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     The date palm Phoenix dactylifera is so closely linked to life in the Middle East,
that its stylised image is found as logos of many companies and enterprises and
even on national flags.

   There is evidence that the date palm was already used as a food source as long
as 6,500 to 7,000 years ago as date stones have been found in
archaeological excavations. The earliest found so far were two burnt date stones
from Dalma island in 1999 and have been dated by radio-carbon tests to 4670
(+ 130) BC and 5110 + (160 BC). Although it cannot be determined if the stones
were from wild or cultivated dates, they certainly confirm that dates were
being consumed at this early date.  The previous earliest evidence for date palm
remains in the UAE was a date palm imprint, excavated from Hili in Al Ain, which
have been dated to around 3,000 BC. 

    Certainly the original nomadic tribes of the desert
used dates as an easy-to-preserve source of energy.
Lately, the existing date plantations have been
greatly extended. In 1984 the Ministry of Agriculture
and Fisheries reported a total number of 1,850,000 date
palms in the country. By mid-2000 there were 21 million
date palms, occupying 53 % of the cultivated areas.
There are 120 local and imported varieties of dates and
the UAE is home to 20% of the world population of
date palms, producing (in 1999) 240.000 tons of dates!

    The date palm (“nakhl”) can grow up to 150 years
old. It starts bearing fruit when 4 to 5 years old and
can give full crops between 15 and 75 years. Crops can  vary greatly and are usually around 400 lbs. a year, but outstanding crops of
1000 lbs have also been recorded!

    One top grade cluster, measuring up to 1 yard, can bring Dhs. 1000! No wonder the Holy Quran that mentions the date palm no less than 29 times, calls it “the blessed tree”.

    The date groves provide shade for a variety of other crops, such as cotton, maize, citrus fruits, pomegranates, alfalfa, vegetables and wheat.  Mango trees are also often found between the palm trees. Date palms need quite a lot of water, but can be watered once a week in the hot season, while once every three weeks suffices during the cooler months.

    Dates are low in fat and high in carbohydrates, fibre, potassium and vitamins. They can be dried on the stalks or spread out on mats. Date products include syrup, “dibs” (an indigenous honey made from the juice), jam, chutney, vinegar and fermented date juice. They can be pickled or used in breads and cookies.

    Date cultivation is one of the most complex and labour intensive agricultural practices in the world. All the activities necessary to produce a good crop of dates necessitate climbing into the tree (often up to 80 feet high!), usually in hot temperatures.

    Pollination in this part of the world is still mainly done by hand, by hanging strands of the male flower upside down in the female spadix, just as it opens. In other countries such as the USA, where the Spanish missionaries imported the palm trees in the 18th century, pollination is now done with machines. Then follows the thinning of the bunches and later the bagging of the fruit to protect it from birds and bats. Finally the harvesting can begin.

    In this region the most commonly found dates are the yellow “khalas” , the red “khumaizi” and the “lulu”.  King of the dates is the Moroccon “medjool”, which is cured on the tree and contains 50% sugar and 2% each of protein, fat and minerals.

Other types of dates found in the UAE and Oman are:

naghal, manzaj, manhi, qashkantarah, farah (early crops), barni, qashtabaq, handhal amd nebselli (mid-summer crops) and khasab, zabad, hilali, (late crops)

   In Saudi Arabia ruzeiz, kheneizy,  khalas and bukeira are grown in the east, nebutseif, khudairi, sefiri, barhi, sukkari and sullaj are grown in the central region , while anbara, agwa, berni, hilwa, holaya, safawim shalabi and sukkaret are grown in the west. Damaged dates can be used as animal feed, while ground date pits are used as fertilizer and to make charcoal.

    The greatest threat to the health of palm trees is the Red Indian palm weevil (Pseudophilus testaceus), a borer insect that can quickly destroy entire groves. In the past farmers used to hang a local herb called “harmal” in the crown of the trees to keep the pests away, but in latter days crop dusting from planes has been more popular. Another pest is the date bug Asarcopus palmarum, while mites and scale insects can cause quite a lot of damage also. Of course ripe dates are attractive to mice and other rodents as well as birds and bats.

    Propagation of the palm tree can be sexual by way of seeds and asexual by means of offshoots.  Nowadays palm seedlings are often cultivated in laboratories, enabling the production of thousands of new trees per year.

    During the winter months the tree has to be pruned. This is important because it cleans the tree and allows new leaves to grow. It reduces rodent and insect infestation and facilitates harvesting. It also improves crop quality by reducing shade and bruising of the fruit. The harvested leaves can be used to make many products.

