Although dates are eaten everywhere in Iraq, the job of climbing high palm trees and picking the fruits is an endangered one.
By Murtada al-Hudoud in Nasiriyah
Although it might not seem like it at first, harvesting dates can be a dangerous job. Iraqi local Mohammad Atheeb remembers the day when he fell out of the palm tree in which he harvesting dates in Nasiriyah. He fractured his right hand and had to spend six months in bed because of the fall.
Atheeb, who is in his 40s, didn’t abandon the ancient profession and went back to work after he had recovered. But many of his fellow date pickers have left the job, citing the low pay and the high danger.
Additionally, the number of date palms in Iraq is falling and according to government sources, is at its lowest since the 1980s. Back then, Iraq was called the land of 30 million palm trees. Today, the Ministry of Agriculture estimates that there are only around 18 million date palm trees in the country now.
The province of Diyala has the most date palms, followed by Baghdad. Maysan has the least.
As he prepared to go up another tree to pick dates, holding a climbing tool in one hand, known as a froud, and a basket called a zabeel and made of palm fronds in the other, Atheeb recounted how his father and grandfather had also done this job before him. It was a family tradition to do this kind of job.
Unfortunately, Atheeb says, it’s a job that is no longer as popular. He has found it difficult to find fellow climber-harvesters in his district this season. “The next generation prefer to do easier and less dangerous jobs,” he argues.
Usually his work starts in October when Iraq has a rainy season. At this stage, the tree climbers prepare the wet palm tree trunks by removing dead foliage from the tree. At this time of the year, when the trees are et, it is the easiest to carry out this preparatory running. While Atheeb’s father used a sharpened sickle, Atheeb himself now uses an electric saw to do this.
Pruning continues until around the end of January. At this stage, the climbers help the palm trees cross pollinate, a process that continues for around two months. Palm trees need a hot climate for germination and for its dates to grow nicely. The climbers call this period “date cooking” time.
When the date picker is working, he uses his sickle to cut the dates and when he cuts a large cluster off, he lets them drop to the ground, onto a plastic mattress placed under the tree especially for this purpose.
The dates begin to ripen in mid-July, Atheeb continues, and the timing of their harvest depends on the variety of tree. Some dates varieties ripen faster than others and how fast they do so also depends on the height of the tree. Because taller trees are more exposed to sunlight, their fruits will be ready faster.
Date varieties also fetch different prices as some are considered of a higher quality. Some of the highest priced dates come from the Shuwaithi variety of date palm.
Although the Shuwaithi dates fetch a higher price, most dates fetch anywhere from US$1 to US$3.50 per kilogram. How many dates a single tree can produce also varies. Some produce five kilograms, others can produce as much as 80 kilograms in a season. Iraq’s agriculture ministry says that the average amount of dates that the country’s female date palms produce is around 68 kilograms.
A climber-harvester is paid based upon how many dates they can bring in, not how many trees they have climbed. His cut will amount to a quarter to a half of the sales value of the dates. That’s why most date pickers try to get as many dates as possible.
Abbas Abed, a 55-year-old retired date picker, told Al Menassa he still loves the profession even though he has left the job. When it’s time to harvest, he goes to watch the climbers at work.
He says he is sad that so many people have left the profession but he believes that it will continue to eb a good way to earn money in Iraq. “There just isn’t any sort of technology that can replace the climbers,” he says proudly. “It’s not possible to pick dates without them.”