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Does it matter if I don’t know my birth date?
I was born in late spring, before the schools were over, according to mom, or just before Easter, according to my sister who was 11 or 12 at the time. My sister remembers “vividly” a clear crisp spring day while fetching water from the river when a neighbour said, “I heard you have a new brother!” What day, what month, what year is a matter of debate some 60 years later.
I was delivered at home just like 99 per cent of the children in northern Iraq those days, with the help of a villager playing the role of midwife. The entire village had two people who could read and write. Registering births didn’t cross anyone’s mind. There were no birthdays to worry about, no cakes to eat or presents to buy. The only thing that concerned parents was whether the newborn would survive and, hopefully, help the father in the field or help the mother with her chores.
Sharanish was a Christian village high in the mountains, which meant a newborn would get baptized mere weeks after birth. The church was one place where things got recorded. The parents might not remember the exact day the child was born after a few weeks but they would know the month and guess the day reasonably close.
There was no school in Sharanish and families that saw a need to send their kids to school would have them walk some eight kilometres to the next village every morning, even during snowy winters. My dad moved the family to a small town in the valley bellow every September for the school year and move back to Sharanish in June to tend to his orchards that provided the means of survival.
Families that put their kids in school often made up a date that qualified the child as being six years old, the required age to start. My parents picked August 12, three weeks before the school calendar, good enough to qualify.
Knowing my birthday never mattered until I moved to Canada in my 20s. My passport said Aug. 12, 1957, good enough to fill out forms and documents when needed. My wife, born and raised in Vancouver, accepted the fact I didn’t care to celebrate my birthday. It was not so easy at work and amongst my Canadian friends. “What do you mean you don’t know your birthday?” “You are just trying to hide your age.” One day, while driving with co-workers I answered a call on speakerphone. “Happy Birthday Angelo!” the speaker barked. My colleagues jumped in their seats with excitement. The rest of the drive was spent convincing them that, no, I wasn’t going to stop at a restaurant to celebrate.
My wife, wanting to celebrate at least the milestone birthdays – 40, 50 and 60 surprised me with a party each time on the last week of May, since it was the most likely time I was born (based on family memories). Some friends analyze my personality based on the Zodiac calendar to see if they could figure me out. Some say I am a Leo, others box me as a perfect Gemini, or somewhat a Taurus. As my two kids grew older, they wanted to do something for dad on his birthday, but when?
This obsession with birthdays eventually made me want to find out, too. I left Iraq in 1977. Our village was totally flattened during the many wars. All my family was in Canada now. I only knew a couple distant relatives still in Iraq but asking them to track down my baptismal records some 60 years later was not an option. They would either think I am the most vain 60-year-old or I have gone crazy. The church records, if they survived, would’ve been moved to other parishes, probably more than once.
Thousands of Iraqis don’t know their actual birth dates. Many thousands are “born” July 1, including my sister, her husband and numerous friends. When one of the regional offices of the Registrar got torched during the war, the government had no backup files so it solved the problem by mandating July 1 (the midpoint of the year) as the new birthday for everyone born before a certain date. No one either cared or dared to object.
But my brother’s friend offered to track my records. We finally got the call, he found the records and would be scanning them and sending the files online.
“You are not going to see the records unless you throw a party,” my brother insisted. The pdf arrived on official church letterhead with the headings in English on the left and Arabic on the right. It was not an image of the original records or the handwriting of the priest but it did show my name along with the full names of both of my parents and where I was baptized.
Born Feb. 18, 1956 and baptized April 24, 1956. “Holy Moly!” I shouted. I felt cheated. I would’ve been able to retire 18 months earlier.
I also wanted to know what my horoscope said about me now that I have an actual birthday. But the characteristics of an Aquarius fit me as loosely as the descriptions for Gemini and Leo.
I leaned on Google to find the days of the week for my 1956 birth and baptism. Saturday and Tuesday. That didn’t make sense. I was certain the church baptized people on Sundays only. I called my sister and others to check and they all agreed. No one had heard of baptisms on other days of the week.
Could this document be wrong? But how, when my name and that of my parents are full and correct? Could my mother be that wrong? Doubts started to creep in. If I can’t trust the month, can I trust the year? I was happy for decades without a birthday. Should I agonize over a date that meant nothing to me all these years?
And yet, in 2020, I will have my first chance to celebrate my actual birthday – at age 64. I’m looking forward to it.
Angelo Khoshaba lives in Victoria.