The Problem of Summer Time

This weekend the clocks go back. In many countries that would simply mean changing the alarm clock when you go to bed on Saturday night, and a belated twiddle of the kitchen clock on Sunday morning. Not in Morocco, where Summer Time has been deployed with a charming whimsicality only since 2008.

Until this year, the decision on when Moroccan summer time starts has not been made well in advance by committees of astronomers and imams, to be printed in pocket diaries and almanacs. It has been fairly chaotic, and the notice very short. In early March this year the decree came forth that Summer Time would begin on March 25th; then towards the end of March, the decision was reversed, and summer time was postponed to April 29th. This followed hard upon the issuing of a decree on March 8th, putting Moroccan Summer Time on an orderly basis for the future: it was not a particularly promising start to the new calendrical regime.

Masterful, even if slightly raggedy, handling of the national clock is pleasing in a traditional sort of way, smacking of a firm hand on the tiller. The problem is, though, that Microsoft and other software companies have not been able to make a patch for Morocco, because they don’t know when summer time will begin or end, with the result that for half the year, time is out of joint, and virtually any (though not quite all) software with an internal clock, is an hour out of true. If a colleague makes an appointment through Outlook from somewhere else in the world, it will be wrong by an hour on my Outlook diary. But if a colleague in Rabat makes the same appointment, it won’t. Every appointment has to be carefully scrutinized to decide which metaphysical time-zone it is in.

For several weeks after the beginning of summer time, in the years since I’ve been here in Rabat, while the Council’s IT department is working feverishly on a patch of its own, all appointments have to be confirmed by telephone against the gold standard of London time, as though Moroccan time were a rather shaky currency with fast-moving exchange rates against a harder one. Then the patch is delivered, and any appointments that have actually been adjusted to reality are out by an hour in the other direction.

It’s not just the Council, either. ‘Le RAM,’ Royal Air Maroc, gets into such a tangle that the time on its boarding passes, especially if issued outside Morocco, is frequently (but not always) an hour behind the actual time of take-off. On several occasions I’ve noticed the in-board clocks (“Time at Destination”) an hour shy of the time on the ground at Casablanca as we began our descent there. The early summer becomes a tale of long waits at airports where you’ve arrived at check-in an hour earlier than necessary, of double-booked appointments and of apologies for missed meetings. And of course exactly the opposite is true in the early autumn.

If that weren’t enough, here’s another thing. At the moment, Ramadan falls in the summer, and for reasons that are a little hard to grasp, Morocco reverts to standard time for the 28 days of Ramadan. I’ve wrestled with the logic of this and not quite got it: since prayer-times are defined by the sun, the time on the clock should be immaterial, as it has been for fourteen centuries. The fast ends, and ftur begins, at sunset, that is to say … when the sun sets. Quite why sunset should be moved back an hour for Ramadan I don’t understand, since the beginning of the fast moves ineluctably back too; but perhaps it makes for longer festive evenings. It certainly makes for another layer of confusions.

I was musing on this last week as I read a short story called Le Decrèt (in English translation, The Problem of Summer Time), by Marcel Aymé, whose most famous work is Le Passe-Muraille, about a man who could walk through walls. In Aymé’s story, an international convention in 1942 decides to end the Second World War by moving the clocks forward 17 years, so that the whole world will move instantly into the postwar peace, skipping several years of conflict. The plan works and everyone suddenly arrives in 1959 with apparent memories of the intervening years. But through a curious series of events, the hero of the story finds himself mysteriously transported from 1959 to 1942, fitting back into his memories and encountering strange coincidences which account magically for parcels he must deliver or hats he must lose, people he must, or must not, meet. His forward-memory fades quickly, and he is soon oblivious to the fact that he is reliving 17 years of identical life; or possibly, of course, the whole thing is simply psychosis.

All that I remained curious about were these mysterious leaps and turns through time. But still the conclusions I was reaching seemed singularly depressing. The day before I had already imagined the simultaneous existence of two universes, one ahead of the other by seventeen years. Now I accepted the possibility of an infinity of universesThe memories of my future existence, recorded in these pages, have so little substance that, should I come to check their accuracy later on, I might believe them to be mere intuitions.

I know exactly how he felt. Now to bed, and I mustn’t forget to change the clock. At least the stakes are only 60 minutes, not 17 years.

And next year the new law may make all well. We shall see.

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