The secret life of date palms

An installation at the UAE Pavilion at the Milan Expo tells the story of a tree whose power extends far beyond its fruit

In the UAE, the date palm is never far away. Its soaring, spikey green leaves provide shade to those looking for rest, its strong trunk acts as a place to lean on, and its orange fruit feeds during a harvest. It can be seen lining highways, surrounding parks and is dotted across neighborhoods new and old. During Ramadan, its ripe and chewy dates are available in abundance; as a source of natural sugar they are usually eaten first to break a fast.

“For at least 7,000 years, this species has sustained and fostered life in the Middle East,” says Rashid Bin Shabib, a co-founder of Cultural Engineering – an interdisciplinary practice founded in the UAE.

“Equally important, it provided shelter from the sun and wind, building materials for housing and raw materials for tools and utilitarian objects.

“Today, the date palm continues to play a critical role in the region as population growth and resource shortages create greater value for renewable resources.”

Masters of exporting the best of what the emirate has to offer, Cultural Engineering is exhibiting the species’ majesty and practical uses in Italy as part of the UAE Pavilion at Expo Milano 2015.

As a food source, dates are highly nutritious, easily preserved and travel well, making them ideal fare for the Bedouin people as they traversed the desert landscape, and for sailors as they crossed the open seas

Rashid Bin Shabib, Co-founder of Cultural Engineering

‘The Secret Life of Date Palms’ is a collection of scientific, empirical and anecdotal research compiled from design workshops, experiments, and conversations with scientists, farmers, researchers and makers. The installation is considered an initial study that uses the past to imagine the future.

“As a food source, dates are highly nutritious, easily preserved and travel well, making them ideal fare for the Bedouin people as they traversed the desert landscape, and for sailors as they crossed the open seas,” continues Bin Shabib.

Six date palm characteristics provide the structure of the exhibition: form, fruit, hydration, metamorphosis, shade and shadow, and gender. Each investigation draws on Emirati traditions and knowledge.

“In sharing this collection of objects with a broader audience, our endeavor is to tell the story of a species that continues to provide great value to our region. It is our hope that the spirit of engagement and ingenuity employed throughout history inspires others to find value in their own regional resources, climates and cultures,” says Bin Shabib.

The UAE’s date palm, responsible for 6 per cent of the world’s date production
The UAE’s date palm produces six per cent of global date supply

The UAE is one of over 50 countries that have built pavilions at the Expo. Its offering, by renowned architects Foster + Partners, is close to the centre of the Expo site; visitors are invited inside the structure between two 12-metre walls forming a canyon-like opening. Its shape and form takes inspiration from the landscape and sustainable traditional architecture of the UAE.

Designed as a sensory experience, the pavilion includes a film following the journey of Sara, a young girl who learns that the values and experiences of past generations can help in the quest for a sustainable future. The mini-drama highlights the scarcity of water and celebrates the role of the date palm in sustaining life in the Emirates during difficult times. This is followed by a multimedia presentation in a theatrical space where Sara inspires the audience to take individual responsibility for the future of the planet.

The theme for Expo Milano 2015 is ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life’, and each pavilion is being asked to respond to the question: In the future, will it be possible to ensure sufficient, good, healthy sustainable food for all mankind?

The UAE’s date palm, responsible for 6 per cent of the world’s production, surely holds some of the answers.