The Perfect Date

Al-Jiftlik’s Black Gold

Al-Jiftlik, a village some 30 kilometres north of Jericho, is home to an abundance of giant Medjool trees, which produce the biggest, sweetest, and prettiest variety of dates in the world. From the first budding fruits to the harvest, date farmer Zeidan Al-Zain takes great care of his trees, as if they were his children.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Afif Amireh

His light-brown hair glistens in the first rays of dawn. A few white strands contrast with his deeply tanned skin, most likely due to constant exposure to harsh weather conditions. His features are sharp and determined, his hands slender and calloused, and his hooded eyes dangerously smart; this is a man whose life is not easy. But when the lines around his eyes deepen as he smiles, it is evident that this is also a man with a heart big enough to love and care for not only other people, but also hundreds of giant Medjool date trees.

Zeidan Al-Zain, 57, a blacksmith turned farmer, is the father of ten children, although after spending a day with him it seems like he has hundreds. ‘Palm trees look just like people,’ he says, stroking one of the sharp green leaves and then checking the muslin bag containing a heavy branch full of sweet dates. He explains, ‘Palms resemble humans not only because of the love and attention they need, but also because of the length of their lives and the duration of the process until a tree begins to bear fruit.’

“Palms resemble humans not only because of the love and attention they need, but also because of the length of their lives and the duration of the process until a tree begins to bear fruit”

Zeidan is a member of the Al-A'nnuz tribe, one of the many tribes that make up the population of Al-Jiftlik. The name of the village is of Ottoman origin and means ‘the farm’. Al-Jiftlik dates to ancient times, and the origins of its residents trace back to the Al-Masa'id tribe, who accompanied Christian pilgrims on their journey from the coastal city of Ramle to the Jordan River. Today, almost 90% in Al-Jiftlik work in agriculture, with the majority planting, growing, and harvesting Medjool dates.

There are two ways to reach Al-Jiftlik; either by driving north towards Nablus and then heading east through some small villages until you reach the town, or east, towards Jericho and then taking road 90 and driving north to Far'a el-Giftlik. We choose the latter and drive via the Al-Muarrajat road, a long and narrow road that winds from the high West Bank mountains to almost 400 metres below sea level.

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On the road

It is past midday when we leave the city of Ramallah, the West Bank’s only gateway to Jordan and the whole world. The journey to Jericho takes just under an hour long. Despite being a relatively short trip, it is downright scenic; the landscape gradually changes from rocky limestone hills dotted with white buildings and countless olive trees to rugged, yet enchanting hills of faintly saturated oranges and reds.

It isn't long before another scene unfolds in all its glory; the viridescent Jordan Valley stretching as far as the eye can see, filled with all greenery; of which a huge part are hundreds of dunums Medjool date trees. The economic profitability of date palms and employment prospects are one of the main reasons for the expansion of the Medjool date palm, made possible by favourable climatic conditions and low sensitivity to irrigation water salinity.

Leaving the Al-Muarrajat road behind us, we turn left and head towards the famous village of ‘Ein al-’Auja via route 4491. This village is located 9.8 km north of Jericho and is known for its overflowing spring that attracts both Palestinians and tourists. Passing Al Auja, we continue north on road 90, passing more Palestinian villages and communities, as well as illegal Israeli settlements.

“The economic profitability of date palms and employment prospects are one of the main reasons for the expansion of the Medjool date palm”

The Jordan Valley is a fertile strip of land that runs along the West Bank, east of the central mountain range. It covers approximately 720,000 dunums, covering almost 30% of the West Bank, with approximately 60,000 Palestinians living there in various villages and communities. On the lonely road 90, that crosses the Jordan Valley, we drive north towards Al-Jiftlik, passing perhaps hundreds of thousands of impeccably arranged Medjool date trees. Even those visiting the valley for the first time will understand the high status and value of this tree in this part of the region.

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Black Gold

The Medjool tree is not just any palm tree; it is the palm that produces what is commonly referred to as the black gold, the Medjool date. It is the biggest, sweetest, and visually most appealing variety of the fruit. With its popularity rising, farmers in the Jordan Valley uprooted other types of palms and even other plants to make way for the industry's black gold. In the West Bank, date palm plantations have increasingly spread across the Jordan Valley since the 2000s. And when agriculture changes, livelihoods change.

Arriving in Al-Jiftlik, we not only pass Medjool date farms, but also signs with the names of the many date production companies located in this village. I call Zeidan and he helps us find the way to the date farm he has leased from another landowner. We arrive and are greeted by Zeidan and his five children; Hatem, 35, Mohammad, 29, Hamza, 24, Zain Al-Dein, 19 and Basheer, 12. Despite towering over their diminutive father, Zeidan stands poised and is undeniably in control; he knows that he is the main character of this story and the guardian of everything here; his tall children and the even taller Medjool date trees.

Zeidan has been working in Medjool production for more than twenty years. And for a date farmer, life revolves around the date cycle. He explains that the date season begins early in the year when the trees are cleaned after the end of the dormant period. Then, he says, they start cutting the thorns from the date leaves. The thorns are about 12 to 13 cm long and dangerously sharp.

