Liwa Dates Festival highlights Emirati heritage

Friday 31/07/2015
An Emirati woman checks a basket of khalas dates, which are displayed at the annual Liwa Date Festival in the western region of Liwa, south of Abu Dhabi.

Abu Dhabi - Hundreds of date palm farmers from across the UAE attended the Liwa Dates Festival, bringing freshly picked ratab — half ripe dates — from their orchards to compete for the AED 50,000 top prize.
Celebrating its 11th year, the fes­tival is organised by the Cultural Programmes and Heritage Festivals Committee – Abu Dhabi (CPHFC) and involves date palm farmers coming together for a one-week festival, which ended on July 30, to compare the sweet and soft taste of fresh ratab, in season in the UAE from July till September.
The export of dates had been the major industry in pre-oil Arabia, and the Liwa Dates Festival cel­ebrates the unique position that dates still hold in Emirati society, a symbol of local heritage that is as important today as it was hundreds of years ago.
“In the Emirati heritage, dates represent, first of all, the number one source of food. Also, the wood and the leaves of the palm tree were used to make pretty much every­thing, from small boats to a house. They are used to light fires for cook­ing and heating, to make ropes, mats and all kinds of household items,” said Abdullah al-Qubaisi, director of project management at CPHFC.
“Even today, dates, the fruit of the desert, are still favoured. Peo­ple still love them. Even if someone has their our own farm and produc­es their own dates, they still buy other varieties of dates in order to compare the taste. It’s a passion,” he added.
That passion explains the hun­dreds of date farmers who head to the desert oasis of Liwa, 200 kilo­metres south-west of Abu Dhabi, from Al Gharbia, Al Ain, Swaihan, and further afield every year. This year’s festival featured farmers competing in 10 separate catego­ries, including various ratab varie­ties – kunaizi, khalas, dabbas, bou maan, farth, and al nukhba. The top 15 places in every category were awarded cash prizes ranging from AED 5,000 to AED 125,000, except for the al nukhba category where the top prize was 200,000 AED.
Samir al Shakir, an international consultant of palm dates technol­ogy and a member of the festival’s judging committee, explained how the judging takes place. “We re­ceive dates from around 300 farm­ers for every competition and we select 20 finalists. Just by looking, we can pick the best baskets based on size and general condition of the dates. We then make a more thor­ough investigation [of the finalists], taking measurements and check­ing the health of the dates, giving a grade which represents just half of the final score; the other 50% is based on the condition of the farm where the dates are grown.”
“We then go to inspect the farm, looking at the palm there where the dates were cut. We also take into ac­count the general keep of the farm, if materials are recycled, if the palm trees are pruned, if the irrigation is eco-friendly and the use of fertilis­ers. We prefer and encourage farm­ers to use bioorganic ones,” he said.
There was also a contest for the largest palm tree branch. This year, the winning branch weighed an im­pressive 116 kilograms, beating out 16 other entries.
“The winning branch is of sha­hal dates and comes from a farm in Liwa,” said Nasser Seif al-Mazrouei, supervisor of the date contests.
While ratab remains the focus of the festival, it has expanded in re­cent years to celebrate other Emir­ati agricultural products, including competitions for the best mangoes, lemons and fruit baskets.
“The festival’s competitions are opened to farmers from across UAE, but for the ratab competition most entries are from the Abu Dha­bi emirate, while from the north of the country, much of the partici­pation is in the lemon and mango competitions, as well as other con­tests. This is because of the time of dates ripening. In Ras al Khaimah, for example, dates are fully ripe by now,” explained Qubaisi.
More than 100 farms in the Liwa oasis competed for the model farm award, which is judged on various standards, including the restora­tion of buildings and the quality of soil. A total of AED 500,000 was awarded to 10 contestants, the best five farms from east of Liwa and the best five farms from the west of the oasis. Other prizes were awarded for the production of traditional Emirati handicrafts.
Altogether, 220 prizes were of­fered this year worth a total of AED 6 million.