‘Nakhla’: the Arabic word for palm tree - an enduring symbol of the region

The palm has long been synonymous with the Arab world

Nakhla translates to palm tree in English
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The palm is a common member of the flora of the UAE and throughout the Arab world, an ancient and powerful symbol of nations, cultures and religions. This week’s Arabic word of the week is nakhla, which translates as palm tree.

In 2019, the palm tree was recognised by Unescoand added to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The nomination to recognise and protect the palm tree came from 14 Arab countries, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestinian Territories, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, the UAE and Yemen.

Shahid Iqbal, a date farm worker from Pakistan, climbs up a palm tree over a fresh water canal based on the "Falaj" traditional irrigation system at the Al Qattara Oasis in the city of Al Ain, United Arab Emirates, on Tuesday, March 10, 2015. In 2011, UNESCO named Al Ain as a world heritage site because of its oasis, its Falaj irrigation and its historical and archaeological significance. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

This shows the importance of the palm tree across the Arab world, traditionally symbolising prosperity and historically having been used as a resource by many in the region.

Although nakhla means palm tree, the verb form of the word, nakhala, means to sift through or to strain thoroughly. While not officially confirmed, a connection between the meaning of the verb can be connected to the unique properties and history of the palm tree in the region.

Often seen as the tree of the desert, palms also symbolise an oasis in an arid landscape, providing shade from the sun and sweet fruit in the form of dates. Historically, palm trees have been used in the construction of homes, their leaves for thatching and cladding structures, dwellings or household items as far back as 4,000 BC in the ancient region of Mesopotamia, or modern day Iraq.

Given that traditionally every part of the palm tree — from its trunk to leaves and fruit — have been used, the origins of the verb form of nakhla can be interpreted as using the best of any substance.

The date palm tree is also associated with fertility in the Arab world, since trees are either male or female, with the latter bearing dates. There are more than 2,600 species of palm trees that grow in warm, sub-tropical and tropical climates along with more than 200 varieties of dates.

Palm trees have also been referenced in all the Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Judaism and in Islam, where it continues to have a strong cultural presence.

While palm trees are ancient and have been great sources of inspiration in Arabic proverbs and poetry, today, palm trees are also seen as symbols of paradise, associated with beaches and tropical islands.

One of the most popular celebrations of the palm tree as a symbol for the Arab region is the UAE’s design for Palm Jumeirah in Dubai, the tree-shaped artificial island.

Satellite imagery shows Dubai's Palm Jumeirah, World Islands and Palm Deira. Photo: Mbrsc

Renowned Iraqi singer Nazem Al Ghazali popularised the traditional folklore song Foug El Nakhal, which translates to Above the Palm Trees, in the 1950s. The song’s lyrics describe a man admiring an unattainable and beautiful woman “above the palm trees”.

The song has been re-recorded in varying styles and genres over the years due to its simple lyrics and the Arab world’s fondness for palm trees.

Scroll through the gallery below to see The National's pick of Arabic words of the week

Updated: January 20, 2023, 6:02 PM