UAE currency: a history of the Dh10 note

The Dh10 honours the living legacies of date palms and khanjar daggers in the UAE.

16/07/10 - Abu Dhabi, UAE -  Ahmed Al Murar walks through his farm in Liwa checking 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)

RAS AL KHAIMAH // Adorned with images of the date palm and the khanjar dagger, the Dh10 note has a widespread appeal that is not restricted to any particular emirate.

In the mountains of the north and beyond the sands of the Empty Quarter, the palm and the khanjar are symbols recognised by people across the Arabian Peninsula.

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Both items are found in the house of almost every Emirati. While the dagger was traditionally used to protect home and garden, the date palm made life possible.

Enter almost any home and a basket of dates sits on the table, a mark of hospitality in one of Earth's most inhospitable landscapes.

"The palm is the father, the mother, the everything," said Maryam Khalaf, a woman of "60 or 70 years" who is known to friends as Umm Fuad. "For the ship, for the home, for the food, everything was from the palm."

Date palms outnumber humans in the UAE by five to one. The country's date industry is worth an estimated Dh60 million a year and produces six per cent of the world's dates.

In Umm Fuad's time, decades ago, the date garden was not merely about food or industry. It was about survival. Dates were not to be found in supermarkets, but in lush gardens such as the one depicted on the back of the Dh10 note.

"We took our food from the palm, and we used it to make their clothes," she said. "We used the fronds to clean our house and we used it to cover our food. All the items of the house were from the palm: brooms, fans, gargour [fishing nets]. And when it rains, it's an umbrella."

When not tending to their palm gardens, people were often to be found at their homes, which were built of palm fronds and trunks. The coast was cluttered with loosely tied areesh [fronds] in the summer months and, in the winter, tight-knit khaimah, from which the emirate of Ras al Khaimah, meaning "headland of palm houses", takes its name.

Fisherman on the east coast used every part of the palm to craft shoosh boats. Stripped fronds and fibre rope formed the boat's body, filled with the tree's porous stalk for buoyancy. Some of these boats could even accommodate the motorised engines that arrived soon after oil was discovered.

"The palm is like the people, she's like us," said Umm Fuad. "She has children and we have children."

Umm Fuad spent her childhood summers at family palm gardens in Nakheel, which is now a commercial district but took its name from the palms that grew from its springs.

"I would go to the farm from when I was in the womb," she said. "We'd put the dates and mangoes on a paper near the pond and swim and eat, swim and eat. It was so peaceful."

The palm was always present at her coastal home across the creek in old RAK. By the age of 10, she knew how to weave its fronds and cook its fruit.

Umm Fuad can still recite recipes for any number of date dishes. Her childhood favourite of medious, or date mash, required drying the sweetest dates, such as ithnaiza and buchibal, in the sun before stomping them to a pulp.

The process was as good as the end result.

When she had children of her own, she fed them a mix of fried dates, nuts and water.

"When the baby takes this, they don't get sick and they sleep all the time," she said.

Now in retirement, Umm Fuad said her life still revolved around the palm. She spends her mornings at a women's centre, where she weaves fronds and tali, a braided decoration, in a pattern inspired and named for the great tree.

Once for protection, the dagger now stands for unity

RAS AL KHAIMAH // The date palm brought life and allowed people in the mountains and desert to build a home. But home and the garden needed protection.

Before the rifle, there was the khanjar dagger.

For Sheikh Shaiban Al Hebsi and men of his generation, the khanjar – featured on the front of the Dh10 note – was a wardrobe essential, as much for aesthestics as for necessity.

At every meeting, the ruler of the Habus mountain tribe wore a dagger slung from a leather belt on his hip, a symbol of pride, independence and masculinity shared by desert and mountain tribes.

No one dared ask the respected elder to remove it. But as society aged, so did its values.

The mountain leader was turned away by security a few years ago on an Eid visit to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

Sheikh Mohammed quickly set things right.

“The security said it was forbidden but you know the old men always wear the khanjar,” said Sheikh Shaiban’s son, Major Ahmed. “When Sheikh Mohammed saw this, he said it was no problem. ‘No problem,’ he said, ‘Come’.”

Etiquette dictates that one should never reveal the blade, except perhaps in dance, but khanjars have nonetheless become a rare sight in public in the past 20 years due to tougher regulations and modernisation.

“Now it’s dangerous, but before every man had his kalashnikov and khanjar,” said Major Ahmed. “Before there was problem with the British. Before. After, we become friends.”

Today Sheikh Shaiban’s khanjar is concealed in a leather bag and hidden in a drawer, safe from the hands of young grandchildren.

“It’s like a gun, you can’t carry it in the car,” said Major Ahmed. “This is safe in the house only.”

Sheikh Shaiban’s khanjar was given to him by his father. More than a century old, it weighs three kilograms, is decorated in a delicate filigree of gold and is worth an estimated Dh150,000. The gold was a recent addition, a popular trend since the union of the UAE.

“After union, money came,” said Major Ahmed. “After Sheikh Zayed there came gold and rich men. Before we were poor men. The khanjar is old, only the gold is new.”

Time has transformed the khanjar from a tool of survival into an accessory of unity and prosperity. Its history can be traced in the photographs that hang in the family majilis. Old photographs depict Sheikh Shaiban in relaxed conversation with Sheikh Zayed, the founding President of the UAE, wearing this very blade before the country was formed.

Though the khanjar is no longer worn by today’s youth, its meaning ensures that it is a long way from going out of style.