With countless varieties of dates growing in the UAE, finding the best can be a challenge. But that’s the daunting task faced by the judges at the 2013 Liwa Date Festival. The ninth annual extravaganza takes place for the first time during the Holy Month of Ramadan, meaning an extra special atmosphere as the judges sort through an expected 1,500 entries from across the country until well into the night.
In the past the event was a meeting point for around 20 tribes in the Western Region, and that tradition continues today with locals flocking in large numbers. More recently the number of outsiders heading to the festival has increased though, and what used to be a confusing one-day hustle of market trading among locals has grown into a tourist attraction with a real difference. If you want to taste a slice of UAE life that expats and city-dwellers rarely happen upon in the sprawling cities of Abu Dhabi or Dubai, then this is the destination for you.
With a children’s tent to keep the little ones entertained while teaching them more about the country’s iconic fruit, there’s scope for adults to head out and browse over 120 stalls in a traditional souk. There are poetry recitals, handicrafts, cooking demonstrations and games to enjoy as well as competitions, including the search to find the biggest bunch of dates (last year the winning ‘etheg’ weighed in at 108kg). Surely though it’s the gluttony of dates that will have you making the trip… but how do you know which ones to taste first?
‘There will be over 300 varieties of date on show,’ says Obaid Khalfan Al Mazrouei, director of the Western Region Development Council, which hosts the event. ‘They can be yellow, red, greenish brown and each has its own taste. They’re very much like grapes, but dates in fact have more variety of taste; some are salty and some are really sweet. Kunaizai for example are very sweet.’
Mazrouei reckons he’d pick a flavour somewhere in the middle though, yet is a firm believer in visitors taking the time to find their own favourites. The festival coincides with the harvesting season in the region, usually from July until mid-August, so freshness is a key word. In fact, all dates entering the competition must be at suitable ripeness, but if you’re more of a dried date fan then there will be plenty of those to savour too.
The festival is set to award its largest ever amount of prize money, with almost Dhs5 million dispersed amongst the winners in eleven classes. These will include three new categories reserved for entrants who have not won in previous years, giving them a sporting chance of getting in amongst the spoils.
But if you’re heading there expecting outrageous scenes of judge baiting, contestant kick-offs and general skullduggery in the pursuit of top date honours, you’re likely to be sorely disappointed. Despite an undeniably lively atmosphere, the festival is about celebrating the culture, folklore and heritage of date production and, while the national event may heighten competitiveness among growers, the purpose is really to encourage awareness about how to ensure the continuing quality of dates produced.
‘It highlights the importance of exchanging technical expertise between farmers so as to promote UAE date production to ever higher standards of excellence, with the required awareness about the importance of maintaining the healthy natural properties of the product, without any chemical additives,’ says HE Mohammed Khalaf Al Mazrouei, Director General at Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage.
The competition spans over seven different categories, including Al Nukhba – the festival’s most prestigious prize. Al Nukhba involves competitors submitting between 15 and 20 different types of date, all of which are chewed over and rated. To win is a sign that you really know what you’re doing, but only half of the battle is about the size, taste and quality of the dates. The other half of the score comes from judges’ inspections of the grower’s farm the day afterwards. If they’re not caring for their palms in the right way, using the most efficient irrigation and staying as chemical-free as possible, then it could be all over no matter how tasty their dates are.
In the meantime, you could still be reeling from the heady sights, sounds and smells of this authentic slice of Emirates life. As an alternative to a traditional iftar during Ramadan, a date with the Liwa Festival is sure to leave a good taste in your mouth and might just give you a deeper appreciation of the fruit so linked to the culture of this region.
The festival runs July 18-25, Al Gharbia, www.liwadatesfestival.ae.
Liwa is an oasis on the northern tip of the 65,000sqm of sand known as the Empty Quarter to the south west of Abu Dhabi on the E45. It’s been an important green gate to the desert for centuries. Bedouins created underwater springs for date farming back in the 16th century and from there spawned 40 villages, all of which grew on the bounty provided by palm trees. The festival takes place in a huge air-conditioned tent, which apparently you can’t miss… it’s just behind the petrol station. How about those for some accurate directions!
• Palm trees are an indivisible part of Arabian history, with consumption of their fruit being traced back over 5,000 years. However, in the UAE most of a palm tree has been put to good use in some way or another.
• Palm fibres have many uses, including making rope.
• Leaves can be used for basket and traditional hat making.
• Fronds (the feather-like leaves) can be used in baskets and fruit and vegetable packing.
• Date seeds can be turned into animal feed or for making oils.
• Housing frames have often been built using palm trunks.