Every now and again events conspire to make one realise that what is taken for granted is actually not so stable or certain. I frequently have encounters with time that make this real for me. My most recent experience occurred on a trip I took to Tunisia, where the certainty of the calendar and what constitutes the start of a year was called into question. The Georgian calendar (the one used as the global civil calendar) will for many of us be taken for granted as the way to structure time, yet it does not map onto the cultures and traditions of the majority of the world’s population, and upon reflection I realise only has partial influence upon how I consider my own year. Through the experience of a collision of calendars one can sometimes also be afforded the chance to consider and reflect on the gifts of serendipitous circumstance, as I was when my personal calendar, the muslim calendar, and assumptions I made based on the Georgian calendar all came together.
Time is structured by a whole variety of different calendar cycles. The Georgian calendar (the one that starts on the first of January each year) fits most comfortably against the holidays of Christianity and is based upon the rising and setting of the sun and its position in relation to the earth. Other cultures have calendars based upon the cycles of the moon. Such as the Chinese calendar with its related celebrations and the Muslim calendar. Despite this significant difference, there are similarities between the three. For example, all three calendars include within their cycles a period of reflection, contemplation, and anticipation for the forthcoming year. The period of Advent (prior to Christmas is such a time for Christianity), the Spring Festival (or lunar New Year or Chinese New Year), and Ramadan are all such times and all have quite particular food rituals that incorporate both feasting and fasting as a way to reinforce the lessons of the end of a cycle and the beginning of the next.
While religions incorporate distinctive calendar cycles as a way of producing particular forms of sociality, there are also a host of other calendars that become incorporated into everyday life depending upon what activities are being negotiated. Because I work in a university, the annual teaching cycle plays an important role in structuring my temporalities. My academic year starts in late September and extends through to late June. My birthday is in early July and as such makes a nice target date for winding up the prior year’s teaching responsibilities and administrative activities. The period after this date and before the start of the next academic period constitutes the summer, where I can catch up on research and plan projects for the forthcoming year. I also tend to use this cyclical break as a time to rest and reflect on my personal goals. This year I did this by taking a three day holiday to Tunisia. This trip corresponded to the muslim period of Ramadan.
I must admit that I did not intentionally plan my trip so that I would also be engaging first hand with the practices of Ramadan. I booked my trip without actually thinking about the ways that the calendar would be practiced in my chosen destination of Sidi Bou Said, in Tunisia. I selected the location in April, when it was cold and rainy in the UK. I wanted to ensure I would be able to spend the time I spent reflecting on the year past in a setting that would with some certainty have sun, warmth and a sea view. La Villa Bleue, my hotel, promised these things, plus excellent food, and a lounge chair by a pool. Indeed the view from my room included both the sea and the pool, where I spend the entire day sitting in splendid contemplation. It was only upon arrival that I mentally made the connection between the fact that Ramadan was practiced in this Muslim country and what I could expect to experience while on my holiday.
Ramadan is a period of fasting that lasts for 30 days. While those observing Ramadan can, and do, eat after dark, the practice is that no food or drink should pass the lips during daylight hours. In Sidi Bou Said this meant that fasting was observed between about 7:30 am and 7:30 pm. As a result, a wander into the markets revealed empty, almost deserted spaces that would under normal circumstances be bustling with people and activity. This, of course, was ideal for my purposes as it relieved me of the guilt of going to a new location and spending almost all the time parked next to the pool instead of soaking in the local cultural sites and practices.
Although Ramadan is a time of fasting with the intent of purification of mind and body in anticipation of the forthcoming year, this does not mean that people eat nothing, after dark the fast is broken by a meal referred to as Iftar, which is often a highly social affair. The initial breaking of the fast is observed by eating three dates and drinking water and it is in emulation of Mohammed. This is followed by a number of courses, which vary depending upon the cultural context of where Ramadan is being observed. In Tunisia, eating of dates is followed by five further courses including soup, a salad, a dish called Brick (a sort of filled pastry), a main course, and a desert. La Villa Bleue has a wonderful chef who produced this menu spectacularly. The soup I had was called Tchich Karnit, which has octopus and tomato in it. It was divine. The salad consisted of aubergine caviar, a carrot and orange relish, and hard boiled eggs. for the main course I had Kabkabou au poisson, which is sort of a fish stew.
The food was fantastic. The setting was gorgeous. The view was stunning. What was particularly nice, however, was at the end of the meal I was served a chocolate dessert with a candle on it for my birthday. The hotel was small enough and the fact that it was Ramadan meant that I was able to talk with the other guests and the staff. So while I was on my own, I was able to share my birthday with that small and temporary community whose paths happened to cross on that particular warm summer evening in that particular location of the world. The connection afforded in that moment is one I have reflected on subsequently. It required a willingness to engage with others across cultural divides and an openness to difference. At the same time, I am distinctly aware that it was also afforded by the fact of financial resources of my own, that of the other guests, and those who own the small hotel. Ramadan is a time of charity, and in order to be charitable is it also important to consider the gifts of ones own affluence and to contemplate what enables that, including ones own hard work. This moment in July produced the conditions of this reflection for me. It was a wonderful birthday gift.