Thursday, May 28, 2009

Dating Around the World

I've heard from many of you that you enjoyed/were horrified by my most recent post about the religious police and how they affect our personal relationships here. Thanks for your comments, both online and offline - I'm glad I wrote something captured your attention. Now I want to write about another form of dating that I've experienced overseas.

Last week, one of the local hires in my office showed me a photo of him in his home country as a kid, playing in a zoo that was later destroyed in a war. I idly flipped the photo over and saw that it was dated 1977. "How can this be?" I asked. "You're only a few years older than me, you weren't alive in 1977." He then reminded me that the Ethiopian Orthodox church runs on a different calendar, seven years and change behind the calendar we use in the US. This got me thinking about the various calendars that are used in the world, how the calendars indicate the priorities of a society, and how we take the Gregorian calendar for granted.

Saudi Arabia runs on the Hijri calendar, the Islamic lunar calendar that counts time since the prophet Muhammad fled with his followers from Mecca to Medina in the Gregorian year 622. (The word Hijri comes from hajara, to flee, or haajara, to immigrate.) We're in the Hijri year 1430 now, and it began on 30 December 2008. The Hijri year is about ten or eleven days shorter than the Gregorian year, so holidays move "backwards" every year - last year Ramadan started on 1 September, and this year it will probably start around 22 August. I say "probably" because each month must begin with the sighting of the new moon - if the moon isn't seen (perhaps due to clouds or dust storms), then the month hasn't started. This has led to a number of interesting tensions in the global Muslim community - can Ramadan start on different days for Muslims in Detroit or London or Jakarta? There's no central religious authority for the community, so is it acceptable for Muslims in India or Morocco to rely on the sighting of the moon in Mecca, as some have suggested? The general consensus is that the calendar cannot be calculated in advance using astronomical tools - so even though we can predict when the new moon will occur for the next thousand years, we still cannot say with certainty on what day Ramadan will begin in 2009.

Additionally, depending on which date conversion program you are using, dates that we would consider fixed (a birthday, for example) might wiggle a little bit from passport to passport. To confuse matters even more, the calendar here uses the Islamic names for months, whereas in the rest of the Arab world two additional sets of names are used for months, each corresponding neatly to the Gregorian months we know. (One series of names is ancient, going back to Persian or Babylonian names; the other series is just a transliteration of Western month names.) This means that when I had my birthday in January, I could say that I turned 24 on 22 Muharram of the year 1430, but that I also had a birthday on 20 Kanun Al-thani or 20 Yena'ir of the year 2009. The implications of these calendar differences are pretty big in my workplace, as we constantly juggle these competing systems when comparing documents and information given to us in an interview. Many Saudis have to struggle to convert mentally their graduation date or travel history into dates that we understand - they just don't use Gregorian dates that much. (Amusingly, the word in Arabic for the Gregorian calendar is miladi, which comes from the word for birth - as in Christ's birth. Arabic is so much more literal than English sometimes.)

What does it mean that Saudi Arabia uses this calendar system, whereas most of the Arab world more or less operates on a Western calendar? I don't mean to imply that Saudis are more observant or more religiously correct than other Arabs or Muslims; one need only walk around Riyadh to see that piety and ascetism are not values everyone treasures. I do think it is closely related to how Saudi society sees its role in the Muslim world - as the guardians of the most sacred mosques in the Muslim, towards which all Muslims turn in prayer. It's no coincidence that the king is never just called "the king" in media reports here - he's called the Custodian of the Two Holy Sites, King Abdullah. In other countries, people seem to use the calendar system most appropriate to the context. For religious documents in these other countries - wedding contracts, birth records, etc - the dates are likely to be given in Hijri as well as Gregorian terms, whereas business will be conducted entirely in Gregorian dates.

When I went on R&R in January, I didn't expect that I would discover more calendar novelties - which just goes to show that my head is stuck in the sand, proverbially, of the Middle East. I should get out more. When I arrived in Taiwan on 6 January, I noticed week-old signs wishing people happy new year for the year 99 - which confused me. I finally got Jacob to explain it to me. He said that many Taiwanese will use an alternate system of numbering years, based on how many years have passed since the revolution to overthrow the imperial order in China. Once I knew this, I started observing where this calendar system was more prevalent. Anecdotally speaking (and I'm sure Jacob could correct this as well), I saw this system in more provincial areas, perhaps in places where fewer Westerners go. I didn't notice the signs in Taipei at all - perhaps because Taipei is so well plugged into the global economic system that it has bought in to the Western calendar system. Of course, I left Taiwan just before Chinese New Year - the lunar new year when all of East Asia goes berserk in a cloud of red banners and firecracker smoke.

In Japan as well, I saw a different way to count the years, based on how many years the emporer had been on the throne. As Leslie and I wandered around a park filled with Shinto gates, we paused to read the inscriptions on them, indicating the name of the person who had donated the gate and when it was erected. Leslie found gates constructed during the reign of three or four emperors, which is no laughing matter, given that the current year is 21 in the Heisei period, and the previous emperor was on the throne for over sixty years.

These calendars give indications about the priorities of the societies who use them. In Taiwan, the emphasis is on the break from the imperial period and the subsequent civil war that gave rise to the Communist Party in China - obviously the antithesis of the Taiwanese idea. In Japan, the emperor may no longer be divine, but the idea of the imperial family and its relationship to religion is clearly important in how these donors showed their piety. It was good food for thought, especially as I boarded my plane in Osaka bound for Saudi Arabia. The ticketing agent checked my Saudi visa to make sure that I could enter the country, and she was confused - my visa showed that it had been issued on 28/7/29. I tried to explain to her that it was issued in the year 1429, which was the equivalent of 31 July 2008, but she was even more puzzled by my explanation. I finally had to show her my residency permit (which she of course couldn't read, being all in Arabic) and tell her that if I was turned around at the border I would pay for my return ticket out.

There are a lot of other calendar systems that I know about, all religious (Russian orthodox, Jewish, Ethiopian orthodox), but I don't know what other calendars are in use outside of strictly liturgical ones. I hope I can find more as I travel - I get a lot of insight from these small details when I travel.