A farmer checks his date crop in Nefta, Tunisia

The date-palm is considered to be the oldest tree ever cultivated by man. Date-farming is mentioned on Mesopotamian tablets from 3000 BC while the Qur’an has a reference to Mary sustaining herself on dates while birthing Jesus.

Now served on Arab airline menus, dates were once the basic diet for Bedouin living in the Middle East and North Africa. Their sticky golden fruit, a rich source of carbohydrate, fibre and minerals, was eaten by both men and animals. But while its fruit was a staple diet, the date palm had a myriad uses for the hardy nomads who always left one family member in charge of the trees during their annual migration.

A barasti made of lashed date-palm fronds UAE 1975

The trunk, split in two and laid end to end, became an effective canal for conveying water to the oasis while the palm fronds, staked out in the sand, it became an enclosure for domestic stock and before oil brought undreamed of riches, Bedouin of the Arab Gulf states lived in barastis – huts made from woven palm branches. Arabian Sea fishermen further used a shasha canoe, likewise made of lashed date palm fronds.

Felling a date palm remains almost sacred act. Nothing is wasted when it crashes to earth. Raked out and combed, the fibrous heart is made into brooms and woven into ropes, stuffing for cushions, food and prayer mats. The wood chips are gathered for use as fuel; even the stones are saved and crushed for animal fodder —in Arabian Sands the great explorer Wilfred Thesiger writes how he once carelessly threw a date-stone into his camp-fire and his Bedouin guide leaned over and picked it out.

Ripening dates in Nizwa oasis, Oman

While wealthy Bedouin now drive Land Cruisers and communicate on mobile phones, the date palm remains deeply rooted in social customs among rural families. In the interior of Oman palms continue to count as bridal dowry and here, as well as in the Maghreb, a man’s wealth is still judged on the number of his trees.

While most trees cannot survive in the desert, liking sandy soil and able to endure temperatures of 50c, sees the date palm flourish with a healthy tree capable of producing an annual crop of up to 90 kilos. Some of the world’s biggest date plantations line the Shatt al Arab waterway in southern Iraq, whose wall-to-wall palms were remarked on by the celebrated 14th century traveller Ibn Battuta.

Arab woman weaving a basket with date-palm fronds

 Date palms are dioecious meaning they have male and female organs borne on separate individuals of the same species – male palms produce pollen and female palms bear the fruit. Thousands of years ago natural pollination was carried out by the wind, birds and insects, but in commercial cultivation, each palm is fertilised by hand by an agile pollinator.

Among scores of different types of dates, the rich, golden, almost translucent variety known as deglat al nour is generally considered to be the ‘Queen of Dates’. The odd thing is that while Arabs enjoy dates throughout the year, in western societies they generally only appear at Christmas. 

Almond-stuffed dates

About Travels with My Hat

Australian photojournalist and author. Used London as a base for nearly forty years while freelancing in the Middle East, Arabian peninsular, Africa and South Asia. Have written and illustrated more than a dozen books and travel guides. Operates a well regarded religious images stock photo library: Live in Leura in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney.
This entry was posted in Food and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to DATES ARE THE FERTILIZERS OF OUR KNEES…runs an old Arab saying

  1. Mimi says:

    Mimi Forsyth said…Again, learned a lot! Hmmmmmmmmmm…..the coconut of the desert……

  2. C.O. says:

    Excellent comparison and sooooooooooooooo…true.I once lived under coconut palms on the island of Moorea. The Tahitians used to say the nuts only fall on bad people…I must do a blog on this one day. Thank you for dropping by.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Australians are growing olives in massive amounts,strange I agree ,that date palms aren`t being grown on the same scale here given perfect conditions in some parts of Australia. The date palm is a marvellous provider for the Arabs &for so much more,not just fruit,but i`m sure other trees are too ,its just that in Western society there is so much waste from many plants,where the fruit or vegetable is the only focus. Lots of them can be recycled into nutritious mulches & for making paper etc etc. I enjoyed reading this article.V

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *