Happy (which) New Year: Calendar and consciousness

Hamid Dabashi
Happy (which) New Year: Calendar and consciousness

We live on multiple daily sites of our consciousness, no matter where we actually get up in the morning and hit the road to report to work. Does your week start on a Monday or a Saturday? Does your week end on a Thursday or a Friday? Is your "Sabbath" on Friday, Saturday or Sunday? Does your day start on sunset or sunrise?

Does your New Year begin on the first of January, the first of Muharram, the first of Nissan, or the first of Farvardin? The first of Muharram for Muslims means nothing like what the first of January means for Christians, nor does the first of Nissan for Jews. Eid al-Adha (celebrated during the very last months of the Muslim calendar) and Rosh Hashanah (celebrated on the sixth month of the Jewish calendar) are far more crucial for Muslims and Jews, respectively.

When is the world coming to an end - on December 21, 2012, when the 5,125-year cycle in the Mayan calendar came to an end, or was it on Y2k when people thought doomsday was fast upon us? 

I grew up in Iran on three calendars, simultaneously asserting their cosmic weight on our young imagination. Well three-and-half calendars, to be precise - but before describing that mysterious "half calendar" let me explain the three wholesome calendars. 

Three calendars

Three different calendars - Iranian, Islamic and the globalised Christian - informed us on a daily basis where in the world we were. The Iranian calendar is solar and has survived from the pre-Islamic period, with distinct pre-Islamic Persian names for the months (Farvardin, Ordibehesht, Khordad, etc).

The seasons have logical and natural divisions, and again all have distinctly Persian names (Bahar, Tabestan, Pa'iz, Zemestan) - all located logically within one calendar year (that the first day of the year is the first day of Spring) and not divided into two like in the Christian calendar (when the year begins 11 days into winter - and thus three months minus 11 days before the spring starts on the Vernal Equinox).

The single most important event on this Iranian calendar is the two-week long celebration of Nowruz (New Year), which runs from the last Wednesday of the year, Chahar-shanbeh Suri/Festive Wednesday, to Sizdah Bedar/Picnicking Thirteenth, a day of outings with family and friends, which usually coincides with April Fool's Day. The calendar is pre-Islamic but it was Islamised by its point of origin being designated from the migration of Prophet Mohammad from Mecca to Medina. 

The second calendar is the Islamic calendar, which is lunar and marks the number of years from the migration of Prophet Mohammad from Mecca to Medina. As such it is punctuated at regular intervals with historic events, birthdays and mourning days of Muslim saints and Shia imams. 

It is a calendar that not only marks the Islamic plane of Iranians' consciousness, but also pointedly distinguishes the Shia history from their Sunni sisters and brothers. If the first calendar marks the national aspect of Iranians, the second specifies their Islamic identity. At times, these two calendars might be in tension with each other, but mostly they dovetail perfectly well.

The third calendar is the globalised Christian calendar, which itself has a dual dimension. The first is its colonial and Christian identity, thus marked as "Western". The second identity, on the other hand, signals the connectedness of Iranians with the world at large - not just the Christian world, or that of Western Europe and North America, but also the worlds of Latin America, Africa and Asia.

If one aspect marks "Western imperialism", the other marks Christian liberation theology. As such, then, the globalised "Western" calendar is, paradoxically, both colonial and anti-colonial. May Day (Labour Day), particularly important to the Iranian left, is celebrated on this calendar. 

These triple calendars are where Iranian multiple consciousness is most palpably evident, embedded in these polyfocal calendars, as the space where the creative subject could always find room for political defiance, social manoeuverability, mental meandering, symbolic altercations, national identity, pious practices, global adjustments. I borrow the term "multiple consciousness" from WEB Dubois' "double consciousness" for African-Americans, but give it a more positive and defiant designation. 

Half calendar

Now what was that "half calendar"? A couple of years after the Arab oil embargo of 1973 when the late Shah's oil revenue skyrocketed, so did His Imperial Majesty's coiling megalomaniac miasma. He thought of himself as Cyrus the Great incarnate and changed the Iranian calendar, so that instead of starting from the migration of the Prophet from Mecca to Medina, it commenced from "the coronation of Cyrus the Great!"

Suddenly, one fine morning we woke up and had no blasted clue how old we were, what day of the year it was and how many years on that calendar had passed by now. It was quite a mess. The Muslim clergy of course did not like the new calendar either and the first thing the ruling regime did when massive street demonstrations began to topple the Shah was to reverse that decision and we went back to our own habitual calendar and forgot all about Cyrus the Great's coronation. 

When the Iranian Revolution of 1977-1979 happened, because the dominant regime was overblowing the Iranian calendar, the revolutionary rhetoric had a significant Islamic intonation to it, which led the Islamist revolutionaries to conclude that Iranians were all coagulated on this calendar and were first and foremost Muslims, as they understood the term.

But soon after the militant over-Islamisation of the revolution, people began to emphasise pre-Islamic practices, from Chahar-shanbeh Suri to Sizdah Bedar, which now led others to conclude that Iranians were, after all, Iranians first and foremost, and their Islamic identity was something artificial and imposed on them. They were both wrong - Iranians, by and large, were shifting symbolic register to oppose tyranny, of one sort or another. 

The more calendars on your mind the more sculpted is your daily memories, precisely the same way that the more languages you know the more multidimensional becomes your conception of things.

So here is to the Christian New Year, as we quietly realise that on the Jewish or Islamic or Iranian or Mayan or Indian or Chinese calendar this festive hour when we New Yorkers like millions of other people around the world keep our eyes on that descending apple to celebrate "The New Year" on the American imperial calendar it is just one blessed ordinary day on any number of other calendars. That quiet re-numbering of the imperial numbers is what makes the history spin around the axis of its own logic and rhetoric.  

Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. Among his most recent books is The World of Persian Literary Humanism (2012). 

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