The hidden value of the
date palm tree

In the Quran, the Virgin Mary takes shelter under a palm tree when she goes into labour. A voice from beneath it tells her she is looked after here, where she can nourish herself on the fallen dates. The story is one of more than 20 references to the date fruit or tree in the holy book. The plant is integral to the Middle East and North Africa, and not just because of its comforting fruit. It is also boiled into syrup, dried into fans and woven into baskets or mats using the traditional technique of safeefah. As an export, it brings more than a billion dollars into the region annually.

But could there be even more value hidden in the date palm tree? This question grabbed the co-curators of the exhibition Fashcultivate at Sharjah’s 1971 Design Space. Fatma Al Mahmoud, who heads the venue, and designer/curator Khulood Bin Thani wondered about the plant’s potential as a fabric. Historically, its fibres have been made into tough ropes. Could new processes unlock a softer yarn? Until recently, the fashion industry used bamboo only for rigid elements like corset ribs. Now, though, bamboo is made into t-shirts and considered a game-changing sustainable alternative to cotton. Will a similar fate await the date palm?

The two took their idea to the Irthi Contemporary Crafts Council, which commissioned lab testing led by Dr. Sandra Piesik, who has previously looked at adapting traditional palm tree architecture for contemporary use. They present the early findings of this research in Fashcultivate, alongside new works from seven fashion and textile designers, who were asked to contribute their takes on the date palm. The highly personal responses are a testament to the tree’s towering position in people’s lives, diets, cultures and imaginations.

New mother Asma Al Mazrouie picks up on the story of the Virgin Mary and the ongoing connection of dates to pregnancy with her glamorous maternity gown, featuring a safeefah-style bodice. Historical narratives also drive the detailed embroidery of a vast shawl by Faissal El Malak.

While a viable date-palm textile might be years away, Hala Kaiksow works with a tried and tested version of its fibre—ropes. She wove delicate strands of it into a sparse coat, whose warmth is in its rich, earthen hues. Print artist Hessa Al Suwaidi also explores the blending of traditional and contemporary in her vibrant piece, titled Um Rashed (Rashed’s Mother) in a nod to the tree’s cross-generational importance.

Several designers embrace the tree’s distinctive aesthetics. Mariam Omaira has given her dress a sculptural spine, intimidatingly spiked like a palm frond, while Shahd AlShehail focuses on date seeds, using them as beads for her ethereal piece, and graphic designer Khalid Mezaina celebrates the various forms in a carpet.

To bring the artworks together, the co-curators tapped interior/product designer Alya Al Ghfeli to plan the layout. In her immersive exhibition design, the displays hang from the ceiling, casting shadows on the floor.

“She’s laid it out in a way where you can sense the shelter that palm trees create,” Al Mahmoud says. “It’s really beautiful.”—Rima Sabina Aouf

Fashcultivate is on at 1971 Design Space from November 2, 2019, to February 8, 2020.

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