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.

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