“The unique thing about date trees is that they can be both male and female. The male trees produce pollen, and the female trees produce flowers”
The Date Cycle

The unique thing about date trees is that they can be both male and female. The male trees produce pollen, and the female trees produce flowers. Farmers cannot rely solely on birds and insects to pollinate the flowers, so the process is done manually. Zeidan explains that when he first started growing date palms, the pollen was manually collected from a handful of male trees planted specifically for this reason. Today, farmers buy pollen and pollinate the female trees without the need for a male tree on site. Between February and April, Zeidan, with the help of his children, repeats the pollination process several times to ensure that every flower is pollinated.

Around April or May, when the fruit begins to bud on the strands, the thinning process begins. This process is important as it allows for better airflow and the chance for each individual date to grow to its optimal size. Around the beginning of August, the Medjool dates are covered with white muslin bags to protect them from birds and insects. The bags also help catch dates that are ripe before the start of the date harvest. However, Zeidan likes to leave a few strands uncovered so that the birds can also get their share of the sweet fruits of Al-Jiftlik.

The harvest season starts in September and lasts until the end of October. It is a known fact that the harvest in the Jordan Valley begins before sunrise and ends before noon due to significantly high temperatures and a merciless sun. Another aspect where a farmer's life is synchronised with nature. That's why we also get up early to join Zeidan and his family during their harvest. It is still dark when we wake up, but we are accompanied by the most unique companion; a gigantic harvest moon that masks the dark night with a calming and velvety silver light, creating a flawless silhouette effect against the sharp date fronds.

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Perfect team

Harvesting dates is a tedious task due to two major factors; the fruits hang tens of metres above the ground, and dates do not ripen at the same time. This means that for over a month, farmers must visit the same tree multiple times, each time shaking off the ripening dates and picking up the ones collected in the muslin bags. It is also a team effort. To reach the fruit you need a forklift and a driver to operate the machines. This is where Zeidan's five children come in, forming the perfect team. With a proud look, Hatem, the firstborn, announces that he is the driver. His siblings laugh mischievously and joke that his job is the easiest. Hatem admits it doesn't require much physical labour but explains he must remain fully alert to ensure the safety of those high up on the forklift.

Mohammad, Hamza and Zain Al-Dein are all up in the trees with black trays and one main task to accomplish; open the muslin bag from the bottom, drop the ripening dates onto the tray, re-tie the bag and repeat until all the bags are complete. Meanwhile, Zeidan is on the ground alongside Basheer, clearly taking advantage of his own special status as the youngest and overseeing his older siblings. As soon as Hatem lowers the forklift to the ground, the three of them start loading the tractor with the heavy trays. After a few hours of work, Hatem drives the tractor back to the shed and, with the help of his siblings, begins unloading the plastic bins to a cool spot away from the now blazing sun.

Small blessings

It's a highly monotonous lifestyle, Zeidan admits. Farming is not the most glamorous profession, but it is a fun job, he says. What seems repetitive to others is simply order to him. The cycle of the date tree has never changed, and growing dates is not exactly creative work, but Zeidan managed to distinguish himself from his peers by using AI technology to monitor his trees. He proudly points to a round plastic nob protruding from the tree next to him and tells me he is one of the first in Al-Jiftilk to use an advanced pest control system to ensure the health of his trees. He takes out his smartphone and shows me a digital map with the numbers for each tree. He then taps one number, and more information appears on the screen. ‘The sensors you see can early detect the types of pests that are trying to kill our trees. This makes it easier to detect and treat the infected trees because, once in the tree, the pests are virtually invisible until it is too late.’ This technology also helps farmers like Zeidan minimise the use of insecticides, which can attack the dates with harmful chemicals and ruin the entire crop. He adds that he is one of the few farmers in Al-Jiftilk producing dates, a growing market around the world.

With a handful of dates in his hands we make our way back to the shed for a freshly prepared dalleh of hot Arabic coffee. Zeidan and I sit on a wooden bench and enjoy the freshly picked dates in silence. Meanwhile, his children chat and tease each other as they arrange the trays to be picked up by the buyers, usually companies that specialise in packaging, distributing, and exporting dates in Palestine and beyond. Basheer runs to sit next to his father and grabs a date from the table. As I watch Zeidan wrap his arm around his youngest, I can’t help but realise one very similar feature between Zeidan and his Medjool date trees; although both look rough on the outside, they both have a gentle heart and a sweet soul that surely lift your mood and help you appreciate the smallest blessings in life.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Malak Hasan is a freelance journalist, photographer, and social media expert. Her career in journalism began in 2010 as a desk editor for WAFA News Agency. She later worked for several other news outlets, transitioning to social media and content creation in 2017. In 2020, Malak Ahlan founded Ahlan Palestine, a social media platform to promote tourism in Palestine through storytelling. She wrote the monthly Ahlan Palestine column for This Week in Palestine and worked with several local Palestini...

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ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER

Filmmaker and photographer Afif H. Amireh studied journalism in Egypt and Jerusalem and worked for several news outlets as a producer before pursuing his passion for filmmaking and videography. Recognizing the power of still imagery, Afif bought his first camera in 2010, marking the start of his journey as a photojournalist and storyteller. Afif's talent and dedication have taken him around the world, capturing the essence of diverse cultures and communities. Throughout his career, he has collab...

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