x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Make a date with festival this week

A beauty pageant of a different sort is taking place this week on the edge of the Empty Quarter, where hundreds of local farmers are gathering for the annual Liwa Date Festival.

Visitors take a close look at the produce on display on Saturday, the opening day of this year’s Liwa Date Festival. More than three tonnes of dates were entered in the opening round of the competitions. Ravindranath K / The National
Visitors take a close look at the produce on display on Saturday, the opening day of this year’s Liwa Date Festival. More than three tonnes of dates were entered in the opening round of the competitions. Ravindranath K / The National

LIWA // A beauty pageant of a different sort is taking place this week on the edge of the Empty Quarter, where hundreds of local farmers are gathering for the annual Liwa Date Festival.

They bring with them the prized fruits of their labour – large bunches of dates freshly cut from local palm trees.

The fruit will be weighed, plucked from their strands and moved to handwoven, palm-leaf baskets, and judges will inspect their colour, size, shape, texture and, ultimately, taste.

At stake is a slice of Dh6 million in prize money, which will be awarded in competitions focusing on a different variety of date each day until Friday.

“Dates have been very important to us for hundreds of years,” said Obaid Al Mazrouei, the festival director. “People used to celebrate the season with dates during the summer. So we thought to put it together as a festival to say thank you for the palm trees.”

On the festival’s opening night on Saturday, the locally grown Al Dabbas variety was the star attraction as more than 200 farmers entered bushes and baskets of the half-ripe fruit in the first competition of the week.

The Al Dabbas palm tree makes up half of all palm trees grown in the Liwa area.

Jaber Al Ali, who was judging the contest, said it was among the most popular dates in the area.

“It’s good, it’s local, it’s local for Liwa only,” said Mr Al Ali. “It’s good for Liwa. You grow it outside Liwa and it’s not as good as in Liwa.”

Mr Al Mazrouei said kicking off the competition with a focus on the hometown dates helps to boost Liwa’s economy and recognises the work of local farmers. “That’s been a big support for the people who live here,” he said of the festival. “As you know, Liwa is one of the famous oases of dates, of palm trees.”

More than three tonnes of dates were entered in the opening round of the competitions. In all, Mr Al Mazrouei said between 800 and 900 farmers were expected to participate in this year’s festival.

The top 15 farmers in the Al Dabbas, Al Khunaizi, Al Khallas, Bou Maan and Al Farth categories will be awarded cash prizes ranging between Dh125,000 for first place to Dh5,000 for 15th place. The prizes for the Al Nukhba category range from Dh200,000 for first place and Dh6,000 for 15th.

Mr Al Ali joked that he would be lucky to get an hour of sleep a day over the next few days because he would be evaluating the dates in the evenings and inspecting their farms of origin during the day. Half of the dates’ overall score would depend on the quality of the farms they came from, he said.

“Tomorrow we will go to check the farms, then we come back same time in the afternoon to check the dates,” said Mr Al Ali, a Madinat Zayed resident.

There are also competitions for locally grown mangoes and lemons. Organisers have added new categories that allow farmers to enter the “local fruit basket” and the “model farm” competitions.

Mr Al Mazrouei said: “This year we came up with a competition that’s called the local basket of fruit of the UAE to encourage people to grow fruits instead of having just regular trees in the home. We are trying to encourage farmers to focus on something they can grow and they can have something out of it.”

The festival, which is held in air-conditioned tents and is free to the public, has a play area for children, a traditional market with about 150 vendors selling local handicrafts, and a date market.

Fatima Al Mageani, 54, the manager of Tradition Pearl, has been selling her company’s handmade Emirati cloth dolls and numerous items made from palm leaves for the past seven years.

“The date or the palm tree is very important for the people in the Emirates,” she said. “In the past, with no petrol, no anything, the tree was the mother, it gave food, gave a house, gave the furniture.”

rpennington@thenational.ae