01/04/2024 mintpressnews.com  9 min 🇬🇧 #245971

On Keffiyeh and Watermelon - Revealing the Meaning of Palestinian Symbols

 Ramzy Baroud  

Those who admonish Palestinian Resistance, armed or otherwise, have little understanding of the psychological ramifications of resistance, such as a sense of collective empowerment, honor and hope.

But resistance is not just a rifle or a rocket launcher. The latter are but one manifestation of resistance, and if not backed by strong popular support, they hardly have much impact.

Indeed, all forms of sustainable resistance have to be rooted in culture, which helps it generate new meanings over time.

In the case of the Palestinian struggle, the concept of resistance is multifaceted and strongly embedded in the collective psyche of generations of Palestinians, which allows it to surpass the ideological and political confines of factions and political groups.

Though the symbols of this resistance - for example, the keffiyeh, the flag, the map and the key - are part of this generation of meanings, they are mere signifiers of ideas, beliefs and values that are truly profound.

No matter how hard Israel has tried to discredit, ban or recounter these symbols, it has failed and will continue to fail.

In the early 2000s, for example, Israeli fashion designers  created what were supposed to be Israeli kuffiyehs. From a distance, the Israeli scarves looked similar to the Palestinian traditional scarves, except that they were mostly blue. At a closer look, one would be able to decipher that the Israeli replica of the Palestinian national symbol is often a clever manipulation of the Star of David.

This could easily be classified under the banner of cultural appropriation. In actuality, it is far more complex.

Palestinians did not invent the keffiyeh, or hatta, one of the most common neck or even head scarves throughout the Middle East. But they did take ownership of it, giving it deeper meanings-dissent, revolution, unity.

The keffiyeh's prominence was partly compelled by Israel's own actions and restrictions.

After occupying the remainder of historic Palestine, namely East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, Israel immediately banned the Palestinian flag. That ban was part of a much larger restrictive campaign aimed at preventing Palestinians from expressing their political aspirations, even if symbolic.

What the Israeli military administration could not prevent was the use of the keffiyeh, which was a staple in every Palestinian home. Subsequently, the keffiyeh quickly became the new symbol of Palestinian nationhood and resistance, at times even replacing the now-banned flag.

The history of the keffiyeh goes back many years before the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of historic Palestine by Zionist militias in 1947-48.

In fact, if one examines any revolt in Palestine's modern history, from the 1936-39 Palestinian strike and rebellion to Palestinian resistance during the Nakba to the Fedayeen movement in the early 1950s, all the way to the present, the keffiyeh has  featured prominently as arguably the most important Palestinian symbol.

Yet, the real rise of the keffiyeh as the symbol of global solidarity with Palestine and the Palestinians did not become a truly international phenomenon until the First Intifada in 1987. It was then that the world watched in awe an empowered generation only armed with rocks facing the well-equipped Israeli army.

|Palestinian protesters wearing keffiyehs hurl rocks at occupying Israeli soldiers in Nablus, Jan. 16, 1988. Max Nash

Two Types of Symbols

It is worth noting that when we talk about the 'symbolism' of Palestinian cultural symbols and counter-Israeli cultural symbols, we refer to two types of symbols: one laden with intangible, although quintessential representations-for example, the watermelon-and another with tangible and consequential representations-for example, the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque is a symbol of Palestinian spirituality, history, and nationalism, and it is also an actual physical structure located in an occupied Palestinian city, Al-Quds, East Jerusalem. For many years, Israel has perceived the Mosque with alarm, countering the Palestinian claim by alleging that, beneath Al-Aqsa, there lie the ruins of the Jewish Temple, whose resurrection is critical for Jewish spirituality and purification.

Therefore, Al-Aqsa cannot be considered a mere symbol, serving the role of a political representation. On the contrary, it has grown in terms of imports to carry a much more profound meaning in the Palestinian struggle. It would not be an exaggeration to argue that the survival of Al-Aqsa is now directly linked to the very survival of the Palestinian people as a nation.

According to renowned Swiss linguist Fernand de Saussure, every sign or symbol is  composed of a 'signifier', meaning the form that the sign takes, and the 'signified', the concept that it represents.

