The experience of food, and its preparation, is our common cultural touchstone.
My grandmother picking through lentils to remove stones. The tinkling jangle of her bracelets as she stirred the pot. The waft of cumin down the hallway as she opened her door to greet us. These are some of my earliest memories as a child. If you ask almost anyone for their memories of childhood, it won’t be long before they mention food.
The Hijri Calendar
In 638 ce, six years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam’s second caliph, ‘Umar, recognized the necessity of a calendar to govern the affairs of Muslims. This was first of all a practical matter. Correspondence with military and civilian officials in the newly conquered lands required dating. Pre-Islamic Arab customs identified years after the occurrence of major events. But Persia used a different calendar from Syria, where the caliphate was later based; Egypt used yet another. Each of these calendars had a different starting point, or epoch. The Sasanids, the ruling dynasty of Persia, used the date of the accession of the last Sasanid monarch, Yazdagird iii, June 16, 632 ce. Syria, which until the Muslim conquest was part of the Byzantine Empire, used a form of the Roman “Julian” calendar, with an epoch of October 1, 312 bce. Egypt used the Coptic calendar, with an epoch of August 29, 284 ce. Although all were solar calendars, and hence geared to the seasons and containing 365 days, each also had a different system for periodically adding days to compensate for the fact that the true length of the solar year is not 365 but 365.2422 days.
In pre-Islamic Arabia various other systems of measuring time had been used. In South Arabia some calendars apparently were lunar, while others were lunisolar, using months based on the phases of the moon but intercalating days outside the lunar cycle to synchronize the calendar with the seasons. On the eve of Islam, the Himyarites appear to have used a calendar based on the Julian form, but with an epoch of 110 bce. In central Arabia the course of the year was charted by the position of the stars relative to the horizon at sunset or sunrise, dividing the ecliptic into 28 equal parts corresponding to the location of the moon on each successive night of the month. The names of the months in that calendar have continued in the Islamic calendar to this day and would seem to indicate that before Islam some sort of lunisolar calendar was in use, though it is not known to have had an epoch other than memorable local events.
There were two other reasons ‘Umar rejected existing solar calendars. The Qur’an, in Chapter 10, Verse 5, states that time should be reckoned by the moon. Not only that, calendars used by the Persians, Syrians and Egyptians were identified with other religions and cultures. He therefore decided to create a calendar specifically for the Muslim community. It would be lunar, and it would have 12 months, each with 29 or 30 days.
This gives the lunar year 354 days, 11 days fewer than the solar year. ‘Umar chose as the epoch for the new Muslim calendar the Hijra, the emigration of the Prophet Muhammad and 70 Muslims from Makkah to Madinah, where Muslims first attained religious and political autonomy. Hijra thus occurred on 1 Muharram of the year 1 according to the Islamic calendar, which begins the hijri era. (This date corresponds to July 16, 622 ce, on the Gregorian calendar.) Today in the West, it is customary, when writing hijri dates, to use the abbreviation ah, which stands for the Latin anno hegirae, “year of the Hijra.”
Because the Islamic lunar calendar is 11 days shorter than the solar, it is therefore not synchronized to the seasons. Its festivals, which fall on the same days of the same lunar months each year, make the round of the seasons every 33 solar years. This 11-day difference between the lunar and the solar year accounts for the difficulty of converting dates from one system to the other.
The late Paul Lunde was a senior research associate with the Civilizations in Contact Project at Cambridge University and author of more than 70 articles for AramcoWorld.
Converting Years and Dates
The following equations convert roughly from Gregorian to hijri years and vice versa. However, the results can be slightly misleading: They tell you only the year in which the other calendar’s year begins. For example, 2018 Gregorian begins in Rabi’ II, the fourth month of hijri 1439, and it ends in that same month in hijri 1440.
Gregorian year =
[(32 x Hijri year) ÷ 33] + 622
Hijri year =
[(Gregorian year – 622) x 33] ÷ 32
Online calculators can be found by searching “Gregorian-hijri calendar calculator” or similar terms.
This has led me to chefs and food writers from cultures often underrepresented in culinary landscapes. As a cookbook editor, I aim to bring new dishes to the literary table, serving up stories that make that table richer, more meaningful, more colorful, more nourishing—and more fun.
In this I got a head start from my parents. When I was 4 years old, my father, the son of Palestinian refugees, and my mother, both recently arrived in the us, founded Interlink Publishing. They instilled in me a certainty that culture—particularly literature, art, music, history and food—is the most effective instrument I have to both honor my heritage and, just as important, build connections within my country.
So, I have been thrilled to help AramcoWorld since 2018 highlight recipes and stories of the Arab and Islamic world through its “Flavors” section, selecting from some of the dozens of cookbooks I have had the pleasure of editing. We began with recipes from The Immigrant Cookbook: Recipes that Make America Great (2018), which celebrates the innovation of chefs from around the world within a food industry that relies on immigrants for its workforce as much as it does for new ideas. Like their creators, this book’s recipes are vibrant, varied and resilient, as regional flavors mingle with local ones and adapt to tell a story as old as its first ingredients and as new as the person who makes the recipe next—maybe you.
We also have chosen several from Joudie Kalla’s Baladi Palestine: A Celebration of Food From Land and Sea (2019), her ode to family, food traditions and homeland. Until very recently, it was one of a handful of Palestinian cookbooks available globally. From the other side of the Mediterranean, Fiona Dunlop’s Andaluz: A Food Journey Through Southern Spain (2019) is her food journey through southern Spain, a travelog of Andalusian chefs who trace Moorish influences on cuisines as vibrant and varied as the land itself, each one an entry in a ledger of cross-cultural exchange that has been going on for 14 centuries.
Through taste, smell, touch and as an endless subject of conversation, food is one of the most powerful agents of intercultural appreciation. Food gives us common ground. Even as the chefs featured here reflect diverse training and cuisines, each of their recipes is rooted in traditions, homelands and childhood memories. Their recipes express who they are. They cook and write to honor, remember, share and preserve traditions and ideas for future generations. Reading their stories side by side, you will find strands of experiences that exemplify the bonds between community and food the world over. In preparing their dishes and learning about these experiences, you can cultivate connections to other people and places. You invite them into your home, and they join your routines and traditions, which become richer for their presence, however brief.
Practically, this series of recipes—chosen for appeal to both novice and experienced cooks alike—is doubly timely. The global pandemic and shaky economy are inspiring renewed considerations of what is often romanticized as a more “traditional” approach to food: adapting dishes to available ingredients; cooking from scratch; resourcefully limiting food waste; and, most of all, cooking and eating at home. With this comes a deepening awareness of our roles and impacts—starting with the food we purchase, unwrap, peel, slice, chop, fry, boil, bake, serve and, finally, tell stories about. And it’s these stories that keep traditions alive, told now amid sweeping reassessments of how food is reported in books, magazines and online, and who is (and who is not) given a platform to represent it.
Like opening a book—or turning the page of a calendar to a new month—sharing a meal is a beginning. I welcome you to start sampling these delicious recipes.