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.

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