A headline about the Gadhafi era: "From 1969 to 1369 -- the dawn of the 33rd year."
No, the editors of the daily Al-Jamahiriyah weren't counting backward, and yes, the math was right -- as long as you're in Moammar Gadhafi's Libya.
Gadhafi insists he is not Libya's president, having long ago handed over the reins to "the power of the people," who supposedly run the country through grass-roots-level committees.
But in reality, it's 59-year-old Gadhafi who still makes all the decisions. So the year is whatever he says it is.
Sometimes it's 1369, counting from the year the Prophet Muhammad died, and sometimes it's 1431, counting from the year of his birth.
Meanwhile, Libya's overwhelmingly Muslim population of 5 million celebrates its religious holidays by the traditional Islamic calendar, which is lunar and shorter, begins with Muhammad's flight from Mecca to Medina and is now in the year 1422.
But wait, it gets complicated.
Both of Gadhafi's calendars mirror the Western one, running from January 1 to December 31, except that he doesn't use the Arabic translation of the names of the Western months -- like most of the Arab world does. He has come up with a new name for each month and some of the changes reflect an apparent desire to settle ancient grievances.
Thus August, named after the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar, has been renamed Hannibal, after the general from Carthage in North Africa who crossed the Alps with elephants to invade Italy nearly 1,800 years ago.
It's apparently payback for Italy having colonized Libya in 1911.
July, from Julius Caesar, is now called Nasser, after Gamal Abdel Nasser, the late Egyptian president who is Gadhafi's hero.
But almost 30 years after changing the calendars, Gadhafi still doesn't seem to have made up his mind which he prefers.
In January, stationery stores sold day planners with the year 1431 engraved in gold-bordered green.
But a few days into the new year, Libya's newspapers -- all government controlled -- suddenly backdated themselves to 1369.
There was no explanation, and Gadhafi, who rarely gives interviews, didn't offer one.
Nine months later, it appeared that not many people had noticed the change.
Those same stationery salesmen looked bewildered when asked for a 1369 day planner. They all insisted that the year in Libya was 1431 until they were shown that day's newspaper.
"Oh, he's changed the year again," one salesman said in a resigned tone.
Take a 2001 planner, he suggested.
Indeed, for all Gadhafi's efforts, the 2001 planner which uses the Western month system remains the favorite among the Libyans. And they continue to use the traditional Arabic names for the Western months when celebrating birthdays, planning trips or making appointments. Hannibal and Nasser don't seem to have caught on.
But the Gadhafi-designed dates are used in official correspondence and transactions, as well as by newspapers, to sometimes bamboozling effect.
A September issue of Al-Moallem newspaper used three different calendars: The year on the masthead was 1369; an editorial referred to the 1969 coup that brought Gadhafi to power; and a writer gave the year 1424 when discussing a law the government had passed.
By DONNA ABU-NASR Associated Press Writer
Copyright 2001 Associated Press, All rights reserved