Time ripe for dates in Liwa

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Time ripe for dates in Liwa
From seeds to dates is a long story. Come July and the fruits are ready for harvest.

The palms in Liwa are heavy with fresh, half-ripe dates


Silvia Radan

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Published: Sun 19 Jul 2015, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Mon 20 Jul 2015, 8:25 AM

Hamad Al Mansouri may have been uprooted from his native Liwa oasis and making a living in the capital city, but every holiday, including this Eid, he returns to his family home.
His new majlis, with big glass walls, overlooks his palm orchard; lines of tall palms, heavy at this time of year with bunches of ripening dates.
"From July the ratab season starts, you know, the fresh, half ripened dates, and we already started harvesting some of the dates," said Hamad.
"We have about 2,000 palm trees of different dates varieties - bumaan, dabbas, khalas. Some of them we sell to dates companies, some we use for feeding camels and goats and the best we keep for us." On the northern edge of Rub Al Khaly (the Empty Quarter) desert, about 160kms southwest of Abu Dhabi, Liwa is a natural oasis of 50 villages and hamlets.
It is the birthplace of the Bani Yas tribe, to which the ruling families of Abu Dhabi and Dubai trace their roots.
Unlike the Bedouin tribes which travelled through the desert in search of water and food, the people of the oasis were farmers, cultivating date palm trees and keeping some camels, goats and sheep.
They lived in houses of small palm fronds, fenced off for both privacy and to keep away the shifting sand. During summer months, the younger men would go to the coast to join the pearl divers, providing them with some extra income and trade.
Those who stayed behind, enjoyed the slightly cooler and less humid weather of the desert, taking care of the ratab harvest and the farm. Nowadays, the barasti houses were replaced by modern villas fitted with running water, electricity and air conditioning.
There are highways, shops, hotels, hospitals, yet life in Liwa still feels steeped in time. Hamad smiles at this thought.
"Sure, it's nice to have all the modern comforts and luxuries, but we miss the old days, so we try to preserve our traditions as much as we can," he said.
One such tradition is caring for the palm trees.
From seeds to dates is a long journey, which starts in the month of September.
"We start planting the trees in September.
We dig a hole in the ground, we put some sand, then 'samat' (manure), then sand mix with 'samat' and then the palm roots, which should only be three quarters buried," explained Hamad.
The roots of the date palms have a filtering system that allows them to absorb fresh water and leave out the salt. Each tree gives approximately 20kg of dates, but from seedling it takes up to three years for a palm tree to produce fruit.
Liwa Dates Festival
For several years now, Liwa's date palm farmers have got a new platform to showcase their produce - the Liwa Dates Festival, which this year takes place between July 22 and 30. Hundreds of farmers from all over the UAE are invited to take part in the festival's competitions, which awards the best dates of various varieties and also celebrates Emirati traditions and heritage through various other competitions and activities.
Hamad Al Mansouri and his family will be among the participants this year.
Organised by Abu Dhabi's Cultural Programmes and Heritage Festivals Committee (CPHFC), the festival will give away 220 prizes worth Dh6 millions in various competitions, from best dates, best lemon and best mangoes, to handicrafts, fruit baskets and children's competitions.
"We have also come up with new competitions that are fitted for the festival. For example, we will have the tallest palm tree competition, which is a new one this year. This is going to be once every three years, which will allow for new entries to come. Now we are working on details on how to judge and register for this competition," explained Abdullah Al Qubaisi, director of Projects Management at the CPHFC.
Best ratab dates will remain the focus of the festival, though, and although competitions are opened to farmers from across the UAE, most participants are expected to be from the Abu Dhabi emirate, simply because of timing.
"It is very unlikely to have competitors from Ras Al Khaimah or Ajman because the timing of dates ripening is different. Dabbas dates for example are ripening now in Liwa, Al Ain and Abu Dhabi, but in Ras Al Khaimah it got ripe one month ago," explained Al Qubaisi.
"Ras Al Khaimah gets its dates two weeks before us, just like Oman - the first ratab comes from Oman, then us, then Saudi Arabia and so on," he added.
Not only that, some of the dates varieties in the competition do not grow in Ras Al Khaimah or other emirates.
That is one reason why CPHFC signed an agreement with Ajman for a dates festival, helping the northern emirate with the organisation of the festival and judging of the dates competitions. For Abu Dhabi emirate, the ratab season will go on all summer, even until September for some varieties.
End of July, though, is considered the ideal time for a ratab festival here and Liwa was chosen not only as a social and economical boost for the Western Region, but also because it produces some of the best dates in the country.
"The dates festival is very important for us. Dates and the palm tree are some of the greatest symbols of our heritage.
From the palm tree we don't just get fruits, but a lot of valuable material that helped our ancestors survive and make a living," pointed out Al Qubaisi.
"Thus, the festival is first of all an appreciation for the palm tree and a preservation of our national identity and the rich values that the palm tree gave us. Patience, generosity, appreciation, these are values that we learned from the date palm tree and are celebrated through this festival".
"The Liwa oasis produces very high quality of dates, recognised not only locally, but regionally and internationally, as well, and we want to highlight it by organising the festival there," he concluded.
Now in its 11th year, Liwa Dates Festival will be held in Mazeira (Liwa City), opening daily to the public from 4pm till 10pm.

Rows and rows of palm trees of different dates varieties at Liwa.
Rows and rows of palm trees of different dates varieties at Liwa.
Ratab or fresh, half ripened dates, are most popular.— Supplied photos
Ratab or fresh, half ripened dates, are most popular.— Supplied photos

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