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Cactus call

From a distance, it seems like a yellow frill is adorning an expanse of green. Up close, it appears as if each huge leaf is wearing a crown of yellow, and the trees resemble peacocks dancing with their plumage open, celebrating summer, writes Sadhna Shanker.
None | By Sadhna Shanker
PUBLISHED ON JUL 26, 2006 12:14 AM IST

®From a distance, it seems like a yellow frill is adorning an expanse of green. Up close, it appears as if each huge leaf is wearing a crown of yellow, and the trees  resemble peacocks dancing with their plumage open, celebrating summer. Behind high-rise buildings, on the road to Lebanon, cactus fields bloom.

Cactus trees about 7 to 8 feet in height bear fruit in summer. The greenish yellow fruit blooms on the edges of each cactus leaf like a tiara. Armed  with ladders and covered in thick clothes, with gloved hands the fruit pickers penetrate the small paths in between the trees and pluck fruit.  The cactus tree is hard and strong — it takes the weight of the ladder and of the man on it while the picking takes place. Straight from the tree,  the fruit is ready for packing in wooden boxes, for selling on the streets of Damascus.

Summer in Damascus explodes in a riot of colours. And cactus fruit or sabbara is king in the Damascus summer. Much like mango in India... but cactus-eating spawns an entire culture.

This is tradition in Damascus. The pavement vend is attractively decorated; there are chairs for those who want to sit and eat, and the stall is necessarily located at a point where passing cars can stretch out for a plate. Once broken from its tree, cactus fruit can stay for a long time — even 100 days on slabs of ice. Cactus selling is a 24-hour job in Damascus. The fruit that is offed on a beautiful plate has a strange taste — not too sweet  nor sour. It has countless hard seeds that are also to be eaten. What amazes is the amount of juice that the fruit holds within itself.

Many working women buy the fruit, ready to eat, in good quantities on their way back from work everyday. It is a good evening repast and often does not make it to the fridge as families sit together and lap it up in one go.

As the sun sets, cactus stalls are lit up with colourful lights that lend a beautiful shade to languid summer evenings in Damascus. For the young, sprawling on chairs and eating at the sabbara  stall late in the evening is an essential feature of summer socialising. The green yellow fruit has a special place in the Damascene heart. If you happen to eat cactus for the first time here,  don't be surprised if the vendor offers you the fruit on the house.

After all, cactus fruit vending is not a mere business. In Damascus, it is heritage.

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