I am standing in a huge, empty, air-conditioned tent at the edge of the Liwa oasis in Abu Dhabi's Western Region. It is one of three enormous tents that, in a matter of days, will be transformed into bustling hives of farmers, judges, spectators, traders, craftsmen, poets, chefs, food outlets, souq stalls, children's playground rides, cultural displays - and dates. Around 5,000 baskets of them.
It's difficult to appreciate how the scene will look as I am given a tour of each marquee by Obaid Khalfan al Mazrouei, the director of the Liwa Date Festival 2009. I am shown where the competition tables will be, where the grandstand spectators will sit, the areas for the presentation stage, the cooking competition, the handicraft souq and the exhibitors' stands. Yet all I can see are sprawling carpets, glinting chandeliers and the occasional construction worker passing by the billowing white tent walls. It's a good job that al Mazrouei is the one with the vision. Now in its fifth year, the Liwa Mazayin al Ratb festival promises to be bigger and better than ever in 2009.
The 10-day celebration will attract thousands of farmers from all over the UAE, who will enter their dates into five competitions according to date variety. There will be millions of dirhams up for grabs in cash prizes, not to mention 15 prizes of cars and 4x4s. And the rivalry among date producers will be every bit as strong as it was over 100 years ago, when farmers would take shelter from the summer heat in Liwa's fertile crescent and compare their harvests.
Al Mazrouei leads me through the scorching heat outside the tent to his makeshift office, and instantly offers me a cup of ghawa coffee and a date. Like all of the dates at the festival, it's a ratb or half-ripened date that's soft and slightly syrupy at one end, and darker and almost crunchy at the other. "We have a competition for each of the four kinds of date," he tells me as I savour the intensely fresh sweetness of the date. "There's one for the dabbas date - which is only from Liwa - the bou maa'n date, the al farth date and the khalas date. Khalas is the most popular date, it's very tasty and you can have it both dry or fresh. And then we'll have a mixed competition for 15 types of date at one time - that is the al Nukhba competition."
To enter their dates into any of the competitions, the farmers must observe a stringent set of rules, standards and specifications. The dates must have been locally produced during the 2009 season and they must be free from infections, parasites or insects. They must be without obvious physical defects, and must not harbour an unusual taste or smell. And they must have achieved the required state of semi-ripeness (no more than 50 per cent).
"We are looking at the size, the weight and the taste," explains al Mazrouei. "Sometimes you have two dates with the same shape and looks, but they are different. We need the dates to be clean, not marked, with no imperfections. It means that the farmer is taking care of the palm. If something is missing from his care, then you will see it in the date. If it's very clean and shiny it means he has been taking care of the palm tree."
The competition is a serious business and is fiercely contested, which is perhaps why the entry and judging criteria is so strict. "The farmers bring the dates and then we label them with a barcode," explains al Mazrouei. "This is to make it fair, so the judges don't know who the dates belong to. This year it's a slightly new system - it's more reliable. The barcodes carry all the statistics, so the barcode reader will have all the information."
"Competitors split their date baskets into two halves; one half is at the festival, and the other half is left at the farm," he continues. "Then, if a basket of dates is selected by the judges, the next day they visit the farm. This is to make sure that the dates are from this farm. They will check the farm, the kind of irrigation: is it the new or the old system? There are water shortages all over the world, so if you are using a new economical system, then you get more credit. We judge how you care for the farm; is it clean?"
It's at this point of the conversation that I realise my plan to buy a job lot of healthy-looking ratb specimens from my local market and enter them in the competition is doomed to failure. Al Mazrouei is already wise to it. "You cannot always trust all of the people," he laughs. "You have to check. People can even pick dates from the trees in the street, so we need to be careful and as fair as we can. At the end, the winners will be happy and the losers will be unhappy, but you can't always make all the people happy."
It's little wonder that passions run high over dates. The date palm is an important part of UAE culture, and people have relied upon the tree for sustenance, shelter and building materials since long before the country was formed. Life in the Liwa area in particular has for centuries been dominated by the trees, which were often grown to provide the shade in which other plants could flourish. The so-called "fertile crescent" stretches for around 70 miles, in which the 60 villages and 52 oases that line the Mezaira'a contribute to around half of the UAE's total date production. It's where the Bani Yas tribe was originally based before moving to Abu Dhabi to establish its rule. And since this year's festival commemorates the centenary of Sheikh Zayed the Great, who ruled Abu Dhabi from 1855 to 1909, it's perhaps appropriate that the organisers should aim to remind people of traditional values and agricultural practices in a time when Emirati society appears to be racing ahead of itself.
