After years of wars, sanctions and drought, farmer Qais Nima Khamis says it's time to save the dates _ and bring back Iraq's long-regaled fruit palm industry, which once led the world market.
Khamis, whose family has been growing the fruit since 1880, is growing hundreds of more date trees this year, aiming to double his grove to up to 1,500 palms. The government is taking its own action to revive Iraq's lost golden age of dates, supporting farmers with loans and launching nurseries.
It's just a start, said the 40-year-old Khamis, but "Iraq is now open to all the world, the government started some steps and that has brought some hope."
During its heyday, in the 1950s and 1960s, Iraq was the world's No. 1 date producer and exporter and boasted 32 million date palms, more than any other nation in the world. At that time, Iraq produced about 1 million tons of dates annually, said Kamil Mikhlif al-Dulaimi, head of the Agriculture Ministry's Date Palm Board.
But by 2003, there were only half that number of trees and production fell to 200,000 tons. The southern province of Basra was the worst hit by the slump, with only about a quarter of the 12 million date trees it once had.
"That prompts only deep sadness," al-Dulaimai said in an interview.
It's not just an economic issue of getting a bigger slice of a date export market that nets big producers like Iran and Pakistan millions of dollars a year. Being renowned for dates is also a point of pride. Like all Muslims, Iraqis honor the date palm as a blessed plant.
It is mentioned many times in the holy book of Quran which, at one point, states that Mary gave birth to Jesus under a palm tree and she ate its fruit to ease the pain of childbirth. And the prophet Mohammed stressed the benefits of dates as a medicine for several human diseases. A date is the traditional way for Muslims around the world to break their daily sunrise to sunset fast during the holy month of Ramadan.
Now, with the worst years of violence following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion over and oil revenues bubbling on the horizon, Iraq has focused on the date industry as one of several sectors _ including oil, agriculture and infrastructure _ it wants to develop.
The government has begun supporting date farmers with soft loans to plant new orchards and subsidized fertilizers and insecticides. It established the Date Palm Board in 2005 with a mission to more than double to number of trees nationwide to 40 million by 2021.
The board has built 30 nurseries around the country to produce new varieties and it has launched programs to rehabilitate old orchards and build processing and storage facilities. It is aiming to develop tree varieties that produce fruit in two years rather than the four or five it usually takes.
The push has brought some progress. The number of trees has risen to 21 million trees, producing 420,000 tons last year, al-Dulaimi said.
"This is a major leap forward," al-Dulaimi said proudly. "We are reaping the fruits of these efforts."
Marhon Abid Falih, a date farmer south of Basra, would like to reap some of those profits. But he's not sure the government can help.
Iraq's chronic problems over the decades _ lacking of water, electricity, fuel, and storage _ have forced many farmers to abandon cultivation and find another jobs like in the army or police.
In 2002, Falih's orchard in the Abu al-Khasib area south of Basra boasted as many as 200 date palm trees. He grew fruits and vegetables in their shade, and hired dozens of workers to help him during harvest. The farm made enough money to meet all his family's daily needs.
But a year later, his farm was hit by drought and its soil grew bitter. Only about 50 trees survived.
"There is no motive to cultivate anymore," said Falih, 52.
"It's not a matter of planting new trees or taking loans," he said. "There is no a longer benefit from agriculture because of the salinity and dearth of water. All attempts are in vain."
"We will look for another work and come back only when there is water."