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This is Not a Watermelon: A Brooklyn-Palestine Solidarity Event in Dialogue with Protest Art

Issue 280

'Making sure we remember every possible way — through education, through music, through dance, through art — is a part of resistance.'

Lara-Nour Walton Jun 1, 2023

Her hijab was peach-colored but Nerdeen Kiswani spoke of watermelon. In the black of its seeds, the green and white of its rinds, and the crimson of its flesh, Palestinians do not merely see a fruit, Kiswani told an intrigued audience. They see their flag.

She explained this before a wall plastered with political posters in a small art space drenched in the warm glow of sunset. Around two dozen Palestinian-American organizers and their supporters gathered in The Empty Circle in Park Slope to hear Kiswani present an oral history of Palestinian organizing in Brooklyn at Kyle Goen’s exhibition, “Let Art Be Training in the Practice of Freedom.”

All photos by Amba Guerguerian.

The exhibition featured an array of material referencing the political work of Within Our Lifetime and Decolonize This Place. Custom shirts hung on a clothing rack — tags emblazoned with the words of poet Fred Moten. Zines titled “General Strike” and “Palestine, BLM & Boycott in the Arts” were on display. Malcolm X’s  “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech spun on a record player in the middle of the room, chosen from a curated selection of vinyls. Outside the gallery lying on the sidewalk, a large protest banner declared “Globalize the Intifada” to passersby. 

The May 26 event was coordinated by Within Our Lifetime. WOL is a Bay-Ridge-based grassroots organization fighting for Palestinian liberation. It was founded in 2015 by a group of young Palestinians living in New York, including Kiswani, who is the group’s chair.

Kiswani used Goen’s selection of WOL posters to guide her through a narration of Palestinian organizing in Brooklyn and beyond. She motioned to one such flier boasting iconography reminiscent of watermelons. “Even in Palestine, the Palestinian flag was made illegal,” she informed attendees. In 1967, Israel prohibited the display of the Palestinian flag or its colors — red, black, and green — within occupied Palestine. “Palestinians would incorporate the colors of the flags into the[ir] artwork, which was then also made illegal… So some started drawing watermelons.” The succulent summer fruit has become a transgressive symbol adopted by #FreePalestine protesters globally — including WOL activists here in New York, who passed out watermelon slices at a  Nakba 75 commemoration protest earlier this month.

Although the flag was legalized during the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, it has remained a threatened — there are currently a handful of bills pending in the Knesset to ban the Palestinian flag in various forms.

For Kiswani and the surrounding flock of young Palestinian organizers, the subversive depiction of the flag’s colors represents a larger artistic movement — one of everyday resistance. “We didn’t choose to be here. We didn’t choose to be exiled from our homeland. But, that shouldn’t mean that our history, our practices are gonna be erased,” she said. “Making sure we remember every possible way — through education, through music, through dance, through art — is a part of resistance.”

Kiswani’s words mesh with Goen’s artistic philosophy, who sees his political art as a precursor of direct action. He told The Indypendent that art should be a site for justice. “My work does not stand in for struggle, (it) is in service of struggle,” he added. 

WOL members recognize the galvanizing properties of Goen’s art. Nabila, an organizer with the group, remarked that “because of (Goen) and all the artwork that he does, we are able to bring people to our events, have speakers and media come. As a result, WOL becomes a collective movement with a creative approach to keeping our history and memory alive.” 

WOL’s historical and artistic event commemorated the long tradition of local Palestine activism — Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge neighborhood is home to one of the largest Arab-American communities nationwide. One of the first pro-Palestine protests in the United States took place in Brooklyn, Kiswani explained. (The Nov. 9, 1918 demonstration, which, according to The New York Times, saw a turnout of around 500 people, decried mass Palestinian displacement at the hands of a Zionist incursion; it took place one year after the British government issued the Balfour declaration, a public statement promising a Jewish state in Palestine).

WOL’s Nerdeen Kiswani speaks about combatting post-911 stigmas and bolstering Palestinian pride in organizing.

Kiswani then fast-forwarded to modern-day organizing. After 9/11, she says, the United States saw a decline in pro-Palestine action, especially amongst Arab-Americans who felt silenced by the attacks and less secure organizing for Palestine. “We started WOL to revitalize that revolutionary spirit that every Palestinian and Palestine supporter has but did not feel comfortable expressing due to (post-9/11) targeted surveillance and vilification… We wanted to bring Palestine organizing back to Brooklyn.” She stressed that Palestinian-Americans, who do not live under the bombs and bullets of occupation, should never lose sight of the struggle back home. 

Since its founding eight years ago, WOL has hosted many large protests in Manhattan at the Israeli Consulate and United Nations headquarters but centers much of its effort in Bay Ridge. “It’s important to have actions in the neighborhood where so many of us live,” said Kiswani, pointing to the necessity of pro-Palestine action coming from within Palestinian communities themselves. 

In addition to rolling out demonstrations in real time against ongoing Israeli aggression (air raids, deaths of prisoners, ongoing siege of Palestinian neighborhoods, etc.), WOL coordinates a yearly protest commemorating the Nakba, or catastrophe. On that fateful day in 1948, Zionist military forces expelled more than 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and seized 78% of historic Palestine. 

The 2021 Nakba Day protest in Brooklyn, which took place during a month-long Israel-Hamas crisis, was the largest ever, with tens of thousands likely in attendance.

As a people is forced away from their native land, it is not unusual for the displaced to assimilate to the country to which they flee — in effect, abandoning parts of their own culture. Cognizant of this phenomenon, WOL both mobilizes people on the ground in New York City against the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and hosts community events, like traditional Palestinian Dabke dance lessons.

At the May 26 oral history, Kiswani also spoke about the solidarity relationships WOL maintains with other local activist groups. She highlighted the importance of persistent Black support for local and national Palestinian liberation movements. Malcolm X, active in New York from 1943 until his assassination in 1965, was an instrumental champion of the cause. 

His advocacy still resonates with Generation Vote organizer and event attendee Hamilton Brooks, who commented that “growing up Black American with parents who were interested in civil-rights work… I always heard, ‘you don’t have Black liberation without Palestinian liberation,’ and vice versa.” 

During an interview with The Indypendent, Goen wondered, “How do we train for freedom so that when we get freedom, it’s not taken?” 

Kiswani has an answer: popular organizing. 

“In the process of showing our community how much people support Palestine, we cause an irreversible empowerment that nobody can take away from us,” she said. Goen also has his own response: art. But this event proved that those answers can be one and the same.

•   •   • 

Let Art Be Training in the Practice of Freedom” ran April 29–May 27 at The Empty Circle. Click here for more from artist Kyle Goen.

Amba Guerguerian contributed to this report.

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