into the ground. Armed security guards escort herds of young children to their destinations, and I can only think they look like tough teen boy babysitters with guns and walkie talkies and what are the children learning from this daily experience? Life is dangerous and “they” all want to kill us? The abnormal becomes normalized.
The youth center created the Longest Chain of Readers at Damascus Gate, six thousand kids reading books and then donating them to libraries. They were celebrating a kite festival with three hundred children, but the Israeli Defense Forces attacked the event and destroyed the kites. (Do they really have to be this way?)
When Yasser was ten years old he was given a book, Children of Palestine, and the introduction explained that life is like theater, there is the audience and there are the players. It was at that point he decided that he wanted to be a player. Just imagine the dreams that were crushed in those flying kites. So why are kids throwing stones? Wouldn’t you?