A date with some dates: UAE fruit festival boasts local culture
To think of these gummy brown chocolate substitutes as just a bunch of fruit would be a mistake...they are so much more
Three hours is a long way to drive to see some dates, regardless of just how good the sticky sweet fruits taste.
But to think of these gummy brown chocolate substitutes as just a bunch of fruit would be a mistake. For one, there are infinite distinctions to be made, with 45 different varieties of date in the UAE alone, according to the operations manager of a month-long date festival in the country, Khamis al-Mazrouei.
While in the English-speaking world a date is a date is a date, in Arabic there are three separate words for the fruit according to what phase of its life cycle it is in – unripe dates that appear in the beginning of January are ‘biser’; half-ripe dates that start changing color in June are called ‘ratab’; and the fully ripened date that comes in myriad shades of red, yellow and green by August is the ‘tamer.’ This is the badger that will become the date, as the outside world knows it, after spending several months drying out and becoming sugary in the sun.
But aside from the complexity of the fruit itself, it is the contribution of the date palm to Emirati – and Bedouin – society that makes them truly special. This is one of the major things Liwa’s annual festival, the 11th edition of which ends on July 30, is intended to mark.
The seed of life
As Mazrouei explains, date palms were the seed of life in the arid desert – not only providing a food source that could be kept year round, but also materials for shelter, boats and weaving.
“We know we have to keep these traditions as much as we can. In our homes, our farms, outside, these trees can be used for so many things, not only as food but as accessories for many things.”
The presence of date palms, of which there are more than 40 million in the UAE - the most found in any one country in the world, were also a helpful flag to indicate nearby stores of fresh water which was often a literal matter of life or death in the hot summer months.
Liwa is blanketed with date farms and while most of the growers who attend the festival, entering competitions like the date beauty contest and the tallest palm tree, do not grow commercially, they are given grants from the government to keep their farms running.
They are also in line for a boon if they find themselves finishing in the top 10 of the dozens of contests, with a stake of the total Dhs4.5 million ($1.2 million) prize money up for grabs. The top prize for the best overall date is Dhs200,000 ($54,000).
A piece of the Dhs4.5 million pie
Maryam al-Mansoori, 23, and her family are at the festival for their fifth time and hopeful of taking home a title.
“We have a good chance to win with the best date title because we have seen the other dates. My cousins and my uncle won previously – they took a car and got money,” she tells me.
Overall, participants are expected to number 2,500 across the different categories, so competition will be stiff.
Mansoori, who is studying IT security at Zayed University, lives in Abu Dhabi with her family but they frequently travel back to their family home and date farm in Liwa.
“It’s very important for us to show the world how important the dates are and how we eat them and take care of the trees,” she says.
The family hire staff who tend the trees and pick the dates when ready – not an easy task on palms that have been known to grow upwards of 20 meters.
“It’s very dangerous to take the dates from the trees, it’s dangerous for the people who go up,” Mansoori said.
The young Emirati woman will spend the week in Liwa with her family, embracing the dates that were once grown by her grandmother and grandfather.
“It’s very interesting to be here at the festival because we show our tradition to other people to give them background about the dates and how they grow and what kind of dates we have, and let them taste it.”
A date with the future
And the festival certainly seems to be bearing fruit, according to operations manager Mazrouei.
He says the idea sprung up to formalize a traditional contest that existed for years amongst Liwa’s date farmers, where they used to pool own money for the cash prize.
“It was a small competition in 2005 but now people from Ajman and the north are coming, it’s getting bigger.”
And as it grows, the quality of dates improves with it – along with the efficiency and environmental-friendliness of the farms.
“Now the people take care more about the farms, it’s more clean, they start to take care of these palms because now I have a competition. If [my neighbor] wins this time, next year I prepare myself to be the best, so I have to take care, keep it clean. The environment of the farms is now completely different.”
The competition rules stipulate that to enter growers need to have implemented water-saving techniques in recognition of the country’s growing water scarcity. Farms are audited and those that don’t meet the criteria are not eligible, he says.
The festivals are also becoming increasingly popular with visitors.
This year Dutch Ambassador Jennes de Mol and his nine-year-old kandura-clad nephew were among Friday’s thronging crowds, after making the trek over from Abu Dhabi.
It was Arabic-speaking de Mol’s first time at the festival, after only arriving in the country a year ago – though he has been to a raft of other heritage festivals.
“I think it’s very nice, I always love these sorts of cultural heritage festivals because they link you to the origins of this country.”
De Mol, who was attending the festival in a private capacity, says while the country is only 44 years old, “it has a very specific history and the flavor of that history you get at these heritage festivals.”
The festival is a reminder of how the country’s palm trees are linked to the “very essence of life” in the UAE, while driving through the desert just to get to Liwa is also a chance for appreciation.
“It’s just gorgeous, it’s amazing. If you do not experience this you have a very limited understanding of Emirati life and there are plenty of opportunities.”
Here are the common varieties of dates founds across the country:
- Khallas: One of the most common commercially-grown dates across the country, the egg-shaped variety is light amber in color when unripe and ripens into a light brown at maturity.
- Dabbas: This common date is a specialty of the Abu Dhabi emirate, comprising half the number of palm trees in places like Al Gharbia, Madinat Zayed and Liwa. The elliptical yellow fruit is ready for harvest by mid-season.
- Farth: Another commercial variety that is common in Abu Dhabi, these dates are a late harvesting fruit that start as yellowish pink, then are light brown when partially ripe, and take on a dark brown shade at maturity.
- Kunaizi: This variety hails from the wetter regions of the country. It starts life as a pink fruit, is light brown when half ripe and turns into a dark shade of red-brown once fully ripened.
- Bou Maan: This fibrous variety is smaller and comes in the shape of an egg, or the shape of a heart. The yellow fruit, which is found primarily across Abu Dhabi, is particularly sweet.