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The reason why there are many Jan. 1 birthdays in Pakistan and Afghanistan

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

In America and much of the West, the new year starts with a party. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, January 1 is a day of many, many birthdays, but they are rarely celebrated. Why? The answer lies in the different ways we see time. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Ask in any Pakistani or Afghan town when someone's birthday is, and it's not unusual to hear January 1.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Day 1/1, 1993.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We always just went by Jan. 1, 1939 for his birthday, for how old he was, everything.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: There's no readily available data, but anecdotally, one Western visa officer tells me it was so common in applications, he initially thought there was a glitch. Wahid Rehman, an Afghan man living in Ireland, tells me that when he helped asylum-seekers, officials soon learned to ask for just the year that Afghans were born.

WAHID REHMAN: OK, your date of birth is, I know, 1 January, but which year?

HADID: Those whose birthdays are on 1/1 include Hamza Ghauri. He's from southern Pakistan. He says his parents picked 1/1 because it's easy to remember.

HAMZA GHAURI: It is convenient to them because date of birth is just a formality. We don't celebrate birthdays.

HADID: The day was convenient, just a formality. We don't celebrate birthdays. Ghauri's parents, like many in the region, didn't write down when he was born. They didn't remember it. They didn't even register his birth for years, not until he had to go to school. The same happened to Adnan Khan. He's a journalist from the rugged mountains that straddle Pakistan and Afghanistan. And when he was a kid, his uncle enrolled him in school. For that, Khan needed a birth date for the forms.

ADNAN KHAN: So my uncle just wrote there that I was born on 1 January for getting admission in the school.

HADID: Knowing our day of birth is so fundamental to who we are in the West. But Khan says many conservative Muslims frown on adopting Western celebrations, like birthdays.

KHAN: They don't celebrate birthdays because they think this is not an Islamic thing to do.

HADID: So if you don't celebrate a day, why would you remember it? And there's another context. Many folks whose birthdays are recorded as 1/1 belong to societies where many can't read or write.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

AFRASIAB KHATTAK: Hello?

HADID: Afrasiab Khattak is a former lawmaker and expert on the culture of Pashtuns. They're an ethnic group who live in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

KHATTAK: You see, writing of age, date of birth is a recent phenomena. It was not always recorded. We were an oral society for a long time.

HADID: Khattak says to mark a birth, people would refer to a big event, like...

KHATTAK: When First World War was taking place, Second World War was taking place.

HADID: As for a man's age, well, traditionally, Pashtun men wear a cap and wrap a turban around it. So when a man died...

KHATTAK: When they would bury him, they would ask, how old was he?

HADID: And the answer might be...

KHATTAK: He had consumed eight caps. One cap will normally exist for a decade. This is how they would measure their life span.

HADID: A life measured out in worn-out caps instead of days and years. Of course, the culture is changing - unevenly. In the cities, there's certainly people who celebrate birthdays. There's even a standard Happy Birthday song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAAL GIRA KA DIN AYA HAI")

WASEEM ANSARI: (Singing in non-English language).

HADID: And in remote areas like where Adnan Khan is from...

KHAN: We have children now, so we very frequently are celebrating their birthdays.

HADID: I got thinking about this story a while ago because my own father, Ali Hadid, never knew his own birthday. He was born in a village in Lebanon, and if you asked him when he was born, he'd say, six days after the bull. That is, after the cow gave birth to a bull calf. He was from a family that raised cows. Having a bull was a big deal. Dad migrated to Australia and raised us there, where birthdays are a big deal. But he could never quite remember our birthdays. When you're raised without one, it doesn't come naturally to remember random days of the year that happen to be when your kids are born. So we'd remind him, and his face would brighten. He'd do a little dance and sing this Lebanese classic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ENZA YA GAMEEL")

MNASBAT: (Singing) Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you.

HADID: My dad passed away on December 31, 2022. And as evening fell, Australians began celebrating New Year's Eve.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Five, four, three, two, one...

(SOUNDBITE OF FIREWORKS)

HADID: Dad died on a day that was a big event, on a day easy to remember. And a few hours later, many Pakistanis and Afghans marked the passing of another official year of their lives on a day easy to remember. Diaa Hadid, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "HIGH SUNSET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.