x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Date palms

For generations, life in the desert was sustained largely by the palm tree, which furnished building materials, firewood - and above all food.

His hands are gnarled, his face heavily wrinkled and his eyesight failing, but Sultan Mohammed bin Butti al Neyadi, aged 110 or thereabouts, has a clean bill of health.

The great-great-grandfather, who is not sure of his precise age but remembers Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan as a baby, attributes his longevity to one thing: a staple diet of dates. "They are the reason I got so old," he says, gesturing to the 50 date palms at his family's home in Mazyed, behind Jebel Hafeet in Al Ain, near the Oman border. "Before there was oil we relied on dates. In the summer we would eat them as they ripened through the season.

"I would ride my camel to and from Dubai or Abu Dhabi to sell the fruit and the leaves, which people used for arish [rectangular houses with flat roofs built entirely of palm fronds], and to buy other supplies. "In the winter we'd eat the dried dates. The only time we ever had meat was if a sheikh or another VIP came to visit; that was rare." Picking up a semi-ripe ratab, the half-yellow, half-brown fruit specific to the beginning of the season in June, and dipping it into freshly made chammi, a sour "cottage cheese" accompaniment, Mr al Neyadi explains a process of cultivation familiar to the generations who have depended on the date for life itself.

"It is very important to sprinkle the male pollen on the female trees," he says. The date palm, Phoenix dactylifera, is dioecious, meaning it has male and female varieties. Pollination, according to Daniel Potts in his 2002 book Feast of Dates, is a complicated process: "Since male trees cannot bear fruit and are normally destroyed, it has been common practice since antiquity to pollinate date palms manually."

It is a labour-intensive process and must take place over the short period of two days when the female flower is receptive to male pollen. Once germinated, the seedlings are planted between five and seven metres apart, to allow the wide base of roots to grow. "Then water is very important," says Mohammed Saif al Neyadi, Sultan's 55-year-old grand nephew. "You must give them plenty twice a day for the first 40 days."

Before the days of water pipes, date farmers like the al Neyadis relied on falaj, an ancient, gravity-driven system of water channels. "The water would come from the oasis, up to 30km away," says Mr al Neyadi. "Every family in Al Ain had date palms back then." Mohammed and his half-brother Mattar Ali al Neyadi, 58, have a modest-sized farm of between 300 and 600 palms located in the catchment area of the Al Ain oasis.

The family no longer relies on the fruit as those of Sultan's generation did, but it still supplements their income. Each year the farm produces six tonnes of dates, which are sold to the government-owned Emirates Date Farm in nearby Al Saad. The trees are cherished; they are considered to be part of the family. "The nakheel are like our sons," says Mattar. "In the old days our family had no food, but if you had a tree you had food. So we looked after the trees better than our own sons because if we didn't have food then we wouldn't have our sons."

The tending of the date palms is a year-round process. In February, before the fruit begins to flower, sharp spines, or shouka, are removed from the trunk to allow the dates to be picked. As the dates ripen around the end of May, they are picked from the trees every few weeks until the first week in September. During June the ratab are eaten - they are slightly crunchy and easily torn apart with the hands. In July they become fully brown and softer and in August they are so ripe that the tree has only to be shaken for the fruit to fall.

In September, the remaining third of the annual growth still on the trees starts to dry. They are removed, placed on large mats on the sand and left for a day to become the dried fruit, or tamr, which are popular all year. There are 17 varieties of nakheel, which can be identified by the shape of the leaves, the bark or the stone. Of them, al Khallas is the most popular. The fruit are small, dark and very sweet; they are also the most expensive - at times selling for up to Dh500 (US$140) a kilogram.

Every year in July, dates farmed in the Emirates are judged at the Mazayin al Ratab Festival in Liwa, now in its fifth year. The judges award prizes for the best dates, taking into consideration factors such as the hygiene standards on the farms, care for the palms and method of irrigation as well, of course, as the taste and appearance of the fruit. But such commercialism is a recent development in the story of dates, which have been part of Beduoin culture and tradition for longer than anyone can remember.

In 1999, during an archaeological dig, two carbonised date stones were discovered on Delma Island in Abu Dhabi and dated to 4,670BC, supporting the theory that the date palm was first domesticated in the Gulf region. "With these finds," wrote Potts, "the UAE can now truly claim to possess the earliest evidence of date consumption anywhere in the world." It is certainly true that in the unforgiving environment of the desert, life would have been very difficult without this hardy plant, which can survive extremes of temperature as low as minus 7C and as high as 50C.

What is more, it contains glucose, fructose, vitamins A, B and D, water and fibre. Together, dates and camel milk, which is rich in fat and vitamin C, form a "remarkably nutritious diet", according to Potts. The importance of the trees did not go unnoticed by tribesmen such as Sultan al Neyadi, who says every part of the plant was used - including the bark, for firewood, and even the stones, which were boiled into a broth to feed camels during particularly sparse periods.

Such knowledge is disappearing rapidly in the modern Emirates and, in order to preserve and chart all the aspects of the date palm and its invaluable fruit, the Zayed Centre for Heritage and History in Al Ain has published a six-volume encyclopaedia, Date Palm Cultivars, Atlas of the United Arab Emirates. Some stories, however, will always remain a part of oral history. "The things my forefathers know are precious," says Hamad Mattar al Neyadi, Sultan's great grandson, who is a GP in Al Ain.

"We really should spend more time with the elderly to learn their stories and their expertise. I know about dates, but for my ancestors dates were their lives. It's because of this tree that we are here, so we have to take care and pay attention to our history." aseaman@thenational.ae