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Spectrum » Travel

Posted at: May 14, 2017, 2:23 AM; last updated: May 14, 2017, 2:23 AM (IST)

Oman’s date with the dates

Date palm is not merely a tree in this Arab country. It is entwined with the lives of the people

Preeti Verma Lal

Who could ever think of dates as a deadly weapon to trounce a marauding army? Dates? Yes, the sweet, succulent, laden-with-nutrients dates as ammo. In ancient Oman, rulers had a no-fuss military strategy — build a fort with holes in ceiling, christen these ‘the falling shaft’ and deploy date syrup as slick terminators. Throw logs into burning fire, boil the dates into a gunk. And then wait stealthily for the enemy to set foot in. That fateful moment when the army crossed the spiked wooden door, pots of boiling hot date syrup were poured. Not from heaven. But from the fort’s falling shaft. The scalded soldiers wailed, bawled, writhed, squirmed in pain. For the enemy, it was death by the date. For the Omanis, a sweet victory. 

The date is no longer a war ammo, but in the Nizwa Fort built in 1649 by Sultan in Saif Al Ya’rubi, the falling shaft still bears testimony to Oman’s fascinating battle tales. Not just the soldiers, even the seafarers depended on dates for survival — only 15 dates cater to an adult’s daily requirement for essential vitamins, minerals and other trace elements. Dates and dried lemons saved the seamen from scurvy, the nemesis of the western sailors. 

There is more to Oman’s date with dates. For generations, dates have been the main wealth of the Omanis; the palm enjoying a near-hallowed place in every farmer’s life. It would take a lifetime to count all date trees in Oman — 7.6 million of them in the nation with a terrain encompassing desert, riverbed oases and long coastlines on the Persian (Arabian) Gulf, the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman. It might take more than a long breath to name all 250 date varieties: khalas, khunaizi, khasab, naghal, qashkantrah, bunaringah, fardh, mebselli and qashtabaq. Each distinct in taste, colour and texture. Qashtabaq is red-yellowish and oblong; khunaizi and khasab are dark red. Khunaizi is the most sugary in taste and khalas is often billed as the most delicious. 

For Omanis, dates are not merely a sweet-thing. It is the perfect accompaniment to the traditional sugarless-coffee. Chew a date, take a sip of coffee and the two together make a heavenly cuppa. Wrap the date in chocolate and the sweet-toothed would happily die for it. Pound it with sesame and the sticky sweet turns into a mouthful of good health. Forget humans, even donkeys and horses have their date with dates. Dry dates are often added into donkey feed and a racing horse gets its daily dosage of dry dates, ghee (clarified butter) and honey. 

So entwined are dates with the life of an Omani that the shoot of a date palm is ceremonially planted to commemorate the birth of a son. And when a date palm dies or falls sick with blight, the family laments as if a dear has departed. In Oman, it is not merely a tree. Date palm is the closest approximation to a friend and provider.

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