BURAYDAH, Saudi Arabia — At 5 a.m., in the heart of Saudi Arabia's date industry just over 220 miles northwest of the capital, Riyadh, the Buraydah Date Festival is bustling as Saudis flock to get the first pick of prime dates fresh off trees.
Hundreds of white pickup trucks packed to the brim with dates are lined up, row after row. Atop them stand men shouting out numbers as they try to sell dates by the tens of kilos.
It's the height of date season, which begins in August and goes on until November, and Saudi Arabia is one of the world's top producers and exporters of dates, which are native to the Middle East. Saudi dates are famous for their quality and variety — so much so that the season attracts date producers from around the world who come to Saudi Arabia to study the palm trees and learn how to grow sweet, meaty dates like the ones grown here. Organizers of the festival told NPR that 45 different kinds of dates are being sold at the auction.
The most popular one is Sukkari — sweet, like its name in Arabic, and golden brown, with caramel notes and a melt-in-the-mouth texture.
Then there is Ajwa, small, dark in color and chewy, with notes of cinnamon and cloves.
Another is Khlas, which has a thin skin, a chestnut brown color and a nutty undertone.
Nearly all the people organizing the event or selling dates are men — this is a conservative part of country. Work to implement recent reforms welcoming women into the workforce has mainly been focused in the big cities, like Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam. Here in Buraydah, genders remain segregated in restaurants and public spaces, but women come to the festival to buy dates.
"We're looking for the big round Sukkari dates — you have to come early to get those," says 30-year-old Mishayer Alrumaih, who is shopping with a friend.
She wants to buy tens of kilos to put it in the freezer at her house to keep fresh and eat throughout the year.
There's another thing she's here for — the rutab dates — a stage in dates' growing cycle when they're only semi-ripe. They're available for just a few weeks each season and, unlike regular dates, must be consumed quickly. The top half of a rutab is golden in color, crunchy, juicy and sweet, whereas the bottom half is darker caramel brown and dissolves as it hits the tongue.
"Everyone should get to try it once in their life — it's amazing, indescribable; you have to taste it," she says.
Dates are a cornerstone of Saudi culture, hospitality and daily life, Alrumaih tells NPR. Considered one of the best gifts one can give, every gathering, party or dinner in Saudi Arabia begins with a service of dates and Arabic coffee — a very light roast with cardamom and saffron.
One can find so many things made out of dates here, like date powder — a sugar substitute — dates covered in chocolate, dates stuffed with dried fruits or nuts, and date ice cream and milkshakes. Even skincare products are made from date seed oil. They're used in kabsa, an Arabic rice dish with slow cooked lamb. And in sweets like the popular maamoul, a thick butter cookie pastry filled with dates, or the lesser known but highly sought-after Saudi delicacy klaija, a crunchy waffle-like pastry with a soft date molasses filling that's spiced with ginger, cinnamon, cardamom and lemon zest.
Dates are also rich in minerals and vitamins and have a high nutritional value. They have deep roots in Islamic tradition, as well. During the month of Ramadan, in which observing Muslims abstain from eating and drinking from dawn to sunset, millions around the world break their fasts with dates and a glass of water.
"There's no point in having Snickers or other processed chocolate sweets when you can have dates," jokes Abdullah Alqateeb, owner of a big date farm with over 10,000 palm trees. He's also the head of the date farmers' union in the Al Qassim region.
The production of dates, however, takes a lot of work. Dates come from palm trees, a dioecious species, meaning there are male trees and female trees. After pollination, it takes around six years for a female tree to produce fruit. Alqateeb says date farmers need to care for the trees on a daily basis, maintaining the tree from the root to the branches to ensure the highest quality of dates.
"Dates are a blessing," he says. "We're lucky to have them."