Wandering the palm gardens of Siwa Oasis

Palm garden in Siwa OasisWhen you read guidebooks or travel websites describing activities around Siwa Oasis, it’s easy to overlook that this area is largely agricultural.  Most Siwa residents spend their days caring for crops – olive trees, date palms, vegetables, guava, nehbak and pomegranate trees, a bit of emmer wheat and forage crops for the animals. People here also keep domestic animals for their meat, milk or labor – sheep, goats, chickens, turkeys, rabbits, pigeons, cows, donkeys and horses – and the animals, too, require care.

Kids on a donkey cart in palm groves of Siwa OasisWe enjoy wandering around the small back roads of the oasis and seeing all this agricultural life. Just a few minutes from downtown Siwa, you soon find yourself on some narrow, bumpy dirt road that curves through palm groves and around natural springs with big round wells built around them, some with stonework from Roman times. A lot of the time you’re alone, or you might run into a farmer (or a few kids) on a donkey cart.

You can walk through the palm gardens themselves, as the Siwans call them. No one will mind, or try to stop you. Dates are ripe for harvesting in October, so right now, in late March, it’s all about maintenance – sawing off old palm fronds and piling them up for burning; digging and weeding; trimming the olive and fruit trees.

Date palm blossoms

Men dig up the small palm trees that sprout out from the base of their mother plant, to plant in other gardens. These will yield fruit years earlier than palm plants that start from seed, and I have been told they yield better fruit. This is also the time of year when men climb into one tree after another, hand-pollinating the acid-yellow flowers of each female palm with a bunch of flowers from a male palm.

The men working high in the trees seldom call out to us, and we’d never try to start a conversation with them; it’s just too dangerous. But we’re happy to chat with people working on the ground. We exchange polite greetings – “salaam aleikum, or “sabah al-kheer” – and occasionally get invited to tour someone’s garden, or settle down for a chat. We sit on the edge of a bund with our host, and while Alan practices his Arabic, I look up at the bits of blue sky between the overcrossing palm fronds, and listen to the palm doves cooing high above the human voices.

Time slows while we’re rambling through the palm gardens. Peace is upon us as walk carefully along the bunds, cross palm-log bridges over irrigation channels, and point out fish and frogs to each other. The palm gardens have their own soundscape, composed of wind in the palm leaves, the soft cooing of doves, and the surprisingly varied sounds the frogs make – singing one minute, croaking the next.  These gentle sounds wrap around us like a soft Siwan shawl, insulating us from the mechanical growling of motorcycles and tuk-tuks passing on roads just twenty or thirty meters away.

You’d think the most peaceful groves would be those the furthest away from town, but that’s not really the case. The oldest gardens, those with tall trees more than 100 years old, are pretty close in to town. As you move further out, the gardens tend to be newer, so the trees are shorter, and the landscape more open to the sky. These are beautiful in their own way, of course, and we explore them, too.

Dates still hanging on tree months after the harvest, and dates in the hand, Siwa Oasis
Luscious dates, just waiting for me to pick them.

I am constantly tempted by the bunches of dates that still hang from some of the trees, months after the last harvest. I gauge whether they’re close enough for me to reach, prompting Alan to refer to “low-hanging fruit.” I reach carefully around the sharp thorns on the palm-frond stems, and carefully pick the softest-looking dates I can find. I dust each one off with a tissue (or the hem of my shirt, if I’ve run out of tissues), and open each date in turn to check for insects before I pop it into my mouth. The taste of these dates, dried by the sun and wind, is extraordinary, at least to my palate – much richer in flavor than the very same dates after they’ve been processed and packaged in one of the local date factories.

When I asked Yusuf, the owner of the hotel where we’re staying, if it’s okay to pluck these dates, he said, “No one will be angry you take three, five, seven dates.” “What about 30?” I asked. He laughed, and said, “Even 30. These are left for give to animals,” meaning donkeys, mostly. “But you come in October,” Yusuf said, “when dates fresh. Oh my God, with yogurt, so good. People working in harvest time, they eat all day, not want dinner.”

The palms of Siwa provide a lot more than fruit to the people of the oasis. Palm logs have been used as posts, headers and beams for hundreds of years, at least, and palm-log ceilings are one of the features of new buildings designed to evoke Siwa’s past. People make furniture from palm wood, weave baskets of all kinds from the leaves of the fronds, and use entire fronds to build fences and other enclosures.

This type of palm-wood crate is used for transporting everything from chickens to melons. This one protecting a geranium reminds me of the Little Prince protecting his rose bush.
Palm-wood furniture.
Edge trim for a restaurant countertop, woven from the palm leaves.
Palm basket and cache-pot.

One friend who’s lived in Siwa Oasis for 17 years told us that the Siwans sometimes cut the living trunk of a palm and gather the sap that drips out overnight, collecting it before dawn. She says it has an amazing taste and medicinal properties, but only if you drink the liquid right away, before the sun rises.

I’ve read that people eat palm blossoms, which seems a real indulgence – eating blossoms that could otherwise become fruit. But there’s such a bewildering abundance in the palm groves, maybe it makes sense. Dates lie everywhere in the palms, uncollected, being slowly consumed by insects, decaying into the soil and enriching it. It’s been like this for thousands of years, I am sure.

Dates drying on the ground, probably for feeding to animals.
These drying dates tasted quite good, especially the darker ones on the left. But I’m pretty sure these are considered “donkey quality” — that is, good for feeding to animals.

Palms are some of the most ancient plants on earth – Wikipedia tells me that there are fossilized remains of palms from 50 million years ago, and palms are known to have been cultivated in eastern Arabia between 5530 and 5320 BCE.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that we get such pleasure from wandering amidst these tall beings that have given us sustenance for so many centuries. They reach to the sky, and when they collapse sometimes, people prop them up with pieces of palm log. “We say she is praying,” says Yusuf, when we point to the leaning, supported palms in his garden. That seems about right.

Leaning, supported palm tree in a Siwa Oasis palm garden

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