Balah: The Prequel to Dates
In Jordanian tradition, weddings are announced with a zaffa, a procession of drums, horns, dancers, poems, and friends leading the bride and groom to the wedding hall. I attended my first ever zaffa a few weeks ago in Irbid. After the zaffa, the bride and groom shared a first dance; exchanged gold and silver rings; fed each other cake; posed for pictures; and accepted congratulations from the guests, concluding the reception. While I enjoyed the party, I found the zaffa, the prequel to the party, even more exciting. There was something thrilling about being a part of a procession of cars, taking up the entire street and honking to the beat of the wedding. There was something special about old and young men together with children joining hands in debkah, a type of tap dance to lead the procession. There was something whimsical about the poetry that the elderly women recited, comparing the beauty of the bride to a fig at its peak. The zaffa unfolded organically and unscripted, with lots of laughs and surprises. The wedding proceeded as planned, following the usual protocol, and did not disappoint.
Nevertheless, when the evening ended, the part that played over and over again in my head was not the wedding itself, but the part before the wedding. With the fig poems fresh in my mind, too, I could not help but extrapolate the day’s events to my newly found daily fruit.
Dates have always been one of my favorite fruits, and most valuable energy source on the run. On my travels, I discovered a new way to eat dates: that is, before they become dates. In Baltimore, I have access to dates only at the final stage of ripening, when they have dried out like raisins. While exploring the deserts of Arabia, I had the opportunity to experience dates at each stage of ripening: balah, rutab, and tamer.
The balah is the earliest prequel to the date. Balah are crunchy and watery with skin as smooth as that of grapes and taste ranging from a dull apple or pear to a sharp sugarcane. The crunch of the balah comes from the tight strings of fiber that make up its flesh, which also have the potential to create a bitterness, like that of an unripe banana or persimmon.
When the balah ripens, it becomes rutab, a fruit half crunchy like its predecessor and half chewy like its successor. Rutab are so moist that they must be stored in the refrigerator. In this stage, the skin begins to wrinkle, making small waves at the chewy parts. The fiber-full strings seem to dissolve into sweetness, and the whole fruit is soft and sugary.
When the rutab ripens, it becomes tamer, a chewy dried fruit. The excess moisture has evaporated, and what remains is only the essential vitamins, minerals, and sugars to sustain a nomad in the dessert or a runner on the rails. Tamer lasts for a long time without refrigeration, so in places where palm trees do not grow, this is the stage of dates that people can readily access. Whenever I mention dates, I usually mean tamer.
I will always love tamer for what they are: the best snack to carry on the run, to last long distances, to travel across borders, to have in all seasons and places, to withstand all climates, to quench hunger, and to satisfy without fail, every time.
Balah will surprise me. I will enjoy these unripe dates whenever I find myself in the desert in the summer. Some bites may tie up my tongue in bitterness and force its way down my throat with a gulp of water. Other bites will burst with juices like everything I’ve ever wanted in an apple-pear hybrid, only more intense. One bite may please while the other may choke in an exciting succession unlike that of any other fruit. There is something thrilling, special, and whimsical about balah.
Most of all, balah is seasonal. I cannot have it all the time. It announces the advent of the date, like the zaffa announces the advent of the bride. It is not better than the thing itself; it is the prequel. What follows are good dates that last.