"The Green Desert"
TABSEEL < DATE PALM < OMAN AGRICULTURE

 DATE PALM TABSEEL 

The tabseel is not just an annual farming practice. It is a time when neighbours, friends and relatives join hands with the farmer in harvesting his crop. They help him sort the dates, cart them to public hearths and, after they are cooked, spread them out to dry — all in a single day's effort

Busur dates spread out to dry in Ibra — Picture by Khamis al Moharbi

The annual tabseel season begins in May in various wilayats of the Interior and Sharqiya regions, as farmers mark the harvest of their famous Mebselli date crop. During this two-month-long season, massive quantities of Mebselli dates are cooked in traditional hearths and then dried for export, in a colourful ritual that harks back several centuries. However, the tabseel is not just an annual farming practice. It is a time when neighbours, friends and relatives join hands with the farmer in harvesting his crop.

They help him sort the dates, cart them to public hearths and, after they are cooked, spread them out to dry — all in a single day's effort. In times bygone, camel caravans used to go round these wilayats and pick up the cooked dates for export abroad. Today, the processed Mebselli crop (also called busur) is almost entirely bought up by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, for export to lucrative markets in the Indian sub-continent.

Unlike naturally dried dates, the busur has a much-longer shelf life and is coveted as a delicacy at weddings and traditional receptions in India and elsewhere. At roughly RO 280 per tonne of busur dates, farmers are assured windfall margins, and hence look forward to the tabseel season with great anticipation. Harvested just before they turn ripe, they fetch a better price when sold as busur dates rather than if allowed to ripen naturally. And unlike other varieties of dates, which sell according to market demand, the busur crop usually guarantees a healthy income because the Ministry of Commerce and Industry buys up the entire lot

The tabseel ritual — from the harvest, to the cooking process and the spreading of the cooked fruit to dry — is usually accomplished by noon the same day. The farmer begins the harvest at dawn. Using a habool — the traditional tree-climbing harness — he scurries up the tree and methodically hacks off each bunch, letting it slide down a rope to a person who gathers it.Each date palm tree is stripped bare of its entire yield of luscious, deep-yellow Mebselli dates in less than two minutes.

The exercise however unleashes a shower of loose dates, which is gathered up by womenfolk and children. The ripe dates are then sorted from the unripe ones, while those that are prematurely dry are collected separately to be fed to goats. Children haul the date bunches one by one to a corner of the date garden where a gaggle of women busy themselves plucking the dates from the clusters, while engaging in good-natured banter. Neighbours and relatives help out in the effort, in line with the practice of sharing a neighbour's burden.

Assistance rendered by children is usually rewarded with basketfuls of ripe dates. The most distinctive aspect of the tabseel, however, is the cooking process, undertaken at traditional public hearths called the A'terkebah. Each A'terkebah has two large copper pans set above a covered hearth. The pans are filled with water from a nearby falaj, while someone gets a fire started in the hearth using dried date branches. The firewood is fed through an opening in the hearth, while the smoke is channelled out through an orifice shaped like a conical chimney, which gives the A'terkebah its very distinctive character.

The dates are allowed to cook in the pans for about 30-45 minutes. Using a large wooden ladle, the cooked dates are then scooped out of the pan into an open enclosure to allow for excess water to drain away. The steaming fruit is left to cool for a while before it is carted by pick-up to an open field outside the village where it is spread out to dry. On the fifth day, a small army of women and children arrives to gather up the dried dates, which are bagged and stored until they can be dropped off at collection points announced by the Ministry.

© Adapted from Oman Observer