Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 August 2011
Issue No. 1059
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The best dates for Ramadan

Nothing is as good as dates for breaking the Ramadan fast. Nesmahar Sayed and photographer Sherif Sonbol search for Egypt's best

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The entrance of the Al-Maraziq village in the Giza governorate on the Upper Egypt road an hour from Cairo welcomes guests with palm trees, promising rich and nutritious food for the inhabitants and visitors. The village is famous for its date palms and its many industries related to dates.

By the banks of the Geizawiya canal, Faisal Serri, 34, is on his bike when he stops to offer us a drink and show his generosity to strangers. "The main crop in the village is dates, and these are famous across the country for their quality and abundance," he says. All the industry in the village is related to date palms, and according to Serri the village has more than a million palm trees.

Hemat Salah, a painter specialising in heritage subjects, adds that there are also other similarities between palm trees and human beings. The palm has a straight trunk, somewhat like a human body, and it is gendered male and female. If its head is cut off, a palm tree dies. If its branches are cropped at the wrong time, the palm will no longer bear fruit.

Salah adds that the palm tree represented the tree of life in many ancient civilisations, and that the Hammurabi law code, promulgated in ancient Babylonia around 1,700 BCE, recommended planting palms and punishing those who cut them down.

According to a study by M Riad of the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation, entitled The Date Palm Sector in Egypt, date palms are among the oldest plants to have been cultivated by man. The date palm's origins are still a matter for debate, though it is thought to have first appeared in either ancient Mesopotamia or ancient Egypt.

In Egypt, the husbandry of date palms, including artificial pollination, has been known at least since 2,500 BCE, as is shown by ancient texts. The palm has long been an essential basic material in construction, energy and handicraft production.

According to Riad, main varieties of date grown in Egypt include the sewi or saidi, from which a popular paste of seeded or non-seeded dates is made called al-agwa. This variety is mainly located in the Wadi Al-Gedid, Fayoum and Giza governorates of Egypt.

In addition, there is the amri variety, principally located around Faqous and Abu Kabir in Sharqiya governorate, and aglani, also mainly grown in the Sharqiya governorate. The most important dry date varieties, or tamr, are barakawi, abrimi, sakouti, and some other less famous names.

These are mostly grown in the Aswan and Qena governorates in Upper Egypt, where the heat required for them is available.

Serri, who used to work in house construction during the rest of the year, said that a palm tree can provide between 100 and 120 kilos of dates if planted in a spacious area. Sewi are the best kind of dates, he says, though "hayany and amhat sold during Ramadan come a close second." Sewi dates are sold over the rest of the year to make the filling for date-filled biscuits.

The palm trees themselves are described as being "strong, stubborn and intelligent". They sway in the wind without breaking, and they retain their place in the soil, reaching up proudly to the sky. The villagers, born among the palm trees, are facing the economic difficulties that have affected the country since the January Revolution with much the same kind of patience.

While many of the villagers wait until October before climbing the palm trees to collect the dates, Abdel-Wahab El-Menshawi, 75, is busy with his job of making baskets to pack the fruit for delivery from the farms to the retail markets.

In a small hut covered with palm stems and branches, he sits with his son, Abdel-Tawwab, 54, cutting palm branches and making baskets from them. According to Mohamed Zeidan, 45, who owns the business, 1,000 palm branches cost LE1,250 and can be used to make 500 baskets. Each basket is sold for around LE5 at least, in order for the business to be economic.

The palm branches used to make the baskets are also used to make furniture and as fuel in domestic ovens. "A thousand bunches of palm leaves cost LE10," said Mahmoud Abu Eid, 21, who had left school early for family reasons.

In the past, palm branches were a symbol of glory and celebration, but today, especially in the Al-Maraziq village, palm branches are no longer necessarily a source of wealth. The villagers put their hope in journalists to make their plight known: offering us tea, Zeidan asked us to write about the village's difficulties in newspapers, saying that "poor education, flour shortages and high prices are the main problems here."

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