x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Amateur date growers flock to festival

Enthusiasts bring produce from own gardens and mingle with professional farmers at opening day of first Ajman-Liwa date festival.

Mohammad Saeed, one of the judges, holds a platter of Khalas dates before they are assessed at the first Ajman-Liwa date festival. Jeff Topping / The National
Mohammad Saeed, one of the judges, holds a platter of Khalas dates before they are assessed at the first Ajman-Liwa date festival. Jeff Topping / The National

AJMAN // Umm Omar is no professional date farmer.

"My dates come from my house in Ras al Khaimah I visit in the summer and during the weekends," said the Ajman resident, who is originally from Abu Dhabi.

"They're definitely more homely because they grow in my residence. It's almost like taking care of my own children."

And yet there she was yesterday, on the opening day of the first Ajman-Liwa date festival, selling her fruit next to the professionals. Her dates, which included Al Khalas and Al Khuneizi varieties, cost between Dh100 and Dh150 for a 3kg basket.

"I have so much fun distributing them," she said. "I'd say overall I have about 20 date palm trees and I take great pride and joy in growing them."

And that is just the start. "I plan on growing much more on my farm to keep coming to the festival."

Near the festival entrance, three Emirati women sit on the floor, haggling with visitors over their 1kg baskets of dates.

"These are from the small farms at their homes in Ajman," said Ibrahim Mohammad Saleh, one of the judges on the festival's organising committee.

Nor are dates the only home-grown fruits on show here. Fatima Ali Abdel Maati has brought spices, herbs and Arabic coffee from the garden of her house in Ajman.

"I love the fact that they come from my garden, it's like a part of me and a part of my house in each jar," she said.

There were bigger-scale farmers, too. Fahad Jarad, a 27-year-old Iraqi, and his brother both own seven farms between them in Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah, Ajman and Dubai - as well as a date shop, Al Fahad, in Ajman. This, though, is their first time at a date festival.

Their tables in the date souq grabbed many visitors' attention, with dozens of baskets of 10 types of date, including Al Khalas, Sheshi, Al Khuneizi and Barhi.

"These farms are like home to us," said Mr Jarad. "All our fruits come from them and this event has helped us showcase what our homes can produce.

"We will definitely participate in the Liwa Date Festival next year."

Meitha Al Mazrouei sells her Liwa dates at Dh250 for a 5kg basket. With eight types, including Al Dabbas, Al Khalas and Sheshi, she won Dh25,000 at last week's Liwa festival.

"The event in Ajman is definitely smaller and much cosier," she said. "It's a nice change because through these dates, you really get to know the farmers and where they come from."

Faisal Al Nueimi, the Ajman Culture and Media Department's deputy general manager, said the emirate was the ideal place for a festival, being "the centre of most of the western emirates". He said he expected at least 50,000 visitors over the three days of the festival.

By noon, almost 350 farmers had entered the competition. That is far fewer than in Liwa last week - but not a bad start for a new festival, said organisers.

There are far more farms in Liwa - more than 30,000 - and the festival is more established.

"Unfortunately, we don't have any statistics of how many official farms are registered with the government here because many work from home," said Mr Nueimi.

"This is what we will be working on for next year and our aim is to make it last 10 days - five before Ramadan and five during Ramadan."

Yesterday's competition was open for Al Khalas and Sheshi dates and three winners were announced in the evening.

The Fard and Al Nokhba varieties will enter the competition today and Al Khuneizi dates tomorrow.