The table was laden with food: a rack of lamb, well roasted and succulent. A platter of chicken over rice. A tray of tabbouleh, a bulgur salad speckled with parsley. A rainbow of watermelon, orange slices and grapes.
But the first things guests reached for as they gathered at the Fejleh family’s home to break fast together on a recent Tuesday night were shriveled fruits about the size of a thumb.
About 14 hours had passed without food or drink.
And what they wanted most of all were dates.
They reached across one another to get to the stars of the show, sectioned off with cardboard on a silver platter: deep black Safawi dates, crunchy Deglet Noor, soft creamy honey dates, Ajwa with their ties to the Prophet Muhammad. And the crown jewel, the sweet and sticky medjool.
“It’s like the right amount of sweet to bring you back to life,” said Aya Muhtaseb, who hails from the family of date farmers.
In 2020, COVID-19 forced mosques to close during Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar. At a time when tens of thousands of people were dying and life was filled with uncertainty, Muslims could not break fast and pray together. Dates were a constant in every home.
After fasting from sunrise to sunset, Muslims turn first to the fruit, a practice believed followed by Muhammad, who is said to have broken his fast with three dates. On Twitter, some joke that it’s the only month of the year where they have a date every night.
Even non-Muslim Latino date farmers have come to understand the significance of Ramadan, filling orders for dozens of boxes to be given to friends and family. It’s estimated that 500,000 Muslims live in Southern California and 1 million in the state.
They can order dates from Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Morocco, but many get them from just down the road in the Southern California desert, where a town was renamed for Islam’s holiest city, Mecca.
The humble date is mentioned more than 20 times in the Quran, more than any other fruit. It’s a Muslim tradition to hand out dates to guests immediately after a wedding ceremony. Pregnant women are urged to consume dates, as they helped Mary before she gave birth to Jesus.
“Of all the dried dietary recommendations by the prophet and by the Quran, this one is the one that’s prevalent all over the world. ... The date is something that has become special,” said Aslam Abdullah, a Muslim scholar based in San Bernardino. “It has a symbolic significance for Muslims.”
In the small Imperial County city of Westmorland, population 2,000, the Westmorland Date Shake store is hard to miss.
Prominent red lettering touts the medjool date shake to those traveling along California State Route 78 and 86. A sign blares, “Date shake capital west of the Mississippi.”
On the door there’s an ad for korma date coffee, featuring date seeds and chicory root. The reasons to eat dates take up the entire front window: To help in sobering up. To increase sexual stamina. To boost the nervous system.
“Forty-five years ago, when I came to this country, people didn’t know what date is,” said Ahmad Fejleh, the store’s owner.
For Fejleh, who grew up in Aleppo, Syria, the fruit has been a fixture although his route to date farming was circuitous.
Fejleh had emigrated to Oklahoma in 1977 to study aeronautical engineering. Years later, he moved to California where he worked as a salesman and then a finance manager at an auto dealership. Eventually, he started a mortgage company.
But his connection to dates prompted a move from Montclair to the Imperial Valley in 2007 to start AYA Farms, a now 75-acre date palm orchard.
“We got involved in this business for religious reasons, not for money,” said Fejleh, who is Muslim. “Date to us, it’s essential and important and it’s not just a product like orange and apple.”
Inside his store, covered in wallpaper featuring date palms, Fejleh recited a Quran passage in Arabic from memory:
وَهُزِّىٓ إِلَيْكِ بِجِذْعِ ٱلنَّخْلَةِ تُسَـٰقِطْ عَلَيْكِ رُطَبًۭا جَنِيًّۭا
“And shake toward you the trunk of the palm tree; it will drop upon you ripe, fresh dates.”
Tears dripped down his face, catching in the circles beneath his eyes, as he recounted the ancient story of Mary, also known as Maryam, coming to rest at the trunk of a palm tree. She was pregnant with Jesus and suffering the pains of childbirth.
As Mary despaired, the Quran tells the faithful, a voice called to her to say that the Lord had provided her a stream and dates to sustain her.
At AYA Farms, Fejleh’s wife refers to the 4,000 trees as his children. After harvesting last year’s fruit in September and October, he kept the dates in the store’s freezer and took them out each month to clean and sell as needed.
