“You got a large bulky envelope in the mail.” Mom looked over at me from the book she was reading.
I knew at once what it was and who it was from by a glance at the scrawled handwriting. “The dates!”
I’ve been trying to get real dates back from the United Arab Emirats for awhile now. Imported ones aren’t really the same in my mind. A former colleague who now lives in North Carolina told me she planned to return to the United Arab Emirates to visit for a few weeks. As many travelers know, it’s quite common for others to pick up small gifts for each other. So, I didn’t hesitate to ask my close friend to bring back some packaged dates and mail them to me in Pennsylvania.
“Yeah, I can do that. No problem.”
It appeared today was my lucky day!
I slit one end of the padded envelope and took out a small yellow box with Arabic script. The dates were from Khatt, not far from where I used to live and work. Khatt is known for its dates. I peeked through the clear plastic window on the box. Two rows of shiny dates slanted inward. The box opened like a matchbox. I slid it open and picked out the first plump date and popped it in my mouth. Soft. Sweet. Succulent.
How many dates had I eaten over a nine-year period? Too many to count, and way too many varieties. From the softest, richest medjool date to the toughest wrinkled date. I was eating dates in Egypt and the Middle East before they emerged as the new, healthy fruit on the American home front.
How I loved them! You cannot live in a culture where dates are such an integral part of life and not long for them long after you’ve left the country. Just as apples or peaches are prepared in many different ways, like sliced, made into cobblers, cooked down into jellies or jams, so are dates. Also, like fruit, there are several varieties, perhaps sixteen or eighteen kinds throughout the country. Dates are prepared in a number of different ways: almond-filled, chocolate-covered, baked into cookies, made into syrup, ahh, I salivate just imagining them). Although dates are common, they can be considered a great delicacy. Emiratis are proud of their date farms. Even young children can tell you about their cultivation.
I remember bringing ten or twelve boxes of dates back to Pennsylvania as gifts on each visit home. One year I gave medjool dates. Another year, everyone received almond-filled dates. The last year I lived in the United Arab Emirates, I bought very fancy chocolate-covered dates individually wrapped in gold foil to give to family and friends. I offered my precious dates to any guest who visited my house during my visit. My family politely tried whatever mode I brought home, and maybe even developed a liking for them. But they didn’t cherish them as I did. They didn’t savor them. I wasn’t even sure they appreciated them. Although, my dad sure seemed to like the chocolate-covered vareity!
Of course, each date reminded me of my life in the United Arab Emirates. Whenever I visited a friend or neighbor there, they immediately offered me a tray of dates. When I passed them out to my friends and family, I remembered that beautiful Emirati hospitality and tried to emulate it. As I munch on my dates right now, other memories come to mind–like special days. I remember feasting on fresh dates as I broke the fast at sunset during the month of Ramadan. Of course, I ate them during any cultural or sporting event, from Dubai and Abu Dhabi to my own city of Ras Al Khaimah. I also remember reading about them in my students’ assignments. Dates were never far from any topic they ever put down on paper. Dates not only meant fantastic traditional food, they meant beautiful scenery. I recall seeing fields and fields of date plantations dot the entire country. And on a personal level, I think of how much I admired the old date tree growing in my own side yard. It brought shade and beauty to my life as well as food to be gathered each season. I would watch the date palm ripen and envision the harvest.
The gift of dates is almost gone. I wanted to offer them to my family on Mother’s Day but that will never happen. They will all be gone by Sunday. Devoured by me, of course!