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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 19 July 2018

Once prized across the Middle East, Iraq's dates industry clings to hope of better days   

Farmers in western Iraq tell Sofia Barbarani of the passion that keeps their spirits alive

Dr Adnan Al Jumaily inspects his palm trees as we he walks through the unkept farm. Sofia Barbarani / The National 
Dr Adnan Al Jumaily inspects his palm trees as we he walks through the unkept farm. Sofia Barbarani / The National 

Every year, come rain or shine, Hajji Hassem would cram his car full of boxes of Iraq’s finest dates and embark on a three-day drive to Makkah in Saudi Arabia. There, he gifted the fruits to other joyful pilgrims undertaking hajj.

His most vivid memories, dating back to the 1980s, elicit a smile as he recounts road-tripping the almost 2,000km to the holy city. It was a time when the journey was deemed safe and Iraq’s world-renowned dates industry was thriving.

"The Saudis always used to ask us to bring dates from here, it was the best gift someone could take," said Hajji. "They thought it was a holy fruit."

Now 60, he owns a wholefoods fruit and vegetable shop in the heart of Fallujah's main bazaar. Much like his country, Hajji now finds himself weighed down by decades of turmoil.

His large frame forces him to pray on a chair rather than on the floor – the same chair he sits in sipping water, as he chronicles the golden years for Iraq’s 350 types of dates.

"All of the Arab countries knew in the 1980s and 1990s that Iraqi dates were the best," he says. Quality combined with quantity: a 28 kilogram box of dates would sell for less than $1 because the fruit was so readily available.

Even the American invaders who came in 2003 loved the dates. "Most bought the Zahdi types," says Hajji, referring to a dry kind of date. "They would just come in and stuff their pockets."

Hajji Hassem stands next to boxes of Saudi and Iraqi dates in his shop in Fallujah. Sofia Barbarani / The National
Hajji Hassem stands next to boxes of Saudi and Iraqi dates in his shop in Fallujah. Sofia Barbarani / The National

Years of sanctions, conflict and displacement, coupled with a precarious economy, culminated in a decline in the production and quality of the fruit. While global output of dates increased exponentially between 1978 and 2008, Iraq fell progressively behind.

In the 1990s the industry was affected by the sanctions imposed against Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

In 2000, approximately one million metric tonnes of dates were produced – an increase of 748,900 tonnes from 1984, when fighting in the Iran-Iraq war was at its heaviest. The last 18 years, however, has seen a precipitous slump in Iraqi date production. By 2007, at the height of Iraq’s sectarian violence, it plummeted to only 350,000 tonnes annually.

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"Due to the years of war and hardship the dates industry has gone through a decline," said Hameed Al Naef, a spokesman at Iraq's Ministry of Agriculture. "We used to have 30 million palm trees, but now it has dropped to 16 million."

Seeking to protect the lagging local industry, the central government in recent years banned imports from neighbouring countries. Possibly as a result, production rose to between 650,000 and 850,000 tonnes annually. Companies and individuals continue to import dates illegally, says Mr Al Naef, smuggling dates across the Iran-Iraq border, alongside contraband food, livestock, tobacco and even vehicles.

Back in the 1980s foreign dates were uncommon, and not well regarded. Today Hajji sells Iranian, Saudi and Iraqi dates, but "what we get the most are Iranian dates," he said dryly. "And they're no good."

In an effort to rebuild Iraq's ailing agriculture, in 2011 the central government envisioned a $150 million project to triple the number of date farms by 2021. But the plan was interrupted in late 2013 with the rise of ISIS.

The impact was dramatic.

In the leafy town of Karma, just 28 kilometres northeast of Fallujah, six hundred of Dr Adnan Al Jumaily's 1,000 palm trees were burned during clashes between ISIS and the Iraqi military. Drought piled on the agony.

During their three-year rule, ISIS cut off the irrigation canals that branched from the Euphrates to provide water to farms. They did this during the 2014 elections to flood and disable the road between Baghdad and Fallujah, explained Dr Al Jumaily, a tall man whose manicured thick, black moustache pokes out from a handsome face and piercing eyes.

Hajji Hassem holds imported Iranian dates. Sofia Barbarani / The National
Hajji Hassem holds imported Iranian dates. Sofia Barbarani / The National

But the original problem dates back much further, to the Iran-Iraq war, when the farms in the southern city of Basra were wrecked by warring factions. "It affected most of the farms, they were destroyed." Beyond the war, Saddam drained the south's swamps and chopped down palm trees in the thousands.

Younger generations do not see the fields as a way to make a living. Despite having swathes of arable land, more and more Anbaris are turning away from agriculture, searching instead for government jobs – still seen as the best and most secure employment available.

Lack of water and pesticides make farming a less appealing path. Local sheikhs also criticise the central government for not providing Anbaris with the necessary farm equipment for food production.

Flanked by hundreds of towering palm trees that his father and grandfather planted in the 1970s and 1980s, Dr Al Jumaily proudly walks between overgrown shrubs in sandals and a white thawb, the flowing robe of rural Iraqi men, carefully inspecting the charred logs.

But with no farmers to tend to it, the farm is wild in its disrepair. The seven employees he once had fled Karma when ISIS took over and they are still displaced. His home is empty also, after fleeing ISIS fighters and "liberating" Shiite militias looted his furniture.

"We're repairing step by step," says Dr Al Jumaily, standing against a backdrop of palm trees and a small murky lake.

Regardless of present difficulties, a sense of mission remains.

A date plantation in Karma, some 28km from Fallujah, Iraq. Sofia Barbarani / The National
A date plantation in Karma, some 28km from Fallujah, Iraq. Sofia Barbarani / The National