Monday, May 30, 2005


Farmers' Almanac

Disappearing World (2)

Almanac of course is an Arabic word meaning "the weather". Farmers in Iraq call their almanac “Hsaab Arab = Arab reckoning” to distinguish it from what they call “the government’s calendar”!

Their calendar follows the solar cycle but is shifted from the Gregorian one (that is now in almost universal use) by twelve days, lagging - very much like the Eastern Orthodox calendar.

They have numerous legends and fables to explain weather phenomena that are so important to farmers and to planting everywhere.

I have already mentioned "Migirrat il Maidy" (a few warm days towards the end of winter followed by cold weather again) some time ago. Incidentally, they were particularly pronounced this year; a few days of false warmth in February, followed by cold weather again.

The other phenomenon that was noticeably visible this year was "Bard il Ajooz - the old woman's chills": a trend of warming up is followed by a sharp drop in temperature that lasts for several days, heralding the end of winter. The last chill in winter.

Although the chills were moderated by relatively heavy rainfall this year, which is usually accompanied by a lower pressure and warmer weather, the old woman's chills were nevertheless clearly distinguishable. Perhaps the old lady is taking a shower!

As ever, the phenomenon is associated with an old legend. This particular myth, according to old farmers, goes something like this:

The camel herd of an old woman missed their mating season. She wanted a few cold days. So, she went to see Prophet Mohammed who duly obliged and prayed to God to grant the old woman her wish. And so it was: seven days of cooler weather before the warmer spring sets in. This is why they are called the old woman's chilly days.

But this old fable is rather unconvincing. Those chills, as far as I know, are unique to Iraq... and Prophet Mohammed never set foot in this country. Besides, the local almanac is far more ancient. It sometimes appears to me that the whole calendar business was constructed around Iraq's weather.

The names of the solar year months used in Iraq are not used in any other country. Some of them refer to known names of Sumerian and Babylonian gods - most notably July. It is called Tammuz, which is close enough to Dumuzi, the Sumerian god of plants and vegetation... perhaps in vague reference to an old myth in which Dumuzi is punished by a more senior god and goes underground. True enough, very few things can be planted in the almost intolerable heat of Iraqi July.

For years I was fascinated by the sometimes close correspondence between the farmers' calendar and the actual weather changes. It demonstrates how much experience a people can gather over a period of several thousand years and how that experience can survive in the collective memory despite many centuries of deterioration and ignorance. It is all the more pity that so many young farmers are losing track of this ancient knowledge.


As an illustration, here are a few of the winter phases according to this almanac:

12 Oct – Thraiba – the striker: Several days of sudden drop in temperature that can harm summer crops.

12 Dec – Jwaireed – the stripper: The official beginning of winter - cold weather that causes perennial trees to shed their leaves. 10 days.

12 Dec – 22 Jan – Mirba’aneyya: The 40 days (Arba’a = 4) constituting the core of winter.

12 Feb – 27 Feb – Blue February: February’s cold half. The ‘blue’ refers to clear skies and hence colder weather. Old farmers never irrigate their fields during this period.

The period 12 Dec – 12 Feb is called Sitteeneyya: The 60 (sitta = 6) days of winter.

27 Feb – 12 March – White February: February’s warmer half. The ‘white’ refers to clouds.

9 March – 16 March – Bard il Ajooz discussed above, signaling the end of winter.

Note how this date plus the 5 ancient (and largely forgotten) ‘feasting days’ lead to 21 March, the ancient New Year mentioned a few posts back in this blog.

Monday, May 23, 2005


Arab Reckoning

Disappearing World (1)

Ever since I was involved in farming decades ago, I repeatedly came across what country folk referred to as "Arab Reckoning".

The use of the word “Arab” in this context has nothing to do with race or ethnicity! In colloquial Iraqi, the word is used in three different modes in addition to the normal ethnic usage:

• People talk about "The City" and "The Arab" - meaning the countryside.

• In the countryside people would say "someone lives in that Arab" - meaning that village or settlement or tribal 'deera' (home or area).

• "Someone comes from such “Arab” or "What Arab are you from?" or "He is from our Arab" - meaning "tribe".

The phrase "Arab Reckoning" (or Hsaab Arab) refers to one of two distinct things:

• Approximation in arithmetic calculations and, most frequently, in multiplication or division and area calculations.

• Farmer's almanac.

Multiplication and Accounting

We all probably do this at one time or another. Say, for example, that you wanted to multiply 2.5 by 3. You would say: 2 times 3 is 6. Then half of 3 is 1.5 so, the result is 6 plus 1.5 which is 7.5. Some people can do complex arithmetic mentally, sometimes using their rosaries as an aid. The division of tribal money dues, fines or income of say 3 million dinars (around $2000) among the members of a small clan of 237 members can be done in a few minutes.

