‘Batikh’: The Arabic word for watermelon is also a symbol of identity and pride

It can also be used colloquially to mean silliness or unprofessionalism

The Arabic word for watermelon, batikh, could has become a symbol of Palestine. The National
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In his 1894 novel Pudd'nhead Wilson, the American novelist Mark Twain writes: "When one has tasted watermelon, he knows what the angels eat."

More than 100 years later, English pop star Harry Styles sings about the sweetness of life in his hit single Watermelon Sugar.

And even within that period, this week’s Arabic word of the week "batikh", has come to symbolise more than a delicious, sweet fruit.

In traditional Arabic, batikh is the official word for the plural of watermelon. A singular watermelon in classical Arabic is batikha. However, colloquially in most Arabic dialects, batikh is used to mean a singular watermelon.

While batikh is understood to mean watermelon in Arabic, other words refer to the fruit. For example, in Yemen, the word habhab is used. In Iraq, it's raggie. And in Libya, it's dila’a.

It’s not completely clear whether batikh is a word that found its way into Arabic from Aramaic, or if it was conceived within Arabic itself. There are at least two Arabic words batikh could have derived from.

The first is the verb tabatakha, which means someone who is eating a watermelon, though it’s possible this word came from the word batikh given the specificity of its action.

The second word is batakha, made up of the three Arabic letters Bah, Tah and Kha, which means to lick something. Given watermelon is a juicy fruit it would make sense if batikh was derived from this meaning.

Officially, batikh references a seasonal leaf plant that grows and spreads on the ground as opposed to on a tree or bush. It produces large, oval-shaped fruit that can come in a variety of sizes and colours from green to yellow.

Batikh thrive in hot, dry climates and are sensitive to cold temperatures. This makes them a seasonal fruit available in summer or spring, which has led them to become universally associated with fun and prosperity.

There are a variety of Arabic salads that include watermelon but more traditionally across many countries in the region, watermelon is enjoyed with various types of cheese, fresh mint leaves and bread, as a breakfast or snack.

Interestingly, in some Arabic dialects, there are also negative connotations when the word batikh is used in a different context colloquially. It can mean unprofessional, unorganised, silliness or something negative.

For example, if a mechanic did a poor job at fixing a car, one can say when asked about the result of the work, that it was batikh. While Lebanese singer Fares Karim’s song titled Bala Hob Bala Batikh translates to "No Love, No Watermelon". The title of the song would be a response from a person to their ex-partner or someone who isn’t serious about the love they are professing. The response emphasises that someone isn’t interested in love on offer.

Batikh also has a rich and important history as a symbol of Palestinian resistance.

After the 1967 war, when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza, the Israeli government at that time banned public displays of the Palestinian flag and its colours.

To bypass this rule, Palestinians began using watermelons as a symbol of national pride and resistance.

This is simply because when sliced open, watermelons display the colours of the Palestinian flag. The red in the flag is seen in the watermelon flesh, black in the seeds, the white rind of the fruit and the green in the outer skin.

Even though the ban on the flag was lifted in 1993 as part of the Oslo Accords, the watermelon has remained a symbol of Palestine’s identity. It is used in art, design, fashion and social media as a point of advocacy both online and offline to amplify Palestinian voices and their cause.

Updated: May 19, 2024, 4:14 AM