I don’t remember really learning the names of the months in Arabic classes. I remember learning the days of the week, and certainly learning how to count; and I also remember learning seasons. So I must have been taught the names of the months. But they didn’t stick. I only began keeping the names of the months in my head in spring 2002, when my Arabic teacher began requiring us to read the front-page news in Arabic before each class. I learned “Ayloul” – as in, “11 Ayloul” – and with that as my base, began learning the others.
But the names of the months that I learned bore no resemblance to the months referenced in history books, or carved in inscriptions on old buildings, which were generally the months of the Islamic calendar: Muharram, Safar, Rabi3 al-Awwal, and so on. It was a mystery, but then again I found many things about Arabic mysterious, so I didn’t think all that much of it. And when I did, people gave me different answers: the months I had learned were the Christian months; or they were the secular months; or the Arab nationalist months; or they were months created to fit the Western calendar. All of these made some sense: after all, “Aghostos” looked too much like “August” (named for Caesar Augustus) to be mere coincidence.
But then I moved abroad and learned that no one I knew used “Aghostos” in Syria or Lebanon. They used “Ab”. Fine: another mystery, but again, not a particularly gripping one.
But when I was looking up “Fasah”, “Pesach”, and “Paschal” earlier this week, I learned a bit more about the months, or at least about one month: Nisan, the month of April. And, I am embarrassed to admit, one of the places I went to learn this was Wikipedia.
(I cross-referenced Wikipedia’s wisdom with more scholarly sources, but since its piece on months has the advantage of being 1) all in one quote and 2) readable, I am quoting from it.)
Wikipedia’s entry on Arabic-language months notes that the Levantine calendar uses month names
“likely derived from the Aramaic names of the old Semitic lunisolar calendar, and the names Šubāṭ, ‘Ādār, Nīsān, ‘Ayyār, Tammūz, ‘Āb, Aylūl, and Tišrīn are cognate with the names of the approximately equivalent months of the Hebrew calendar: Shevat, Adar, Nisan, Iyar, Tammuz, Av, Elul, and Tishrei.”
Nisan is described elsewhere as a name originating in Mesopotamia and possibly Babylon specifically, and being positively associated with spring. Nisan 15 is considered the night of the Jewish exodus, and is commemmorated as the first night of Passover.
Today is the commemoration of the Last Supper (at least, for Western Christians), which some Christian traditions hold was also the first night of Passover. It is my favorite day of the Christian calendar, because it ends with Christ’s Passion in the Garden – the moment when Jesus is at his most human, and afraid of the pain of dying. He asks God to take the “cup of suffering” away, if possible; but in the end he accepts God’s will. Its a very sad moment, but also a very sweet one.