The Red, Green, White and Black
One Sunday morning I was doing my weekly grocery in a chain store in New York. It was a busy time, shoppers were picking up items hurriedly. I was randomly picking up my grocery essentials. At one point, I stopped at a large wicker basket that contained watermelons. I was not sure which one to pick up. I had no clue how to check the ripe one. An elderly lady behind me noticed my hesitation. She addressed me “sir’’. I looked back. She asked me if I needed help. I answered “yes”, and then I asked her, “how to check the ripe one”? She said, “measure the in between gap of the two white stripes on its body. If the gap is about two fingers —it is ripe”. I learned this measuring technique, and tried this learning a few times on different days. Later, I forgot about it.
Until 7th October, I even did not think about watermelon. But it came back with fury and sound that are being constantly produced by the horrific pictures of human sufferings. This is real and taking place every moment in Gaza. And I am constantly being reminded of the ripe watermelon after seeing the hundreds of flags of watermelon — flags of protest on the streets of New York. I see them almost every Saturday and Sunday. They are in all the boroughs of New York keeping Manhattan — the headquarter of the United Nations — in focus. People from all walks of life attending the protest rallies holding the flags of Palestine — a symbol of protest — colours of protest. This protest has a rich history of resistance struggle and is expressed in many performative forms. Performative because it promises performances and it also invites for actions. If we look at the history of their protest that was expressed in various forms, we will notice how a nation of a few millions constantly invented the forms of protests to encounter the oppressors. Watermelon is one of them.
In 1967, the government of Israel banned the Palestinian flag. After seizing the control of West Bank, Gaza and annexed East Jerusalem, the government of Israel used a military order to ban the display of Palestinian flag in Gaza and West Bank. The Palestinians were not allowed to display their national flag. But that did not stop the Palestinians from holding the four colours — red, green, white and black — the colours of watermelon. When the watermelon is cut into slices, each slice displays the colour of the Palestinian flag — the watermelon flesh displays red, seeds display black. the rind displays white and the outer skin displays green — the patriotic colours of the Palestinians. Watermelon was first used as a symbolic expression of the protest by the Palestinians in 1967 and has continued to be used today. Israel lifted the ban on the flag in 1993 as part of the Oslo accords. The flag was accepted as representing the Palestinian authority.
In 2007, artist Khalid Hourani created The Story of the Watermelon for a book titled Subjective Atlas of Palestine. In 2013, he isolated one print and named it The Colours of the Palestinian Flag. Since then the watermelon —the red, green, white and black coloured fruit held in hand — depicted in posters became a way of protest for the Palestinians and their supporters all over the world. This action of depicting watermelon in posters and social media sends the dual message of an enactment of protest and an invitation to perform protest.
In January 2023, Israel’s National Security minister granted police the power to confiscate the Palestinian flags if seen. In June 2023, Arab-Israeli community organization began protest campaign against the arrest and confiscation of the Palestinian flags. One of the unique ways of the protest was to carry the photographic image of watermelon on the body of taxis operating in Tel Aviv. These taxis moved through the streets of Tel Aviv carrying the image of the flag in watermelon — the flag that stands for the call to protest against the oppression and to participate in the resistance struggle simultaneously.
Whenever the Palestinians were not allowed to express their protest, they invented alternative ways to express themselves. Watermelon is one of the unique ways to express the aspirations of a nation whose sufferings were always invisible and unheard in the western world. Narratives of holocaust, 911 and ISIS have been dominating the western media and academic world of scholarship, but Palestine was and is hardly mentioned in that part of the world. It reminds me of a class that I attended (as a student) at New York University long ago. It was a core class of Orature (oral literature: the everyday orality of narratives), and the professor was NgugiwaThiong’o. One of my class mates (Jewish by faith) presented a paper on Orature that narrated the oral history of their personal experience of the concentration camp. She mentioned that the tradition of telling the story of torture ran in their family for generations. And this practice of documenting the history orally began in the concentration camp where they did not have access to pen and paper. She informed the class that they learned this from their older generations who were imprisoned in Hitler’s time.
This is a lesson to remember and to pass on. If so, then time will come when children of present-day Gaza will pass on the history of modern-day ethnic cleansing to the future Palestinians. And the watermelon — the red, green, white and black will also remain as the symbol of resistance as the Palestinian Keffiyeh — an iconic black and white patterned scarf — does. The time is closing and the gap between the two stripes to check the ripe watermelon is also becoming visible.
Dr. Saleque Khan is a New York-based writer.