Ata Suleiman is home from the fields for his lunch break. He is tall and slim, older looking than his 50 years. He manages to look dignified in a combination of Arab headdress and long robe over a faded Western suit jacket.
"We own our land. We are farmers," he says proudly, pointing beyond the veranda of his simple clay and straw home. Beyond lies a broad hillside dotted with similar houses and cultivated fields. Not far away is the monastery that marks the spot where Jesus was said to have been tempted by the devil.
Near the veranda, in an open-air wood shack kitchen, Suleiman's sister-in-law is baking pizza-like saj bread using a wood fire. His wife is cooking chicken in a metal pot.
It might be a typical Arab scene in this Jordan Valley area a few miles from the Dead Sea, part of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. But there is one exception: Ata Suleiman and his family, as well as the hundreds of others in this hillside community, are black.
The residents of the Duk (pronounced duke), the name for their neighborhood a mile west of Jericho, have lived here as a self-segregated subculture for at least 150 years. With rare exception they have married among themselves, perpetuating the physical characteristics that distinguish them from their fellow Arab neighbors. Estimates of their number vary from 1,000 to 3,000, but they have never been counted. Other, smaller communities are located to the north of Jericho and to the east in Jordan.
The black Arabs have no tribal memories. They have no record of their origins. They consider themselves simply Moslem Arabs who happen to be black.
"I don't know how we came," Suleiman says. "We are here for hundreds of years, my father, my grandfather. It's hard for me to remember."
Because of this absence of tribal history, the group has attracted scant scholarly interest. Gideon Kressel, an anthropologist who knows the black Arabs peripherally through his study of Bedouins, said they were slaves imported by conquering Egyptians who invaded the area. The slaves may have originated in Sudan, Chad, Senegal or even Nigeria, and might well be from tribal groups similar to American blacks.
The slaves were not brought in tribal groups, said Kressel, and as a result quickly forgot their native languages and history. "They were Arabized, adapting the Arab religion and language."
At some point the black Arabs gained freedom and came into possession of the farmland they still own and cultivate. Held together by family ties and social relations as much as by color, they are separate from, yet part of the larger Arab culture.
They live a kind of dual existence, maintaining their own social conventions and structure and interacting with the larger community.
Duk children go to Arab schools run by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency. Duk farmers sell their goods in the Jericho market. Duk residents use town hospitals and clinics. Yet the community has its own village chief. Social conflicts and even crimes are adjudicated by an internal council of elders.
"We don't respect the decision of the police or any other body over that of our elders," Suleiman says.
Although blacks are still referred to in the Arab language as abd, literally "slave," the members of the Duk stoutly reject any suggestion of unequal treatment or discrimination.
"The Islamic religion doesn't differentiate between black and white," says Ata. "On Friday, in one rank, the blacks and whites pray to God in the mosque of Jericho together."
After a savory lunch of chicken and Arab salad, Suleiman guides visitors through his home--a bare but large interior of three rooms. As with most Duk homes, there is no electricity or plumbing. Water comes from a mountain spring that empties across the dirt road from the Suleiman house.
Farming is accomplished in this desert region by irrigation from well water. Only recently have the Duk reidents switched from primitive methods to tractors and other equipment.
Ata Suleiman rents his tractor from one of the wealthier Duk families to cultivate crops including tomatoes, eggplant, lentils, squash, wheat, corn and bananas.
Suleiman says that life here is marginal, although his large family of sisters, brothers, nieces and nephews look healthy, well-fed and well-dressed.
"I work my own land. We have 80 dunams [20 acres], me and my two brothers. But we need laborers to plow the land, and the cost of labor is high. That, along with other high costs of living and a large family means that we don't save anything. We are surviving."
Partly because of the slim return in agriculture, broad social changes are happening to the Duk residents, including the Suleiman family. Some young Duk members are getting advanced schooling, high school and above, leaving the farm and taking white collar jobs in Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Ata's younger brother Mohammed, 35, spent two years in college in Beirut, worked as a clerk in Jordan and in Jericho, then opened his own business typing documents in Jericho for Arabs in the area's multigovernment bureaucracies.
By Duk's standards, Mohammed is prosperous. Tall, husky, dressed in a parka, crew sweater and suede slacks, he easily could pass for a Washington lawyer during leisure hours. His home, at the edge of the Duk, is quite primitive by Western standards, but it has electricity, plumbing, a washing machine and large black-and-white television set.
On his television, Mohammed gets glimpses of life in America, including not long ago a segment of "Roots."
"He was running away, and dogs were running him down," he recalls in halting English. "And he was tied with chains. It was very, very sad." Mohammed is also pained by the popular media depiction of blacks in the United States. "Why do all the black people seem to be killers and thieves? Smoking hashish and drugs and things like that?"
Mohammed knows little about his own roots. He is more concerned with the present and the future, improving things for himself, his wife and three children. Even more upwardly mobile is another, younger brother, Said, 25. Said is visiting home from Jordan, where he works as a designer and foreman of greenhouses for a large exporter of roses and carnations.
Said, wearing a stylish blue suit and striped shirt, says his job pays him the equivalent of $720 a month, a considerable sum by most Middle East standards. He is engaged to a light-skinned Arab woman in Jordan. He may travel to Spain for his boss, who sells roses to that country. And, he says, he is being courted by companies in Saudi Arabia to take work there.
But Said's dream is eventually to come home to the Duk and start a business here. The centuries-old ties of family, friends and land that have sustained this community also draw him back.
"I want to start a flower farm here," says Said. "I'll grow roses and carnations and export them to the United States. I'm a farmer, and this is my land, my village and my family."