On a Wing and a Prayer

Sometimes when I write here I know exactly what the content will be. Mostly, though, I have a couple of thoughts and they develop (unravel?)  into a text. I always put my title up first, which helps to structure what follows. But by the same token, the title is rarely a straightjacket, so the words can flow down creeks and gulleys into the broad river below.

A river is a good metaphor for many things, including the progress of life and the passage of time. It’s easy to see your life with its origin at the source, sprouting up from the darkness of mother earth. And to contemplate how those same rivulets and tributaries contribute to shaping you: some bring sparkling clarity and happiness; others, dark and polluted moments. In this way life flows irrevocably toward the sea, where the river finally dies.

If, like my rabbit mother, you believe in reincarnation, then the hydrological cycle obliges by transporting you elsewhere and laying you down to begin all over again. At this time of year it is usual, at least in the Judaico-Christian tradition, to celebrate the end of the year as the end of a cycle,  and to start afresh. It is somewhat bizarre that we often choose to enter this fresh new cycle with a gigantic hangover.

None of the religions seem to have hit on the end of the year correctly, and it’s a measure of human stubbornness that we are unable to converge. To me it would make sense that the shortest day of the year, i.e. the winter solstice, should mark the end of the year. That would place Christmas on January the 4th, and invert the order of hangovers. But instead we observe the New Year one week after, for reasons that presumably date from the Romans, and are rooted in a thoroughly imperfect calendar.

In The India Road, Ana de Mendonça, mistress of King John II of Portugal, tells Florbela the story of the Roman calendar.

Ana remembered a story the Perfect Prince had told her. John had an undisguised admiration for greatness, and had explained that Julius Caesar had reformed the chaotic old Roman calendar, increasing the number of months from ten to twelve.

“In the process,” the king had said, “Julius renamed the fifth month, Quintilus , to July, for himself, and made it the seventh month in the year. The twelve calendar months now alternated between thirty-one and thirty days. But then came Caesar Augustus, grand-nephew of the murdered Julius; the same relationship as Henry the Navigator and myself. And in his honor, Sextilis was renamed August.”

Ana repeated the story to Florbella, trying to brighten her up. “Of course, Augustus was not to be outdone by his great-uncle—he too needed thirty-one days. So they stole a day from February!”

The Chinese and the Arabs both define the calendar around the moon, which means their calendars must necessarily run on cycles that are a multiple of 29.5 days, the lunar period. In fact, there are twelve lunations in a solar year, which work out to 354.37 days. The Arab Hijri calendar is based solely on the moon, and therefore loses around 11 days a year. It started with the journey of the Prophet from Mecca to Medina, and it wraps around every thirty-three Islamic years.

Thirty-three was the age of the Prophet Isa when he was killed, so for the kabbalists out there, there is a symbolic link between the closure of the lunar cycle and the death of Jesus Christ. This is the stuff Dan Brown novels are made of: numerical mumbo-jumbo, breathless action, and a brainy hotty.

In 2012, the Hijra started in the evening of November 26th, and Islamic Year 1433 runs until the 14th of November 2012. Prophet Muhammad is thought to have lived between the years 570 and 630, and it was in the year 620 that he took his followers to Mecca. 1433 + 620 works out to 2053, 42 years more than the western calendar. Those 42 years are (roughly) accounted for by this annual loss of eleven days (1433 x 11 /365) between the two calendars.

The names of the months in Arabic are: yanāyir, fibrāyir, māris, abrīl/ibrīl, māyū, yūnyū/yūnya, yūlyū/yūlia, aġustus, sibtambir, uktūbar, nūfambir, dīsambir. Ring a bell? During the research for The India Road I was sometimes deeply immersed in Arab terminology, since it is inextricably linked to the astronomical component of the Portuguese discoveries, and to many navigational terms.

I became particularly fond of the Arab name for the Mediterranean Sea, Al-Baħr Al-Abyad Al-Muttawasit, the middle white sea, and I was delighted to find out that Boutros is Arabic for Peter. The name actually means rock, as does Peter (Petrus, Pierre). Names are great fun, and it was a revelation to me that the former secretary-general of the UN was actually Peter Peter, or Rock Rock. In fact, a quick look on the web shows up even more bizarre combinations, such as Dr. Boutros Peter Boutros, an OB/GYN from Houston, Texas. He definitely rocks. Another great example was a minister in Karzai’s government, also a medical doctor, whose name was Dr. Abdullah. The western press was obsessed with giving him a christian (sorry) name, so he told them he was called Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. Why not?

But far more peculiar than any of this are the descriptions of another side of Afghanistan, that focus on widespread homosexuality. There is a saying in that part of the world that ‘women are for babies, young boys are for pleasure’, which could probably be best translated as ‘eewww’. There are multiple stories of farmers in drag and make-up stalking the strapping young men of the US and UK armed forces in the fields of Helmand Province, as there are tales and photographs of the Taliban sporting eyeshadow and painted nails.

Kandahar is the center of homosexuality, more than a little ironic since this is the birthplace of the Taliban. Sex between two men is a sin in the Islamic religion,  punishable in one of three ways: being burnt at the stake, pushed over a cliff, or killed by a falling wall. From my perspective, only the middle option is at all practical, but it would be pretty tough in the Netherlands.

RPG at the ready, a smiling teen Taliban. Part of the men-only society.

 And the Taliban enforced the law. In fact, Mullah Omar’s rise to power was in part due to the outcry  over two warlords. These bearded family men were fighting each other in earnest over the favors (aka the sodomy) of a young boy, killing a number of innocent bystanders in the process. The hapless youngsters are known as halekon, early teenagers being a big favorite. Girls are of course entirely covered by the burka, so it’s almost impossible for young men to even know what a girl looks like. 

The saying goes that birds fly over Kandahar with one wing only, the other tucked behind them in shame. Personally I suspect it’s more caution than shame.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.


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