Tuesday,21 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1157, (18 - 24 July 2013)
Tuesday,21 August, 2018
Issue 1157, (18 - 24 July 2013)

Ahram Weekly

The fruit beneath the thorns

Omneya Yousry finds out more about the versatile and delicious prickly pear

Al-Ahram Weekly

Have you ever thought about what’s beneath the thorny outer layers of the prickly pear? Something beautiful and strong is the answer. Maybe you have never stopped when passing by a prickly pear seller, and maybe you have never stopped to think about what’s underneath the fruit’s thorns. But if you have, then you might well come across a man like Mohamed Al-Haj, a young man who works hard from 8am to 11pm every day selling prickly pears for 40 days a year.
 These 40 days are all he is allowed to work, but they are enough to gather the annual fees required to continue his education at the Faculty of Law. Al-Haj has come from Sohag to Cairo every summer for five years to sell prickly pears from his decorated cart, which he acquired for LE700. “It takes almost seven months for the prickly pears to produce fruit, so we have to wait. Sometimes I help harvest them near my village where they grow in the mountains,” he said.
Al-Haj does not know much about the prickly pears he’s selling aside from the fact that they yield him the income he needs to finish his studies. He even denied that people in other countries eat the fruit. “Egyptians are the only people who can eat prickly pears,” he said. However, in fact prickly pears are widespread in Mexico, Spain, Sicily and on the coasts of Southern Italy, Greece, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Chile, Brazil, Turkey, as well as in Eritrea and Ethiopia, where the fruit is called beles, in addition to other countries in the North Africa region.
The prickly pear also grows on the islands of Malta, where it is enjoyed by the Maltese as a typical summer fruit (known as bajtar). This information was also familiar to Salah, another prickly pear seller, who had stopped his wooden cart in one of the commercial streets in Nasr City. Salah works as a welder of gas and oil pipelines when he is not selling the pears, a job he used to do for many years in Kuwait and Libya before coming back to settle in Egypt.
Salah has sold prickly pears on a rented wooden cart every summer for one month as seasonal work that offers him extra money for 10 consecutive years. But this year he has stopped. “After the revolution and the difficulties of some companies, unemployment rose.  As a result, I was forced to start earlier than usual this year. I started in late June, and I think I’ll continue until late September,” he said.
According to Salah, prices have increased this year over last year, as a result, he says, of high agricultural prices. Growers have raised prices for vendors because they believe that everything is more expensive now, he said, though he was sceptical about whether there were in fact additional expenses in cultivating prickly pears. The pears require little effort to cultivate, since they grow by themselves on hot and dry land. All the grower has to do is to pay workers to harvest the fruit, Salah said.
Salah said that prickly pears do best in the Beheira and Ismailia governorates, as well as in Abu Zaabal. “The fruit has many health advantages,” he said. “It helps in preventing and treating cases of indigestion, and it can also help with respiratory troubles.” Salah is thankful that he has his work, despite the damage the pears cause to his hands, but at the same time he prays that the difficult political circumstances Egypt has been witnessing will settle down soon, particularly because he has no Plan B after the end of this season.
Samir Emam, director of preventive medicine in the Menoufiya governorate, advises people with stomach ulcers to eat prickly pears. “They protect the mucous membranes thirst in hot weather,” he explained. Emam especially encourages people to buy prickly pears during Ramadan. “They are delicious when eaten cold after Iftar,” he said, adding that the pears contain high levels of potassium that help the muscles contract and calm the nervous system.
In addition, the pears help supply the body with iron and vitamins C, B1 and B2. They are useful for weight loss and help to lower blood sugar and cholesterol. According to Emam, prickly pears provide a quarter of what the body needs of potassium and magnesium, which protect the body from tension, regulate temperature, and help to build and strengthen bones, which is particularly important for women and children.
Aside from the pears’ use in medication, the scales of the fruit are used for animal feed, and the plants themselves can be used as windbreaks and to bind the desert sands near to agricultural land. “Prickly pear cultivation in Egypt has not received enough attention, and it has only really spread locally in Fayoum. However, now it is being cultivated in Al-Khanka and Al-Marg in the Qalioubiya governorate, as well as in the Ismailia governorate and in some other areas where reclamation has started to take place,” Emam said.
One drawback of the pears is the seeds inside them, which can cause digestive problems. “Many Egyptians suffer from these kinds of problems, and the first piece of advice we give is to avoid their source,” said Mahmoud Hashish, a nutrition and internal disease specialist. As long as the prickly pear has so many irreplaceable benefits, its drawbacks can be avoided by eating it as a jam or juice, as per Hashish’s advice.
Some people may also fear that the pears they buy from street carts could be polluted. “Prickly pear sellers have a special technique in peeling and putting the pears inside plastic bags, and this makes it safe to buy them from carts, unlike some other food served in the streets,” Hashish said.  
However, people in Egypt are still not using the pears for the range of uses that they are used for in other countries. “They are only used as a summer fruit due to the low production, and Egypt doesn’t export its prickly pears,” said Hisham Allam, chair of the agricultural research centre affiliated to the ministry of agriculture and land reclamation, Al-Basateen branch.
Studies have shown that until late 2008 prickly pears were being cultivated on a large scale in the Qalioubiya governorate on a total area of 952 feddans, producing 36,000 tons of pears, in Giza on an area of 820 feddans, producing 7,697 tonnes, and in Noubariya on 699 feddans, producing 7,493 tonnes. They are also being cultivated in other districts on smaller scales, including in Beheira, Sharqiya, Ismailia, Assiut and in Al-Wadi Al-Gadid.

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