Double Time

Loubna El Amine

‘Instead of it being 7 p.m. let’s keep it at 6 p.m.,’ the speaker of the Lebanese parliament, Nabih Berri, told the caretaker prime minister, Najib Mikati, in a private meeting last week, a video of which was shared on social media. ‘Just until the end of Ramadan. I do not want to burden you.’

‘It cannot be done,’ Mikati said. ‘There are flights, people, problems.’

‘What flights?’

Mikati submitted, postponing the onset of daylight saving time less than three days before it was meant to take effect.

But the Maronite Christian Church refused to accept the prime ministerial decree and turned its clocks forward anyway, followed by various other institutions, including two of the main TV channels. Even the education minister went ahead with the time change, ordering that all schools in the country follow suit. He then changed his mind that same night, giving schools the option to elect which of the two times to follow. Lebanon has been on dual time since Sunday. After electricity, water and rubbish collection, it seemed that the state – or what’s left of it – was leaving people to sort the time out on their own too.

Yesterday, after the caretaker cabinet met to discuss the issue, which had caused much confusion, especially at airports, hospitals and banks, which all rely on time-sensitive digital technology, Mikati announced that all clocks would go forward on Wednesday night.

What Vanessa Ogle, in The Global Transformation of Time 1870-1950 (2015), calls ‘temporal pluralism’ was the norm, not the exception, a little more than a hundred years ago in Beirut. Even when the French brought Greenwich Mean Time with them, it was just one more layer on top of the various religious and secular times that Beirutis switched between at the turn of the century. What was normal then, however, is impossible with the modern world’s apparatus of standardisation, even in a country in tatters.

This isn’t the first time since the advent of the modern Lebanese state that dual time has been in effect. In 1989, towards the end of the civil war, the military and civilian governments disagreed over when daylight saving time would start (again during Ramadan). The country, which had been operating for years with multiple zones of administrative control and registers of belonging, ran on dual time for ten days.

It’s only for four days this time, though that’s still four days in which people have to figure out how to navigate commitments that were reasonably made before the dual time, and how to be in two different places doing two different things in the same city at the same hour.