It is always amusing to watch two elderly fellows in the process - one reminding the other of things, bickering and then agreeing on a final figure.

In settling my own farming accounts with my share-croppers in the early 80's, I soon gave up using a calculator when going over the individual accounts with some of them. They could not catch up with the speed of electronic calculation. So, I would do my calculations at home with the aid of a calculator (and later using my desktop) but would go over them using their own method, verbally.

It goes something like this: "You cast three and a half "wazna" (100 kg weight) of wheat at 12,000 dinars a wazna. Three waznas are worth 36,000 and the half is worth 6,500... which means 42,500 dinars". I then pause and wait for him to nod his agreement. "What was the last sum?" The figure is recalled, the new number added to it and mentally stored again before proceeding to the next item.

This is performed for all income and expenditure items, including any sums received in advance, returned items, etc. It can be quite tedious and may take the best part of an hour. There was a time when I had to do it with more than 25 people, 8 or 9 of them couldn't read or write.

The speed varied with the person concerned. One particular wily character, Na'eem Jabbar, who is still working on my farm, keeps an updated account of all items memorized in his head. I can ask him at any time about his income or expenditure account and he would give me a figure that always agrees with my books. On "account settlement day" I just give Naeem his balance sheet and the money due. The whole process takes less than a minute... unless he challenges one of my figures!

Area calculation

I was fortunate to catch a glimpse of how people who could not read or write calculated areas. This is of course extremely important in a farming community. I am told that in the old days, there would be 2 or 3 people in any settlement or "Arab" who could be trusted to do it accurately.

The tool that was, and still is, used for measuring lengths of fields is a piece of rope 25 meters long (which has marks at 1/4-length intervals). Each length is called a "jarra" or a pull. The farming unit of area is the "donum" (2500 sq. m.) which is referred to as a 2-jarra square. The local "geometrician" is given the measurements of all four sides of the particular field in question. What he does is to find the average of each two opposite sides by increasing one and reducing the other in equal amounts in steps until they are equal. He then multiplies the two figures (as explained above) to determine the area, usually to the nearest 1/4 or 1/2 of a donum. Since most plots are not very irregular in shape, the method gives accurate enough results.

It is ironic (and somewhat sad) that this has been the case for centuries in a country that literally invented mathematics, geometry and trigonometry (including Pythagoras Theorem a thousand years before that Greek genius.)

I hope to describe the other meaning of "Arab Reckoning" in relation to almanac in a future post.

Monday, May 16, 2005


A Horse Called Dignity

I have a special fondness for horses. I find Arabian thoroughbreds particularly beautiful. They are relatively smal in stature (compared to the great war or work horses of Europe for example), slender in limbs, elegant in movement yet quite resilient.

Decades ago I had a pedigree mare I called Anafa (Dignity). Some of my friends called her Qanafa (Couch) to tease me – something I found quite distasteful while they thought it was hilarious!

Anafa was young, blond and playful. I used to ride her a lot around the farm.

One reckless day, I raced her and spent hours going round and round riding her. She was fed up and tired, I went too far. Finally she wiggled her body and quite intentionally threw me off her back… and ran back to her barn. I was not hurt… except in my dignity! My first thought was that I was lucky nobody was around. Anybody who has fallen from the back of a horse knows how “undignified” that may feel.

In extreme anger, I ran after her and when I found her I raised my hand and lightly but firmly slapped her on the face.

For several weeks after that ‘insult’, she wouldn’t let me pat her on the face. She would just jerk her head upwards and away in an act of injured dignity and anger.

Dignity’s indignation ultimately made me realize something that made feel guilty. She was the original injured party, not me! It was my own recklessness that drove her to do what she did.


One unfortunate July, when Anafa was kept in an orchard I have on the farm because it was cooler there. The fool who was looking after her let her loose and she ate too many unripe dates and Anafa died.

I never knew what attachment to an animal could mean before her death.

I never owned a horse afterwards.


[So many people seem to blame Iraqis for a multitude of things… forgetting that these people are originally (and repeatedly) the injured party.]

Monday, May 09, 2005



A “Dikheel” is someone who seeks sanctuary. The word is a colloquial corruption of “dakheel” which means “intruder”.

In tribal ethics, this is almost sacred. It is a request made by someone who is desperate for protection. It is never asked lightly. It means that one is helpless and in grave danger. It is never turned down lightly. Turning away a Dikheel could shame the person (and sometimes his family or even his clan for generations).

