'Sheikh Zayed loved my Liwa date farm'

Date farmer looking for sixth win at Liwa remembers how the founder of the UAE would come for visits, and drink only the water that came from the farm.

16/07/10 - Abu Dhabi, UAE -  Ahmed Al Murar checks the dates he will enter in the Liwa Date Festival.  Al Murar has won in past at the Liwa Date Festival. (Andrew Henderson/The National)
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LIWA // For Ahmed al Murar, a farmer in Liwa, the desert oasis he knew as a child has grown into much greener grounds. The five-time Liwa Date Festival winner remembers growing up on a small but productive operation, where his family would sometimes host a visitor who not only founded a nation but helped to alter the landscape around him.

"Whenever Sheikh Zayed would come to Liwa, he would first come here and look at our palms," recalled Mr al Murar, who was a teenager at the time. "He would never drink bottled water, only the water that came from the farm. Sheikh Zayed loved this farm." Most of Liwa was once the rolling red sand dunes that remain so iconic. However, 15 years ago, Sheikh Zayed not only created an initiative that transformed the area into an agricultural centre, he paid for al Murar farm to expand from a few date palms and some mango and fruit trees, to what is now the largest date farm in Liwa.

Mr Murar says it is just as much the growing strategies he has developed as it is the actual plants that make his farm so successful. "When people question me, I give them some of my date palms for their farm," said Mr al Murar. "They like to say that 'now we'll be in competition', them versus me. But everyone can grow a palm, what I do is improve the whole process. "Though, when my aunt asked for a little plant, I planted a large date palm near her house. Before she died, it was her dates that won at the festival. So I guess she was my big competitor after all."

For Mr al Murar, the prizes for his work come second to the pride that he feels knowing he has grown the best dates. This year the festival will give away Dh5million in prizes. "I've won four cars, but I don't care about the gifts or the money, all I care about is the win," he said. "Sheikh Zayed took care of this farm, and so has Sheikh Khalifa, so I don't need anything." As the sixth annual date festival opens today, date farmers from all over the Emirates began arriving last night to register the best of their crop with a team of judges.

"When you decide which dates to compete with, you want dates that are half ripened, and half yellow," said Mr al Murar. "The skin must by unblemished and the taste sweet." On the festival grounds yesterday, competition hopefuls gathered in a one-roomed building near the back fence waiting to present their dates for one of the five categories. But getting an entry into the contest is no easy task. If the fruit meets requirements, festival officials send a team out to every potential contestant's farm.

The kind of irrigation system and the amount of pesticide used to grow the fruit is just as closely inspected as the date itself is for abrasions and size. Abu Dhabi Police have even called in a special force - this is the first time the canine unit will assist in farm visits to check for blight. But excitement persists and, inside the traditional marketplace, women talked over each other as they arranged folk art and items woven from palm fronds in their stalls. In front of many stalls, piles of suitcases lay on the ground full of handmade goods waiting to be unpacked. Next door, event sponsor booths were still being assembled, sanded and painted, while in another tent a woman was putting the final touches on a eight-room home made entirely of palms.

"Even on a daily basis there is new culture happening and [Sheikh Zayed] was always supporting that we keep the Bedouin life passing down one year to another, 10 years to the others," said Shamsa Said al Remathe, a volunteer at the heritage display. "We started our lives in one place and changed to new traditions and ways, so this festival means we can give ourselves a picture of the lives we miss."

The festival runs until July 26. @Email:mdetrie@thenational.ae