    The leaves are often dried, dyed and then plaited into mats, trays or baskets. A large conical “hat” is used locally as a cover for food trays. The wooden midribs are used for roofing, and for making crates and boxes, and with the dried leaves still attached a material, called “areej” or “barasti”, is used to make walls for huts or fencing. In the past the midribs were also used to make the “gargour”, the dome-shaped fishing cage, which is now made of metal. The hat-shaped muzzle that is used to prevent camels from eating just before the races used to be woven from palm fibres, but for this item the leaves of the small wild palm Nanorrhops ritchieana were used. The palm trunks provide a sturdy building material. The fibres from the sheaths of the leaves are used to make rope and twine or fishing nets, while heavy rope was made from shredded date palm fruit stalks. Shredded date leaflets were made into two-strand cord of 75-to 80-cm. lengths.

    An interesting object made from palm tree products could still be found on East coast beaches during the nineteen eighties, but nowadays it can only be admired in musea or heritage centres.

    The “shasha” (pl. “shoosh”) or palm reed boat was once the main fishing boat of the region. The introduction of fibreglass boats and the mechanisation of the fishing industries have made the “shasha” a thing of the past.

    The construction of a “shasha” could take anywhere between a half to one full day, provided the materials had been collected and prepared beforehand. Ninety percent of the material necessary for building these boats was obtained from the date palm tree. Some other material came from other local trees such as the “sidr” (Zizyphuis spinachrsiti) or the “samr” (Acacia tortilis).  

    The long fronds of the date palm were prepared by removing the leaves and soaking the stems. This makes them pliable so that they could be tied together securely with a rope, made from the fibre of the sheaths of the palm leaves. The base layer of stems was bound tightly and secured to a frame made of the wood from the “sidr” or “samr” tree.  This frame contained seven cross beams along the base with corresponding beams on either side of the boat. A large block made from a section of the stem of a date palm was attached to create buoyancy (later this was replaced by styrofoam).

    The segments were bound together with date palm rope. Another seven cross beams and another layer of tightly bound stems were placed on top. The sides of the boat were also constructed with tightly bound date palm stems. The “shasha” usually had two oars, one located in the middle and one in the back. The oars were made from the wood of the “sidr” or “samr” tree. The boat seated up to four people, though there were some larger boats that could carry five people.

    Its primary function was as a fishing boat and it was designed to travel for short distances only. The section used for buoyancy could absorb water and become heavy, thus causing the boat to sink. The boats usually travelled only about 15 kms, going to and coming back from the fishing grounds where the nets or fishing cages were dropped.

    The “shasha” was the main means of sea transport on the East coast in the 19th century. The lack of safe harbours and the presence of heavy surf prohibited the use of other types of boats. The “shasha”, because of its lightness and flexibility, could ride the heaviest surf.  Most “shoosh” were made in Fujeirah and if a person from Dibba wanted one, he would buy one in Fujeirah. Only a very few older men are still alive that can make this quaint fishing boat.

These are just a few of the 360 uses of the date palm that have been recorded.

    In a book on Oman by Wendell Philips it is mentioned that a good Omani wife would be able to give her husband a different dish using dates every day of the year!

The same book tells of a man who received a letter one day. As it was already too dark to read the letter, he manufactured a small bowl from date paste, filled it with melted ghee, inserted a wick, made from a few strands of palm tree fibre, lit it and read his letter. When he was finished. He blew out the flame, removed the wick, drank the oil and ate the lamp!

    My own favourite recipe is that for date bars with a date shake Chicken stuffed with dates:

3 lbs chicken
onion finely chopped
1 oz. Butter
4 oz chopped dates
3 oz chopped dried apricots
3 oz seedless grapes
1 green apple
level teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon brown sugar
freshly ground black pepper

to cook: 1 oz. Butter and 1 tbsp. Lime juice.  Clean and dry the chicken and set aside. Melt the butter in the pan, add the onion and cook until soft. Add the dates, apricots, grapes and apple and cook over a low heat for about two minutes. Stir in the cinnamon and brown sugar spoon into the cavity of the chicken and join the skin together with a skewer. Rube the extra butter over the chicken and drizzle with lime juice.

Place the chicken in a baking dish and bake for about 1 hour 30 minutes. Allow to rest for 15 minutes before carving.  Serve with the pan juices, stuffing and rice.

 Date shake:  ¾ cup of dates (diced)
1 cup of milk
1 pint of vanilla ice cream

Put the ingredients in a blender and process for several minutes.




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