A Date to Remember

Saddle up your camel and head for the oasis for an unforgettable date with Gary.
by Gary Parker, 4 Barrens Close, Woking, Surrey
Chamaerops No.16, published online 23-08-2002

Sand, sun, blue sky and Date palms

If palm enthusiasts were asked to name their favourite palm, it would be fair to say that not many would name the 'true' Date palm, Phoenix dactylifera. Nevertheless, the date palm is one of the world's most important palm species. While on holiday in Tunisia, my wife, Jo, and I decided to visit a remote oasis in the Sahara desert, to experience date palms en masse and to learn how dates are grown.

Tozeur is the largest oasis in Tunisia, situated where the Sahara reaches up into the virtually uninhabited southern half of the country. We flew south from the Tunisian capital, Tunis, over hundreds of kilometres of semi-desert, and landed on a featureless, sand-swept plain that represents Tozeur's airport. The flatness was broken only by two huge Boeing 747s with peeling khaki paintwork and sand drifts building up around them. Apparently they belonged to the Iraqi air force, which had left them there when the Gulf War began and had so far failed to return for them. Already, they appeared too sandblasted to ever take to the skies again.

Tozeur has the feel of an islamicised version of an American Wild West frontier town. Simple mud-brick houses line dusty streets filled with old men on donkeys and young men on mopeds. Families of goats lie in the shade, surveying the activity. Six times a day, wailing songs issue from the minaret, which is by law the tallest building in town, to summon the townsfolk to the mosque for prayer. Women are seldom seen, because a strict form of Islam is favoured in these remote regions, virtually confining women to the home. When women do appear, they are totally covered in black fabric, like children playing ghosts, except that even eyeholes would be considered immodest. Presumably they can see through the fabric to some extent.

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