Tribal folklore is full of anecdotes involving refuge seeking and granting. Probably the most notorious is an old fable about someone being chased and seeks to be dikheel at a tribesman’s home. The man being asked recognizes the fugitive as the killer of his own son. He gives the man sanctuary during the emergency but tells him that he will give him headway for three days (the traditional hospitality grace period in the desert and countryside) but vows to chase him after that.


Most people think that this practice is something of the past that has more or less disappeared. This is largely true. However, in these turbulent and lawless past two years, I came across two such instances of requests for a Dikheel:


Less than two months ago, a person being chased by a (probably criminal) armed gang who were after him or his car dashed into a farmhouse and asked to be a dikheel. The gang demand that the farmer turns over the fugitive. The middle aged farmer told them that they would have to kill him and his family first… but they could take the car.

The villains probably thought that if there was a shoot out, the farmer’s neighbors would rush to the scene. They took the car and left. The man was saved.


When the Abu Ghraib scandal broke out and those ugly photos became public, some of them were quite shocking. But I always stop at one particular picture which the BBC website seems to be fond of :

It shows a prison cell door on which the Arabic words (Dikheelak ya Allah) are scrawled in chalk. They mean: “God, I’m your Dikheel”. I have rarely seen so much desperation in so few words.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005


Childhood Friendships That Never Die

[This post is dedicated to those who have known the joy of true brotherly love.]

There were a few of us. Teenage friends, like many the world over. We grew up together. Baghdad was pretty in the 1960's. I didn't know it then but I know it now. Life was brighter then!

We had fun together, we laughed and made mischief and did all the innocent and the not-so-innocent things that go with growing up. On some days we saw each other more than we saw our own families. It was a rare and unique gift of brotherly, innocent, true friendship.

Looking back from present perspective, we were a mixture of Shiite, Sunni and Kurd. We enjoyed all those politically-incorrect sectarian jokes. But that was as far as it went. Those differences did not have the slightest hint of a taint on the bonds between us.

I was the first to leave. I went abroad to study before I was 20. That was when I discovered how attached I was to this scruffy little corner of the world. I was terribly homesick. Only years later did I add some intellectual flesh to that emotional skeleton.

Those friends were so furious at me for being homesick! I was the lucky one going out to see The World! So, one day, they sent me a cassette recording of a gathering they had. It was mostly fun and jokes. One of them, who particularly despised Iraq, quoted and made quite a bit of fun of a famous ancient line of poetry that roughly says:

A man may know many homes on earth…
…But his longing will ever be to the first one.

That particular friend and most of the others are now abroad, spread over four continents… all the way down to New Zealand.

Three of us stayed behind in Baghdad, each coping with his own difficulties and family concerns. But we remained close – each knowing that the other two were there the instant he needed them. That happened on more numerous occasions than I can remember. One of us was killed soon after the invasion. He had lost his wife a few years earlier to cancer. He left a 10 year old boy behind. Part of me died with that friend.

Our paths have crossed over the years. I remember once when I went to Amman, Jordan in the 1980's for a very short visit. I contacted two of them who were closest to Jordan. One was in the Emirates and the other in Saudi Arabia. Next evening, they flew over. I still remember to this day my joy in seeing them again and how my heart danced. We went out for dinner, saw some friends and came back to the hotel. We spent the entire night in a hotel room chatting.

[Actually, the one who lived at the time in Saudi Arabia and quite evidently deprived of easy access to alcohol, spent most of the time with his back turned to us, facing the little mini-bar they had in the room. By morning, he had emptied all its contents, had a look at the card where you are supposed to tick the drinks you had, thought about it a little, and then wrote in very large characters: "All of it".]

Next morning, we all went back on our separate ways.

In another encounter, another friend suddenly remarked in the middle of a discussion: "Haven't you noticed how we just "clicked" and took off as if all those years hadn't existed! He was right. My conviction is that such friendships have that special flavor because they are formed before those barriers of mistrust and self-defense are raised later in life. People who are already ‘within’ are frequently kept in, trusted to the bone and loved without any reservations that are later created by suspicions and undeclared motives.


Most of those friends did well abroad, had families of their own and are now mostly settled in their secure new lives. And yet… I wouldn't swap places with any one of them.

Here in Iraq, I have survived decades of tyranny and oppression and several major wars. I have seen loved ones die too soon through our misfortunes. I have been through endless struggles and indescribable hardships, mentally and materially, that are still hard to express. There were times when I have even seen blame in the eyes of my own children for the course that I have chosen.

Of course, I wish those friends were here with me now… but I cannot join them. This is where I want to live… and this is where I want to die.

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