Wednesday, July 16, 2008
A date for all occasions
A date for all occasions
Rosemary Behan for THE NATIONAL Last Updated: July 15. 2008
There has to be some reward for enduring the scorching summer heat, and mine, it appears, is to be sitting in an air-conditioned majlis in the heart of the Liwa oasis, eating fresh dates. In front of me sit six exquisite boxes of the pick of this year’s harvest, carefully laid out in order of ripeness. At one end is the khadrawi, smooth, bulging, firm and green, mellowing to an orangey-yellow; in the middle are several varieties of ratb, perfectly half-ripe dates which appear to have been dipped in honey, a golden amber at one end and a translucent red or brown at the other; and at the far end are the tamr, the fully-ripe, sun-dried dates which melt in the mouth and made me almost dizzy with happiness.
Rakan al Qubaisi, the head of the organising committee for the Liwa Festival, grabs a yellow dabass, a variety of date only found in Liwa. “This one is exactly how it should be,” he said, shaking me out of my reverie. “It is exactly half-ripe. It is not flawed in its exterior aspect, and it is large.” He finds another. “This one has no chance,” he says, dismissively. “Its size is small and it’s not even regular in shape. This one has lost 30 points from the start, but the first one, the first one has 40 points already.”
Over the next 17 days, some 7,000 plates of dates will be entered into this fiercely competitive contest; a judging panel of seven will mark each out of 100, with winners walking away with Dh100,000 prizes and brand new cars, from a total prize fund worth Dh5 million. Some 40 points are given for size, 30 points for appearance and 30 points for cleanliness. Taste is only considered in one category of the competition – just as well, given the sheer quantity of fruit.
Dates are big business in Liwa. Known as the “fertile crescent”, the 60 villages and 52 oases around Mezaira’a in the heart of Abu Dhabi’s Western Region produce half of the 760,000 tons grown every year in the UAE. Over the next two weeks, some 8,000 competitors will proffer more than 10 tons of the country’s finest dates and attract in excess of 40,000 spectators. “The objective of this festival is to encourage people in the UAE to grow the best dates, champion dates,” Qubaisi said. The judging will take place in an air-conditioned dining suite while three large warehouse-style tents will house a trade fair.
Only a handful of date varieties, including the coveted khalass, dabass and bumaan, are permitted to enter the competition; other types must go for categories labelled “miscellaneous”. “This is not about good dates. It is about perfect dates,” said Qubaisi, who is not only a date farmer but a veritable connoisseur, as passionate about the UAE’s varieties and their environment as the most committed French oenophile is about grapes.
When it comes to producing a winning date, Qubaisi says size is all-important. “The bigger the date, the better. It should also be perfectly smooth, neat and clean, with no cuts, no scratches. It should be shining.”
The date palm holds a blessed position in Arab society: with its ability to thrive in the searing heat, the tree provides a reliable source of nutrients and valuable shade for the cultivation of other plants. According to an Arabic proverb, the palm tree “has its feet in heaven and its head in hell”.
The Liwa Festival began as a one-day affair four years ago; this year it will involve other activities including a group wedding, Nabati poetry and traditional arts and crafts. Yet dates are still the main focus, and it’s hard to get Qubaisi off the topic. He can, he claims, identify a type of date just by glancing at the tree. “I can also tell you if the tree is male or female,” he adds. “The male palm is slightly larger, it is harsher and more violent on top, and it has only two weeks a year in which to pollinate the females.”
The date palm, or phoenix dactylifera, to give it its botanical name, is dioecious, meaning that trees have either male or female reproductive organs. Only female date palms produce dates, while the male palms provide the pollen. “Between 20 and 30 good males can pollinate about 200 females,” says Qubaisi. First cultivated in Mesopotamia around 4,000 years ago, date palm trees produce fruit when they are between three and five years old, and reach their peak at around 12 years, when they can produce up to 120kg of fruit per season. A single bunch can contain up to 1,000 dates; palms can grow up to 30 metres in height and live productive lives for up to 150 years.
Of the competition judges, four have been drawn from the Date Palm Research and Development Programme at UAE University in Al Ain, two from commercial date companies and one from the Department of the Environment in Abu Dhabi. There will be a prize for the biggest single branch of dates (last year it was a staggering 68kg and won its owner Dh100,000), the most beautiful bunch of dates and even for the cleanest and best-run farm. The biggest plate of dates, at about six metres long and three metres wide, is expected to make it into the Guinness World Records. Import and export companies will trade plants and expertise, young farmers will attend lectures and the UAE University will give away thousands of young date trees artificially propagated in its laboratory, to help boost the country’s production.
