In Afghanistan, Jan. 1 is everyone’s birthday

The Washington Post

KABUL, Afghanistan — The first day of January isn’t celebrated as the beginning of the year in Afghanistan, but since the American invasion, it’s become a new kind of holiday – a de facto birthday for thousands of Afghans who don’t know when they were born.

During protracted wars in the 1980s and ’90s, the government didn’t have a system in place to register births. Because identification cards and driver’s licenses weren’t standard in this impoverished nation, families saw no reason to record the exact dates. Government paperwork asked only for an approximate birthday on the Islamic calendar.

But when the United States and its NATO allies arrived, they brought with them a flurry of job opportunities, visa applications and websites that all required a specific birthday on the Roman calendar.

“Those of us who don’t know when we were born selected January first,” said a U.S. Army interpreter named Tariq, who first wrote the date on his job application with the military and would repeat it when he applied for a visa, and whenever anyone asked. “It was very easy to remember.”

Like many Afghans, Tariq, who requested that his last name not be used to avoid Taliban threats, has only a vague sense of his birthday, which coincided with the country’s collapse into civil war in the early 90s.

As Internet access became more widespread, with 3G networks advertised in the country’s major cities, the question of birthdays arose with even greater frequency. Urban Afghans were quick to create accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Gmail, all of which ask for the registrant’s date of birth.

“I have been using the first of January for every online registration and social network site,” said Nazer Hussain, 23, a recent university graduate who rattled off a list of websites he signed up for using his fake birthday. “In the past, people weren’t well-educated enough to keep record of birthdays.”

In the digital age, the collective birthday has become something of an inside joke here, as young Afghans send each other messages to celebrate.

“Happy birthday to 30 friends… .whose birthdays are tomorrow on the first of January,” Barat Ali Batoor, an Afghan refugee in Australia, wrote on Facebook.

“In two days, it’s every Afghan’s birthday,” Mohammad Hassanzai, an Afghan living in London, tweeted on Dec. 30.

Some worry that the lack of official birth registration – a problem that persists today, particularly in rural parts of the country – could have serious implications.

“Birth registration is instrumental in safeguarding other human rights because it provides the official ‘proof’ of a child’s existence,” said a 2007 United Nations report on the topic, which singled out Afghanistan.

Those records are helpful in reuniting families after conflicts or natural disasters, as well as helping children apply for refugee status. It also makes it easier to conduct a national census – an enormous challenge here.

“In Afghanistan, even though national legislation requires registration of children at birth, 23 years of conflict decimated both the administrative mechanisms and the social institutions that support them,” the report said.

Afghanistan isn’t the only war-torn nation whose citizens have chosen Jan. 1 as a makeshift birthday. In Vietnam, Somalia and Sudan, thousands wound up with the same birth date. In some cases, the State Department chose it for them. The department has bestowed that birthday upon more than 200,000 refugees since the Vietnam War, according to several estimates.

“These approximated birth dates allow the government to administer benefits and track and control immigration flow, but they lack both certainty and accuracy,” wrote Ross Pearson in December in the Minnesota Law Review.

Afghans didn’t wait to be assigned official birthdays. As U.S. immigration attorneys have accepted hundreds of visa applications, they noticed that many of their clients had already filled in their date of birth as Jan. 1. Many Afghans who are also unsure what year they were born offered their best guess on that line.

Most say they chose Jan. 1 because it was the easiest date to remember. But young Afghans in particular have coalesced proudly around it – a modern celebration that is also an implicit acknowledgment of their country’s troubles.

The country’s famous actors, such as Basir Mujahid, its athletes, such as cricket player Hasti Gul Abid, and its politicians, such as Mohammad Daud Daud, the former police chief of northern Afghanistan, all publicly celebrate their birthdays on Jan. 1.

Many Afghans, particularly the young, digitally savvy generation, remain curious about their true birthdays. But their parents don’t offer much clarity, or at least enough to warrant a change.

“I’m not sure,” said Hussain. “I think it was some time in the spring.”

Talk to us

More in Local News

Construction crews demolish public housing  homes at the Baker Heights in Everett’s Delta Neighborhood on Tuesday, June 8, 2021 in Everett, Washington.  (Chuck Taylor / The Herald)
Baker Heights site no longer on the table for WSU expansion

As demolition proceeds, it’s unclear what the Everett Housing Authority will do with roughly 10 acres.

Rick Steves has supported a number of local projects with donations of $1 million or more.  (Dan Bates / The Herald)
Travel guru Rick Steves will be Edmonds parade grand marshal

The Edmonds Chamber was finally able to honor the native son now that the pandemic is keeping him home.

Detectives investigate killing of woman, 23, in Smokey Point

She had “obvious signs of trauma,” according to the sheriff’s office. A 25-year-old man was arrested.

Woman injured after shooting at south Everett 7-Eleven

She was taken to a hospital and was expected to survive. The suspects fled the scene.

Vandalism in Lake Stevens prompts city to install cameras

Park bathrooms have been the main targets. The mayor hopes surveillance and watchful citizens will be deterrents.

FILE - In this May 26, 2020, file photo, a sign at the headquarters for the Washington state Employment Security Department is shown at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. Washington state's rush to get unemployment benefits to residents who lost jobs due to the coronavirus outbreak left it vulnerable to criminals who made off with hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulent claims. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
State’s unemployment recipients must look for work after July 4

The change comes after Washington reported the third straight weekly decline in jobless claims.

One-time payments of $1,250 proposed for some county workers

Another proposal by County Executive Somers would boost hourly pay by $4 for grocery store workers.

Shinji Maeda steps out of his plane waving American and Japanese flags after completing his round-the-world tour that took him to 18 different countries on Friday, June 11, 2021 in Snohomish, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
After 22,000 miles and 18 countries, he landed in Snohomish

Partially blind Japanese native Shinji Maeda came to the U.S. to become an aviator. Then he toured the world.

Shawn Edge, left, Robert Guss, center, Robert Lee McCracken, right, try to locate on a cellphone where Shawn Edge and Charlie Cortez fell in the water on Friday, May 28, 2021 in Possession Sound, Wash. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Six months, and still no sign of Tulalip officer who drowned

Other officers and volunteers won’t stop searching for Charlie Cortez until they can bring closure for his family.

Most Read