LIWA // The competition hopefuls arrived early yesterday morning to drop off the baskets of dates they hope will help them win the title of Liwa champion.
By 7.30am on the festival's opening day, 50 people had gathered to register for the contest. By noon, that number had risen to about 250. Barricaded behind a guarded fence in a separate area of the main tent, the sorting committee studied the baskets of specimens on offer. "You can see the big sizes are on this side, and we're looking at Dabbas dates," said Mubarak Mansouri, a member of the sorting committee and executive director of agriculture affairs at the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority. "So we sort them out by size, and quality. Tomorrow we transfer them to the holding area, where the specialists will weigh and taste them."
Around half the dates that were registered for the Liwa Date Festival met the committee's quality requirements. Those that did not were separated from the potential winners. Inside the registration area, men rubbed noses with friends and chatted about this year's competition. For some farmers, their previous defeats were saddening, but not discouraging. "I was really excited last year, but when I came in 16th, I decided I'll work really hard and take great care of my plants to bring better dates into this," said Maitar Mohamed, a farmer from Liwa who will be entering his dates in the Khallas category.
"Years ago, the area would have its own date competition and I would always come in third or fourth. Now, with the festival, people come from all over the Emirates. "Every year, it's better than the last, and every year my dates improve as well." Each contestant can enter into two of the six categories, with all entries being presented in a special basket, called mukhrafa. Those entering the Nukhba category - the best in show - must submit 2kg to 3kg of dates of various types, while the other categories require 4kg to 5kg. Half the entrants' scores come from the verdict on their date baskets, and half from a farm visit.
Today, the eight-strong judging panel will look over the first round of entrants and then travel to inspect each of the farms to check for proper irrigation and pesticide use. "I'm nervous and excited, both at once," said Said Abdullah al Murrar, a farmer. "Last year I came in as one of the last entries, this year I hope I do better." Among the dates scrutinised in today's first round will be this year's new category, al Khunaizi dates. According to Mr Mansouri, al Khunaizi dates are one of the 30 best types to be found in Liwa.
"A lot of people complained last year about not having this date, and so it was added and hopefully next year they will add more," said Obeid al Mazrouei, who was registering the date baskets. Even from the first step, the committee takes its task seriously. They check the dates are half ripened, large enough, clean and without cracks or abrasions. "We love the festival and take pride in what we're doing here. When we judge, we have to work slowly and chose only the really good dates. We take care to ensure that everything is done correctly," said Farja al Mansouri, another member of the sorting committee.
Mr al Mazrouei added: "Every year the prizes are better, and the categories bigger. Last year there were 10 winners in each contest, now there are 15 winners each. People will be excited that their chances for winning have got better." While preparations were being made for today's judging, visitors strolled through the festival's heritage village, where traditional palm huts and tents were still being erected. Prizes will be awarded later during the festival for the 15 best pieces of heritage work.
Nearby, children clapped in time on the sidelines of a display of stick dancing. In the marketplace, women wandered from stall to stall to chat and look at the goods on offer. The mix of folk art, bejewelled purses, homemade crafts and perfumes on display felt one-part craft fair, one-part traditional souq. Some vendors were offering dates and pots of date coffee to entice customers into their stalls.
In the sponsors' tent, things were a little less appealing. Live date palm weevils and larvae writhed in jars on a table at the Farmers' Services Centre, and the UAE University plant tissue culture lab displayed rows of test tubes containing various palm tissue cultures and shoots. The weevils may not be the most tempting introduction to the festival but they get to the heart of its purpose - not only the celebration of a lifestyle, but a chance to improve the lot of Liwa's farmers.