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How the watermelon became a symbol of Palestinian resistance

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Since the war between Israel and Hamas began, people have shown support for Palestinians with images or emojis of watermelons.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Watermelons are grown in Gaza and the West Bank, and like the Palestinian flag, they are red, white, black and green.

MARTÍNEZ: The watermelon has long been an emblem of Palestinian solidarity and resistance in the occupied territories where displays of the Palestinian flag are often restricted or banned by Israel. Art researcher Laila Jadallah says it's also symbolizing life under occupation.

LAILA JADALLAH: When the colors of the Palestinian flag were banned not only as a physical representation of Palestinian nationalism but also in art, we see the watermelon keep appearing in Palestinian art and more broadly because the same issues of censorship have continued through this day.

MARTIN: Palestinian artist Sliman Mansour recalls facing censorship when he and other artists tried to exhibit their work in the 1980s. He says the inspiration for using the watermelon symbol came from an Israeli official who gave them two orders.

SLIMAN MANSOUR: We are not allowed to make any exhibition unless you get the permission from them to exhibit the works, and we are not allowed to paint in red, green, black and white.

MARTÍNEZ: Mansour says a fellow artist asked what would happen if he painted a flower in those colors.

MANSOUR: Then that will get us - then we will confiscate it. Even if you paint a watermelon, we will confiscate it.

MARTIN: To test the limits of that edict, the watermelon became a protest against occupation.

MANSOUR: It's created a kind of sensation among artists, you know, like forbidding artists to paint in certain colors. So we had a lot of support from many artists from the world and also from Israeli artists.

MARTÍNEZ: Mansour says his work focused on Palestinian culture, not politics, until he was detained by Israeli officials.

MANSOUR: Well, it was to intimidate me and to tell me that they have their eye on me. I learned a lot, you know, from going through the interrogation and having a bag on my head and my hands handcuffed behind me and standing, like, 24 hours without food, without drink, without anything.

MARTIN: After that, Mansour says, he started painting watermelons.

MANSOUR: It broadens your mind as somebody living under occupation, and maybe it drives you to do things that otherwise, if you live in - very nicely under occupation, then as an artist, you wouldn't do it.

MARTÍNEZ: Despite efforts to crack down on displays of the Palestinian flag and his colors, Mansour says the watermelon symbol will endure.

MANSOUR: As long as the occupation goes on it will stay on.

MARTÍNEZ: For more stories and perspectives on the conflict visit npr.org/middleeast.

(SOUNDBITE OF SID SOUTHSIDE'S "BIRDS IN A TREE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.