Nearly 2,000 competitors. Some 50,000 square metres of tents. A vast farmers' market and 160 stalls selling handicrafts. Add folkloric performances, traditional games and a children's tent and you have got the sixth annual Liwa Date Festival. It opens on Saturday with a special focus this year on raising awareness of cultural traditions, as well as improving the quality of date crops.
"In this way the region's rich cultural heritage is guaranteed to remain alive, continue far into the future and never be forgotten," said Mohammed Khalaf al Mazrouei, the director general of Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach), which is organising the event. "In this era of rapid change it is all too easy to lose the essence of a culture unless it is taken care of and society remains aware of its value."
The date festival has morphed into a cultural nexus where farmers exhibit their best dates, such as the dabbas and khalas varieties. Last year the festival brought 60,000 visitors to Liwa, while 1,769 competitors displayed the best of their crop in 5,715 date baskets. This year, festival organisers expect an increase in both entries to the competition and visitors to the festival. "Efforts are being intensified to put Liwa on the map," said Mr al Mazrouei.
The date competition features five categories and prizes worth a total of Dh5 million. Organisers have adjusted the rules to encourage farmers to modernise their farms and shift towards organic growing methods. "The festival is consistently establishing itself as an annual extravaganza for exchanging technical know-how among farmers, and hence promoting their harvest to the best of quality and the highest of standards," said Obeid al Mazrouei, the festival director.
All farms that win first place in the various categories will be inspected by the panel judges to ensure they meet hygiene standards, that their palm trees are properly cared for and that their irrigation systems do not waste water. The winning dates also will be tested to ensure they are free of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. But who has the best date isn't the only rivalry; the final two nights will see the performers take the stage in hopes of being named the "best folkloric performance" of the festival.
The festival runs every day from 10am to 10pm, from Saturday until July 26. Liwa is an oasis about 150km southwest of the capital in Al Gharbia, on the edge of the Rub al Khali desert. * With reporting by Kareem Shaheen