The rose water conundrum

One of the most festive events in Jabal Akhdar is the damask rose harvest season when tourists, by the hundreds, head to the green mountain’s cool climate to see the roses in full bloom.
It’s usually a sight to behold — pink flowers sticking out from their green stalks bringing a different aura to an otherwise pomegranate and fruit trees-dominated environment.
“The rose season begins in late March, has its peak in April and end in the early days of May every year,” said Yousef bin Salam al Riyami, a resident of Jabal Akhdar who has grown in his father’s rose farm.
Not known to everyone is the fact that for the rose season to be an excellent one, preparations are made the whole year through.

Hard work
“It is very important to pay attention to where the roses are planted. The ground where they grow needs to be fertilised and cleaned months in advance even before the first bud grows. The branches also need to be trimmed so that the blossoms can be maximised,” he said.
“We also regulate the water irrigation. The roses are watered more compared to winter,” he added.
Yousuf said that people only see the easy and beautiful part of the rose season — flowers in full bloom, their sweet smell pervading the air, the farmers and their families gleefully harvesting the flowers. This scene often makes for good photographs but there is more to the rose water industry.
“Being in this industry is not easy. There are many challenges and difficulties all of which rose farmers and rose water manufacturers have to resolve on their own,” he said.
“It is an industry that remains to be one of the most important sources of livelihood for the inhabitants of Jabal Akhdar,” he said.
As soon as the roses are in full bloom, farmers with their wives and children go out to their farms gathering all the flowers and place them in pieces of cloth or containers made from plastic or palm fronds. These harvested flowers are then brought to their homes or factories where experts, men, and women who had been doing the process for many years now convert them into rose water. “These roses are placed in processors that the farmers designed themselves. Locally called Al Dehjan, the processor made from clay and stones are customised according to the square area of the farmer’s garden,” he shared.
Al Riyami added, “At the bottom of the Al Dehjan, the fire is ignited using wood as fuel. For some, they are already using more modern tools. The flowers are placed inside the distillation containers and on top of these, they place copper pots that will receive the water that evaporates.”
“The fire goes on for three to four consecutive hours. The water flows from the roses to the tightly sealed copper pot. The farmer changes the flowers in the distillation pot constantly,” he said.
“There are easier and more modern machines being used now but many are still using the traditional process,” he said.
Al Riyami shared that after the long distillation process, the collected rose water is placed in large pots locally called “Al Kars.” These are tightly covered with leather covers ensuring that no foreign objects enter it. These covering takes about 40 days ensuring that the impurities sink to the bottom. The farmers always aim to have a rose water product that is red and has a beautiful, strong smell.
The products are usually marketed locally or in other Gulf countries as rose water is used as flavouring for coffee, tea and Omani sweets like Al Halwa. It is also a favourite ingredient in many of the popular desserts in Oman, the Gulf Region, and the Arab world. It is also used in perfumes or sprays used especially during events like weddings.

Modern challenges
Yahya al Tani, who lives in Sayh Qatna area, has been a manufacturer of rose water for as long as he can remember. He learnt everything he knew from his father when he was still a child. To him, there are two major challenges they are facing now as they produce rose water.
He said, “funding its operation is becoming expensive.”
“The season requires full-time workers especially when there are large quantities of roses to process. Large harvest means longer time to do it and if the farm is bigger, it means paying for extra labour,” he shared.
On the distillation process, he said, “The rose water factory needs to be constantly monitored sometimes for up to 24 hours. All the roses harvested on that day need to be processed within the same day.”
With high operation cost, strong market competition also adds to their worries especially for the small scale farmers.
The 70-year-old farmer, having witnessed lots of changes over the years, said that sometimes the product from large production are stagnated and they sometimes have problem selling them due to lack of demand.
When they have large production, they end up selling the products in small quantities if there are no large scale buyers just to get them off the shelves. If they are lucky, they are able to sold all the products through retail.
“We are trying to overcome these challenges by making arrangements with buyers even before the harvest season. We are also reaching out to markets abroad and are always on the lookout for companies who are willing to purchase our products beforehand,” he said.
To support and ensure the continuation of this ancient tradition, the Public Authority for Craft Industries have launched trainings focusing on modern production of rose water in Jabal Akhdar. Several modern equipment is also being tested and the initiative is also venturing out into other Omani plants.

RUQAYA AL KINDI