Ahead of Ramadan, which began on April 12, the date boxes began flying off the shelves in Fejleh’s store. Around this time, Fejleh said, sales double as Muslims buy boxes to keep handy after fasting or to give to loved ones.
“I think the significance that the Quran mentioned it 22 times, and it begins with the reference to Maryam, adds significance … and gives it a more holy kind of stature,” Abdullah said.
Around the holy month, Fejleh reduces the fruit’s cost and offers specials. Last year, of his 300,000 pounds of dates, half from his orchard and the other half purchased from other farmers, Fejleh gave away about 20,000 pounds.
“They’re very dear to me, and when I give them away, it’s like I’m doing something good for humans,” Fejleh said.
Fifty-five miles north, in Mecca, Alvaro Bautista balanced his 170-pound frame on the fronds of a 10-foot tall date palm. He held a green squeeze bottle filled with pollen to spray on the date blossoms.
“Aguas,” his sister Maricela Bautista said, telling him to watch out as a frond cracked. But after years working at the Bautista Family Organic Date Ranch and sitting in the heart of 40-foot-tall palms, Alvaro didn’t flinch.
Before emigrating from the Mexican state of Michoacán, the Bautista family had never seen a date. But soon after arriving in the Coachella Valley — proclaimed the Date Capital of the United States — Alvaro’s father, Enrique, began harvesting the fruit.
“Little by little, I started learning,” said Enrique, who in 1999 purchased the ranch where he and his wife worked.
In this region, the date reigns supreme. In 1904, the same year that date trees arrived here from the Sahara Desert, the town of Walters was renamed Mecca. There’s a National Date Festival held each year in Indio that dates back to 1921.
The Bautista family learned about Ramadan and the significance of dates through their customers.
“It’s going to get good this week, para llevar mas carga,” Alvaro would tell his sisters, a time to bring more dates to sell at farmer’s markets.
Two years ago, at a farmer’s market in Irvine, a Muslim vendor selling hummus nearby told Maricela that they should eat the dates in odd numbers for good energy. They try, although Alvaro joked that he quickly loses count.
“There’s so many different kinds of dates, so you can’t get tired of them,” Alvaro said. “One tastes like brown sugar, one tastes like caramel, one tastes like syrup.”
In early April, a Los Angeles resident emailed the Bautistas requesting 40 boxes of khadrawi dates to send to friends and family. He asked them to add a note to each box: “Ramadan Gift from Umair Valoria.”
Valoria learned of the Bautista dates through a friend in Irvine and said they were the “softest and sweetest” he had ever tried.
Growing up in Pakistan, Valoria recalled friends and family breaking fast with dates. This year, the 35-year-old is keeping a three-pound box of khadrawi dates in his refrigerator.
“The sugar in it goes to your body immediately,” said Valoria, who likes to eat at least three dates after sunset (in keeping with odd numbers). “Because you’re hungry all day, you’re thirsty. This gives you an energy boost immediately to get started.”
“It’s just something Muslims love to eat,” he added. “Even outside of Ramadan.”
On a recent Tuesday evening, the Fejleh family gathered in Montclair for the first family iftar party since the pandemic began. Before the guests arrived, Mohamad, the eldest of the seven brothers, chatted on FaceTime with his daughter, Ashley, in San Diego.
The family had sent extra boxes of dates because the young woman was pregnant with twins.
For Aya Muhtaseb, Fejleh’s niece, Ramadan is the time when she eats the most dates. She keeps them on a plate along with milk in a flask next to her bed so she can roll over to eat them in the morning before fasting begins.
“I never really liked dates, but then Ramadan time made me,” she said.
That weekend, Muhtaseb would have dates once more. Her mother-in-law had requested that she dip them in chocolate, like strawberries.
“We go all out with dates,” Muhtaseb said. “Date shake, date cakes, date pie. Everything.”
Inside the house, guests greeted one another with “Happy Ramadan” and “As-salamu alaykum,” or “peace be upon you.”
When they finally descended on the plate of dates, everyone picked their favorite — often the medjool. Some broke open their date to wedge a walnut or almond inside to cut the sweetness.
Afterward, they knelt in the entryway to pray — energized by the legendary little fruit.