A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, January 10, 2014

So, Is Berber New Year January 12 or January 14?

Just when you thought the holidays were finally over, more are about to hit: Amazigh ("Berber") New Year, and also by coincidence this year the Prophet's Birthday, Mawlid al-Nabi, both in the next few days.

But in the case of Yannayer, the so-called Amazigh New Year, there's some disagreement about the date, with some in Algeria celebrating on January 12, and others insisting on January 14.

Now, as I've explained at greater length a couple of years ago, Yannayer is part genuine traditional observance, and part a modern creation, a product of the contemporary Berber Revival. North African farmers traditionally followed a solar calendar or planting, since the Islamic calendar,being purely lunar, moves around the seasons and cannot be used as a agricultural calendar. This is the practice throughout the Middle East: In the Levant the old Syrian months are used, and in Egypt the Coptic calendar. North African agriculturalists kept the nmes of the old Roman months and followed the Julian calendar; New Year's is called "Yannayer," from "January." The Julian calendar is currently 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar, so the Julian New Year falls on January 14 under the Gregorian calendar.

Amazigh Flag
But many of the trappings of the modern Berber celebration are what the late historian Eric Hobsbawm called the "Invention of Tradition," modern creations aimed at reviving national identity. This includes the fact that this new year will be 2964 in the Berber Calendar. This calendar was a creation of the Académie Berbère, a group of young intellectuals, mostly Algerian Kabyles, who introduced the common Berber flag often seen today and popularized he use of the ancient Tifinagh alphabet to write Tamazight; it was somewhat arbitrarily decided to date th Berber calendar from 950 BC, when Pharaoh Shoshenq I ascended the throne of Egypt. Shoshenq (or Sheshonq) was Libyan, and that was good enough to persuade the Académie Berbère to consider him the first Berber in history. So the era does not really date from 950 BC but from Paris around 1968 AD.

And apparently the tendency of many Algerian Amazigh to celebrate Yannayer on January 12 instead of 14 also dates from 1968, though it isn't clear why the two-day difference from the Julian calendar occurred; some accounts suggest a simple error in calculation, though as Eastern Christmas jusy reminded us, many religions and cultures retain the Julian calendar for some purposes. Maybe it was the political ferment in Paris in 1968, or something, but the January 12 date seems to have stuck for some Algerian Amazigh, while elsewhere the January 14 date is followed. Given the post-2011 revival of Amazigh identity in Tunisia and Libya, which last year held a big concert for Yannayer, they also obsrve the holiday formerly limited mostly to Morocco and Algeria.

A happy new year to Amazigh readers, on whichever date you prefer.

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