"The message that we need to deliver through our festival this year is to encourage people to go back to the organic system of farming," al Mazrouei tells me. "It's not difficult. A hundred years back people used the organic system. Science brought us new products and new systems, which farmers used to increase the size of their fruits and the size of their vegetables. But dates are not a new thing. We've had a competition in Liwa going 100 years back. Liwa is an oasis, and people used to come here during the summer to show their dates. Between them they would have a small competition. The head of a family would offer a prize. We have taken that spirit of competition and switched it so that everyone can be a part of it."
"My father has farms and I have farms," he says proudly. "We grew up with dates. The date souqs at the festival will remind children of what dates mean. We will have 160 stalls. There will be baskets and handcrafted things all made from date palms. So it will be like a lesson. Most of the old ladies in the houses do this as their hobby. So the kids are learning. They are old skills, yet they are still practised. But by having this market here we are keeping the skills alive. That's why this year we will only allow the dates to be entered in the competition if they are in the handmade date baskets called "mukhrafa" - it increases demand for the baskets, so people will now produce more and more of them."
According to al Mazrouei, another goal of the festival is to encourage farmers to grow more, and to capitalise on the UAE's unique position, both geographical and commercial, when it comes to the production of dates. "The location of the UAE is to the east of the other major date-producing countries, like Saudi Arabia and Iraq," he explains. "So we get our dates before them - we are something like 20 days or one month ahead of them. So we have the advantage, we enter the market first when there is no other competitor operating."
Alongside the traditional souq, the festival will have other areas for entertainment and refreshment, such as a poetry recitals, children's play tent and a food court offering traditional Emirati dishes. And to add an extra dimension to the competition, a new contest has been devised, as al Mazrouei explains. "The five-star hotels in Abu Dhabi will enter a competition to create recipes for any kind of food made with dates. It could be a dessert, or a main course. We'll set up a kitchen and every day we'll have two or three chefs, so at the end we may have up to 60 recipes. There will be a trophy and prize money of I think $10,000 for the best recipe. Later on we may even release a date recipe book. It's a new idea."
Not only is it a new idea, it's also a good one, as Naji Esta, the director of food and beverages at the Intercontinental Abu Dhabi, later agrees. He tells me about the recipes his team will be cooking in the contest: smoked duck breast with date vinaigrette; lamb with feta cheese, dates and sautéed potatoes; date soufflé with date ice cream, date coulis, and date and walnut cake. "We should be using more dates in restaurants," he enthuses. "We can use them for starters, main courses and desserts. We can make confit of dates. We can use them in side dishes. They mix very well with onions. They are extremely flexible and easy to work with. The taste is not overpowering and it mixes well with the spices of the region."
Back at the festival, preparations are gathering pace. We head down to the registration office, where we see a computerised system in action. Then we retire to the adjoining majlis for more coffee and one or two more dates. We are joined by two young Emirati men whose families will be entering their dates into the competition. Over cups of ghawa, Saeed Rashid Ahmed al Mansoori explains who he will be willing to victory this year. "My father is originally from Liwa and lives in Madinat Zayed," he tells me. "He is 80 years old. He has been growing dates for a long time. He hasn't won yet, but this year he is hoping to. We want the car, it is a 4x4, you know." But Obaid Suhail Suwaiyah al Mazrouei has his eyes on the same prize. "My mother is entering the competition," he reveals. "She has already registered. She has two farms, but she can only register for one of them. She has entered the competition every year and has not won yet."
I ask the two men if they know any previous prize-winners, and both shake their heads. "No," says al Mansoori with a sigh and a smile. "We do not know the names, but we saw the faces on TV. And they were smiling faces. They won a car!" As the festival director, Obaid Khalfan al Mazrouei's family are ineligible for entry in the competition. However, for him, the sense of national pride in the celebration is as important as any prize. "Many countries have celebrations for their food," he states. "In Spain they celebrate their tomatoes, in Russia they have cucumber festivals, in England there is asparagus and in Australia they celebrate the cherry. The fresh date festival remains a celebration for us." Long may it continue.
The Liwa date festival takes place at al Gharbia from July 17-26. Call 02 621 5488 or for more information.