The UAE is the world’s fifth-largest date producer, behind Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt and Iran. And although there are currently more than 40 million date palm trees in the country, about 10 for every person, pushing date production further and developing the inland regions is a central plank of government policy. The figures for date production in the UAE have risen in line with the country’s development: in 1971, the year the UAE was established, production stood at just 8,000 tons a year; in 2005 it was over three-quarters of a million tons, with massive exports to countries such as India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan.
Most of the dates produced and sold in the UAE are ratb, soft and moist at one end and crunchy at the other. Yet I preferred the divine, fully-ripe khalass. As Qubaisi tries to interest me in some handmade baskets and satchels, made in the traditional way from rolled and flattened palm leaves and date branches, my mind drifts back inexorably to the box at the other end of the room and the soft, moist, silkily fibrous flesh with an almost-juicy sweetness. Had I not been in the company of Qubaisi’s friends and family, I would have finished the box entirely. But it’s as if Qubaisi can read my mind. “The khalass means the final one, because it’s the best of the best. There are some dates where you would take one but you wouldn’t take another, but there are ones where you’d eat a whole box and you’d still want more, though you’d need an ambulance to get you out.”
Considering the fact that dates contain 3,000 calories per kilo, six times as many as oranges and three times more than bananas, that’s not an unrealistic possibility. Yet before the discovery of oil and when food was scarce, dates and camel milk were staple foodstuffs to the UAE’s native Bedouin population. It wasn’t an unhealthy diet: nutritionally, dates are one of the world’s most complete foods, containing carbohydrates, protein, vitamins A, B and D, iron, magnesium, calcium and potassium. Dates are also around 75 per cent sugar, a higher percentage than most fruit. In some Saharan countries, the fruit still provides vital sustenance in a largely barren desert landscape, and according to UAE University’s research programme, the average annual per capita consumption of dates in date-producing countries is between 150 and 185kg a year.
Reclining in the majlis, which is also known as a palm-hut, or arish, I enjoy views over a large wooden veranda across a palm canopy to the sandy hills of Liwa. While this is a large, permanent arish, with air-conditioning, a widescreen television and modern bathroom facilities, it is still made mostly of date palm material – its wood, leaves and branches woven together to form the roof, the internal covers and the rope tying it all together. Traditional Bedouin, who had no use for permanent housing, used to build similar makeshift shelters and live in them during the hot summer months. Qubaisi laments the loss of traditional crafts, but hopes to revive interest in these skills by awarding cash prizes to women who continue the tradition. He shows me a saroud, a traditional mat made out of woven palm fibres, and a methben, a basket which used to be used to carry male flowers to pollinate the female trees. Then he shows me a wooden clothes airer complete with an oud burner to perfume the garments from underneath – yet sadly even he cannot remember its name.
According to Qubaisi, today’s highly developed competition started in an oasis majlis just like the arish we are sitting in now. Until four years ago, the date festival was an unofficial “battle between majlises”. Qubaisi’s own son Abdullah, nine, who has his own date farm, won a car at last year’s festival for one of his submissions. But isn’t there a lot of in-fighting over who does and does not win prizes? “Not any more,” Qubaisi says. “There used to be fights over who won prizes, but this was before when it was tribe against tribe. If the judging team was from one family there would be trouble. But now all the dates are submitted anonymously – they are all transferred to plates of the same design and are barcoded, and we make sure that the judging committee is recruited from outside Liwa.”
Mohammed Musa Salem al Qubaisi , a beautifully wizened date farmer, remembers a time when the date industry wasn’t streamlined at all. Now 85 or 91 (he claims not to know his exact age), Mohamad started working on his family’s date farm at the age of 10, long before the UAE was created. “Life was very hard,” he tells me. “The people then were real fighters. None of this was here. Before planting a date palm you had to dig down 30 metres to make sure there was water there.” As if his work on the farm was not enough, Mohamad also used to spend five months of the year as a pearl diver off the coast of Abu Dhabi. “I had no money. I used to trade pearls at sea with merchants from all over the Gulf, including Iran. I used to spend the summer on the seashore and the rest of the year working in the oasis. Things got easier after Sheikh Zayed redistributed the land around here in the 1970s and brought roads and electricity.”
In today’s world of piped water and hybrid trees grown in tissue culture laboratories, Mohamed’s experiences seem to chart several lifetimes. Yet although Emirati society has moved on since his working days, and many of the cottage industries related to date production have all but died out, date farming is still a bastion of traditional values. “For me, dates are more than just a business,” Rakan al Qubaisi says. “It’s a passion. Nowadays everybody is looking for immediate profit but you can see from the dates that the best things take time. My parents used to work the land and my kids will do the same.”