Years ago, I found a small brass object hidden at the back of the drawer in a desk I had bought at auction. It sits on my windowsill to this day; partly testament to the years it took me to discover what it actually was. Nowadays you would photograph it, put the pic on Twitter and have the answer in minutes.
It is an Islamic astrolabe. According to Muslim beliefs, the prayer times were taught by Allah to Muhammad. Prayer times are standard for Muslims everywhere in the world – a significant problem before watches were invented. This ingenious device allowed you to calculate which way you should be facing, and at a simultaneous time, to say your prayers wherever you happened to be. There are different layers of brass inserts according to where you might have travelled to; needless to say, since it was invented around the 8th century, it doesn’t include places like Manhattan, confining itself to Damascus or Mecca for instance. The medieval merchant was basically a stay-at-home-booby.
This presented a problem when the Arab world and the Western world started to meet up – or rather not meet, since they were working on two different time keeping methods. There is a delightful episode in Adam Curtis’ Bitter Lake (at 20.52 if you are interested), where a western business man in Saudi Arabia tries to explain the difficulties of doing business in a country where you have some people with their clock aligned to GMT, some (Americans) with their clocks aligned to GMT + or – according to wherever they originated from, and some, the potential customers, who relied on resetting their watches to midnight at sunset, er, which was plus or minus 6 hours from whenever the sun went down. ‘Monday night’ in Arabia generally meant the period of darkness from sunset Sunday to sunrise on Monday morning. Hence an unwary Westerner who made an appointment with a Saudi host for ‘Monday night’, irrespective of the hour, could have arrived 24 hours late.
The British introduced Greenwich meantime to Saudi Arabia in 1968; then the American military arrived, and brought with them something called ‘Zulu time’ which was basically GMT rehashed but without reference to any pesky British places – at one point Saudi Arabia had seven different time keeping methods in force. To lessen the confusion, an inspired watchmaker invented a curious-looking watch sold in the bazaars of Jiddah and Riyadh. It had two dials and four hands, so you could set one half to Arabic time and join the crowd, and set the other dial to whatever time system your prospective client was using.
If adopting the time system of the countries you wish to communicate with is a sign of rejecting isolationism, then deliberately rejecting the time system of other countries could be a powerful method of signalling your wish to be left outside of their cosy GMT system. No surprises then that North Korea has just rejected the infernal running dog capitalist’s method of setting their watches.
They have invented ‘Pyongyang time’. On August 15th, the 70th anniversary of Japan’s humiliating retreat from the Korean peninsula, Pyongyang time, which is half an hour behind ‘Japanese time’ will take effect, and 24 million North Koreans, at least those of them who own a (probably) Japanese watch, will no longer share the time of day with any infidel Japanese.
“The wicked Japanese imperialists committed such unpardonable crimes as depriving Korea of even its standard time” says the state run North Korean press agency – so they are celebrating the anniversary by having that half hour back again. Of course, Japan runs on Universal Coordinated time, not wanting to be reminded of pesky British towns either, which in Korea is 9 hours ahead of Japan…
If you are a Saudi Arabian salesman trying to supply the US with products manufactured in the Kaesong industrial complex on the border of North and South Korea, and which employes people from both sides of the border, next week is going to leave you as frustrated as the legendary US business man, one Mr Higgins, who ran a power station on the Arabian peninsula.
He had employees showing up for work in the middle of the night and going home in what, to him, was the middle of the day – making it impossible to efficiently manufacture power.
He imposed ‘Higgins time’ on the entire complex and forced everyone to adhere to it, thus giving Saudi its seventh time keeping system…
The plant ran on ‘Higgins time’ for the next 20 years, long after he had left. Only Allah knows which of the other six systems that plant runs on today; Google has let me down.
The human capacity to complicate life is truly historic.