As the 8th Oman Date Palm Festival is being celebrated at the Oman Convention and Exhibition Centre, it is an apt moment to consider the importance of preserving intangible cultural artifacts which are part of a living heritage.
Dates in Oman are not just part of the past but continue to play an important part in the economic life of the country today. Oman ranks among the top 10 producers of dates in the world with “8 million palm trees yielding more than 250 indigenous varieties,” according to NPR.
Date palms are also famously known for being used in various ways, with protective shades made from the fronds, hand fans and baskets being made out of the leaflets and its fibre being used to make rope.
There have been many studies on the variety and quality of Omani dates, as well as on identifying new processing and packaging techniques suitable for export. An aspect which has been less focused on is the importance of preserving the culture surrounding date cultivation and its role in continuing Omani heritage. This is part of intangible cultural heritage.
UNESCO defines intangible cultural heritage as “oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, knowledge and practices... or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts”. Date farming is one such example of cultural heritage which must be documented in order to preserve it for posterity.
Other examples of ICH (Intangible Cultural Heritage) in Oman include Harees, the wheat dish, Al Heda’a, the oral tradition of calling out to camels, and the intricate work of making khanjars.
Dates are known to have been planted and used for over 6,000 years, with the earliest evidence in drawing and manuscripts being from 2400 BCE. The cultivation of dates gives an insight into Omani culture and history.
As is well known, guests are invariably welcomed with an offering of dates and kahwa, Omani coffee. The process of cultivation itself is an inclusive process, often involving the entire family, and even the village.
Studies have shown that farmers are keen on sharing the art of cultivation and harvesting to the new generations, often taking children with them to show the intricacies of the process.
As part of preserving cultural heritage, there are also studies which explore customs surrounding the various stages of production – from planting to harvesting. Observers note how everyone cooperates and share in the hard work of climbing the trees, plucking the dates and drying them.
Once harvested and processed, dates continue to play an integral part of Omani social life – be it weddings, festivals or just everyday routine. Known to be nutritious and an antioxidant, it is finding a way into modern kitchens in newer forms as well.
As we continue to enjoy eating dates in all forms, documenting its story will add to the available knowledge on it and preserve it for future generations.