Saturday, February 19, 2005


Date Palm Trees

In the northern temperate areas of Iraq, trees are not difficult to plant. The relatively ample rainfall and the mild summer climate allow hardy trees to flourish with relatively little effort. But in the central and southern regions, the story is quite different. The arid climate and the scorching summer sun make tree survival unlikely without much care and attention. Irrigation is of the utmost importance.

Anyone who has been involved in such an activity in Iraq, whether in husbandry or in simply planting a tree in a house garden knows how much effort and care that requires. Trees are consequently seen as precious.

The most revered tree is the date palm – the Nakhla. Tall, majestic, beautiful, proud and tough… but it requires constant attention. A fully-grown tree can withstand decades of neglect. Yet, it requires a great deal of care to truly flourish and bear fruit. So much like Iraq.

Every year, an expert has to go up each tree at least 4 times. The lowest row of drying leaves have to be removed, with the base cut in such a way to provide a foot hold for the climber. In April it has to be pollinated. In August, the dangling fruit bunches have to positioned so as to be supported by leaf stems or the main trunk. In September or October, the dates are harvested.

There are more than 300 varieties of dates. Few people know them by sight. Most people are only familiar with the most common 3 or 4 varieties. The dry types store well for long periods without any special requirements. In the old days they, together with milk products, served the Bedouins for many centuries as staple diet. The less dry types are pressed, sometimes mixed with sesame, in 25 pound metal cans to exclude the air then sealed, to be consumed during the winter months.

Most byproducts are used for something in addition to the dates: chairs, shopping baskets, large containers, etc. Even the large leaf ends were used to be covered with cloth and used as floating aids in teaching youngsters to swim. A whole culture is based on that tree.

The date palm tree is so old in Iraq that many of the names of its parts and the tools used for the maintenance are Babylonian in origin, or even older… but still in use today.

In the central region of Iraq, the date palms are used in orchards to provide cover for the more delicate citrus fruit trees such as oranges and lemons. They provide shade from the sun in summer and shelter from the cold winds in winter.

In the countryside, small bunches of trees always indicate a farmhouse from a distance. Until about 50 years ago, some people used to hang lanterns at night atop trees to guide strangers to their homes. This acted as a ‘sign’ to where they can find a meal and a place to spend the night. (The ‘sacred’ duration of hospitality used to be three days, during which the guest takes the welcome for granted.)

The tree is so important that to harm it is almost unforgivable.
During the early Islamic military campaigns, a well-known guideline by a leader to his troops going off to far away lands were: “Do not kill a woman, a child or an old man. Do not cut a tree”.

I remember one particular incident about 15 years ago when two neighboring farmers contested the ownership of a small plot of land. One based his claim on a few date palm trees that he had planted. The other acted foolishly and, in anger, poured some kerosene into the growing tip – the simplest and quickest way to kill those trees. As a result, he lost all local sympathy.

There was a time when there were more than 30 million date palms in Iraq, mostly concentrated in the southern Basra region. I don’t know how many there are now, but I expect less than half. Wars, increasing water salinity and neglect reduced the number considerably. One of the ugly sights of the war zones during the long Iraq-Iran war in the 1980’s was vast date palm orchards with all trees ‘beheaded’ and crown-less. To me they looked like bewildered large exclamation marks pointing towards the heavens.

Near the ruins of ancient Babylon, just north of present Hilla, one irrigation canal stretches for about 30 miles from the Euphrates. On one side of the canal, along a road leading to a holy shrine, the whole area looks like one huge date palm orchard. In fact, they are many small plots around 5 acres each. In most of these, a grid of steel wire is constructed using the date palms as pillars. The matrix is used to support grapevines. The vines grow in the shade of the palm trees. A most beautiful sight! During the 1991 uprising, that area was the center of much ‘insurgent’ activity. The province governor at the time decided to remove all those orchards. No contractor would do it, except one greedy character. Although the owners were duly compensated, that contractor, who moved on to become rich and influential, is still followed by that stigma. He is still is usually referred to as ‘the man who killed all those trees’.

Nowadays, most people who go along the road leading to Baghdad Airport feel a deep sense of anger at all those thousands of trees bulldozed by the US army for some security reasons.

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