Date Palms Saturate the United Arab Emirates' Landscape
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
I could not believe my eyes as we drove from Abu Dhabi’s International Airport to the heart of the city – some 40 km (24 mi) away. Both sides of the road were covered with flowering greenery, dominated by the date palm. The trees and shrubs were so thick that I could not see even a spot of barren land. Travellers taking this road but not familiar with the history of this once totally desert country, cannot be blamed if they think that the United Arab Emirates is a lush-tropical land.
A little over a decade before, I had travelled the same route through a barren terrain of blowing sand. Now the majestic date palm, overshadowing all other greenery, kept us company along every road and avenue until we reached our hotel on the Corniche – a boulevard of greenery edging the Arabian Gulf. It was as if a genie had been hard at work transforming the Arabian sands into gardens of palms.
The proliferation of trees and shrubs one sees everywhere in the United Arab Emirates reflects the importance Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the President of the UAE, attached to the greenification of the country, especially the importance of planting date palms. This has resulted in a tenfold increase, during the past two decades, in the number of these regal trees producing annually about 245,000 tons of dates.
The recent huge increase of these fruit trees, covering 53% of the cultivated land in the country, is only the continuation of the Arab’s time-honoured love for the date palm – believed by the Arabs to be the oldest cultivated fruit tree in the world that was first grown in the Garden of Eden. In the words of Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al-Nahyan, the UAE’s Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, “The date palm is a blessed tree. Indeed, it is the tree of Life.”
According to Muslim belief, the Archangel Gabriel told Adam in the Garden of Eden, “thou art created from the same substance as this palm tree which henceforth shall nourish you.” The Prophet Muhammad enjoined his followers to honour the palm tree as ‘one blessed among all plants as Muslims are blessed among men’, and the Holy Qur’an states that Mary gave birth to Jesus under the palm tree whose fruit she ate to ease the pain of childbirth.
Historians have theorized that some 7,000 years ago, the date palm was first grown in the Arabian Peninsula. In the ensuing centuries, from its native Arabia, the cultivation of the date palm spread to the Fertile Crescent and the Nile Valley. Written records by the Sumerians, Assyrians and Babylonians, found on clay tablets, describe this majestic tree and its fruit. Murals depicting palms from the days of these civilizations have been uncovered, proving beyond doubt that dates were well known in the days of antiquity.
In later centuries, Phoenician traders carried the date palm from the Fertile Crescent and Egypt to North Africa and Spain. However, in Spain it was not cultivated on a large scale until after the Arabs occupied the Iberian Peninsula in 711 A.D. In the Alicante province of the eastern coast of Spain date palm orchards, first established by the Arabs, are today, still flourishing.
For thousands of years the date palm has been the foundation of life for the dwellers of arid lands. The climate in desert countries is ideal for its cultivation, and its fruit is easily preserved. When ripe and dried, dates, which are the most important food and, in fact, form the basis of life in the desert, do not spoil. It is as if this valuable fruit was tailor-made for the rainless lands.
A single tree, from the 800 species of date palm, when full grown, will produce up to 300 lbs. of fruit, hanging in great bunches weighing l to 30 lbs. each. These picturesque clusters of dates need at least six months to mature. They ripen in four stages: kimiri, the green stage; khalal, when they turn yellowish with a red tinge; rutab, the first stage of ripening and tamar, when they fully mature. In the last stage, dates are light brown, plump and glossy with a sweet pulp.
The fruit, exceedingly rich and nourishing, is ideal for the daily diet. If need be, man can live a healthy life, for many months, with a menu of only dates and milk. Without doubt they are one of the world’s most complete foods, containing carbohydrates, fat, protein, vitamins A, B, D and G, iron, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, calcium and copper. Their sugars are not acid forming and they have enough fibre to provide the needed roughage.
Dates can be eaten fresh or dried, made into jams and syrups or utilized as ingredients in the preparation of other foods, such as confectioneries and pastries. In the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, they are employed in countless dishes from appetizers to entrees and desserts. To the Bedouin, dates are the essence of desert life- do them a miracle food which they call ‘bread of the desert’.
In addition, the other uses of the date palm are of great economic importance. Its fiber is utilized for ropes and mats; its wood for building materials and furniture; its leaves for roofs, baskets and hats; the stones of the fruit are crushed for animal food. Its sap, called ‘the drink of life’ by the early inhabitants of the Middle East, is made into sugar, vinegar or alcoholic drinks, and the tree acts as an umbrella for other fruits and vegetables growing in its shade.
It is no wonder than that the UAE, the fastest evolving country in the Arabian Peninsula, is encouraging the planting of date palms – for millennia, the very essence of Arab desert life. Even though after the oil boom, the vast majority of Bedouin have left their past behind, the date palm continues to exert an encompassing aura on modern Arab society, especially in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
From March 8 to 10 in 1998, the first International Conference on the date palm, under the patronage of Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, was held at Al Ain, the ‘Garden City’ of the UAE. Organized jointly by the Emirates University’s Faculty of Agricultural Science and the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock at Al Ain, the conference presented from around the world, the findings of research on date palms.
Its primary aim was to find solutions to the problems associated with date palm cultivation. Over 100 papers were presented by agricultural scientists and experts from 20 countries, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other countries from Europe and Asia. The papers dealt with new development in date palm cultivation, post-harvest processing and the utilization of the trees’ by-products.
Professor Mahmoud Alafili, Dean of the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences, Emirates University, discussing the symposium and its locale said, “the prominence of this conference stems from the fact that it is held in a country that is steadily and rigorously becoming the world leader in date palms both qualitatively and quantitatively.”
The conference held in the land which has been a pioneer in date palm farming, will no doubt further enhance the cultivation of this ancient fruit. The employment of the most advanced technology throughout the UAE has resulted in the fast growth in the number of palm trees and continued increase in the size and variety of date production.
The few date palms found in the oases of the country a near 50 years ago have given birth to the millions one sees today in every corner of the land. It is a testimony to the ‘greenification of the desert’ vision of Sheikh Zayed who filled his country with farms, shrubs and trees – at the top of which stands the date palm – ‘Arabia’s tree of Paradise’.