Swellboy on… dates

Our man discovers that Saudi Arabian history really is all about dates – but not the sort he was expecting

Image: Brijesh Patel

The closest I came to grasping Einstein’s theory of relativity was during the 1980s, when I jigged about to the 1981 hit Einstein a Go-Go. However, I did once meet Luise Rainer, who won Oscars in 1936 and 1937 and showed me a holiday snap of her and Einstein (in shorts). Now, though, my exposure to Saudi Arabia has given me an insight into what I believe the startlingly coiffed professor called time dilation.

In Saudi Arabia time is not necessarily linear, but folds back on itself, bringing the past into contact with the present in ways you would not expect. First, I was forced to reassess what constitutes the sense of a nation’s history; for when a way of life remains unchanged for generations, one century has a habit of looking much like another. Broadly speaking, three eras of Saudi history seem to impinge on the general consciousness.

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First is a span of time referred to as “about 80 or 100 years ago”, a shadowy zone that can embrace the era of King Abdulaziz, who died in the early 1950s, or the various Ottoman incursions of the 19th century. Next is a period referred to as “the time of the Prophet”, which is used much in the way that we call things medieval (in that it spans a number of centuries), and last is the endless, rolling prairie of countless aeons known simply as “before the Prophet”. And linking it all are the dates – not the calendar type, but the kind that grow on trees.

I can’t help it, I love sweet things. I know sugar is currently being demonised as a cross between heroin and high-tar cigarettes, but really, how can something be wrong when it tastes so right? So, I managed to eat a lot of dates during my trip, but what was really fascinating was how highly valued they have been in every period of Saudi history. Some 2,000-year-old Nabataean remains that were recently dug up have, I was told, been identified as those of a woman of consequence because she was wearing a garland of dates; one of the materials used to fashion idols in Mecca (before it was straightened out by the Prophet) was apparently date paste; and then, most remarkable of all, during a tour of one of the abandoned villages, a supremely well-informed local historian told me that he remembered the souk being a thriving hive of commerce in which dates were used as a form of currency.

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Viewed in this light, I now treat the fruit of the palm that my friends at Wikipedia tell me is Phoenix dactylifera with rather more respect.

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