For example, although a map is commonly defined as the geographic representation of an area or a territory merely showing physical features and certain characteristics of the place, it can take on a different 'signified' when the territory or land in question is an occupied one, as Palestine is. Therefore, the physical representation of Palestine's borders became, with time, a powerful symbol, reflecting the injustice inflicted upon the Palestinian people throughout history.

The same process was applied to the keys belonging to those very refugees, the victims of Israel's ethnic cleansing of Palestine. The only difference is that while the villages existed and then ceased to exist, the key existed as a physical object before and after the Nakba. The house and the door are, perhaps, gone, but there is a physical key that still, symbolically, unlocks the dichotomy of the past, with the hope of, one day, restoring the door and the house as well.

In view of this, the segment of land stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea ceased to be just sand, water, grass, and stones and became a representation of something else entirely.

It must be denoted that the slogan 'From the River to the Sea' neither references actual topography nor politics. It is based on the understanding that a disruptive historical event has wrought a great deal of injustice, pain and hurt to historic Palestine. Confronting this injustice cannot be segmented, and it must take place through a wholesome process that would allow the land but, more importantly, the native inhabitants of that land to restore their dignity, rights and freedom.

Watermelons and Red Triangles

Some symbols, although employed even before the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Flood Operation, became far more popular after October 7. The watermelon, for example, has been used repeatedly throughout Palestine's modern history, specifically when Israel banned the ownership or display of the Palestinian flag. The fruit itself, aside from being a symbol of the richness of the land of Palestine, also features the same colors as the flag: black, red, white, and green.

Another related symbol is the red triangle. A small red triangle began appearing as a functional tool in videos produced by the Al-Qassam Brigades, merely to point at a specific Israeli military target before it was struck by a Yassin 105 an RPJ shell or any other.

With time, however, the red triangle began acquiring a new meaning, regardless of whether it was intended by the designers of the Qassam videos.

Some connected the red triangle as a symbol to the Palestinian flag, particularly to the red triangle on the left, situated over the white color, between black and green. In truth, the origins of the small red triangle do not matter. Like other Palestinian symbols, it, too, has the generative power to accumulate new meanings over time.

Culture and Counter-culture

Like the 'Israeli keffiyeh,' Israel has tried to counter Palestinian culture. They did so mostly by devising laws to prohibit Palestinians from communicating or embracing their cultural symbols.

Another tactic that Israel used was claiming Palestinian symbols as if their own. This is quite common in clothes, food and music. When Israel hosted the Miss Universe Beauty Pageant in 2021, contestants were  taken to the Arab Bedouin city of Rahat. Being obviously unaware that Bedouin culture, with its embroidered clothes, food, music and numerous cultural manifestations, is a uniquely Palestinian Arab culture, beauty pageants took to social media to express their excitement about being part of "a day in the life of a Bedouin," with the hashtag #visit_israel.

Such episodes may highlight the degree of deception on the part of Israel but also expose, to a large extent, Israel's feeling of cultural inferiority. A quick examination of Israeli symbols, whether it is the flag with the star of David, the Lion of Judah or national war  songs, such as Harbu Darbu, seem to be largely extracted from biblical references and religious heroics that have existed even prior to the existence of Israel itself.

And, while Palestinian symbols reflect the desire of Palestinians to return to the land of their ancestors and to reclaim the rights and justice that they have been long denied, Israeli symbols seem to lay claims - ancient, religious, unverifiable merely. If this reflects anything, it tells us that, despite nearly a century of Zionist colonialism and 75 years of official existence as a state, Israel has failed to connect to the land of Palestine, to the cultures of the Middle East, let alone carve for itself a place in the yet to be written history of the region, a history that will surely be written by the native inhabitants of that land, the Palestinian people.

Feature photo |Illustration by MintPress

Romana Rubeo is an Italian writer and the managing editor of The Palestine Chronicle. Her articles appeared in many online newspapers and academic journals. She holds a Master's Degree in Foreign Languages and Literature and specializes in audio-visual and journalism translation.

Dr. Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and the Editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of six books. His latest book, co-edited with Ilan Pappé, is ' Our Vision for Liberation: Engaged Palestinian Leaders and Intellectuals Speak Out'. His other books include 'My Father was a Freedom Fighter' and 'The Last Earth'. Baroud is a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA). His website is  www.ramzybaroud.net