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According to this article (not in English) (not paywalled version) (Google Translate translation) the man in the article has a problem with his visa because he used a fictitious birthdate (as advised by the authorities) when arriving at the border because he didn't know the actual date he was born (he knew the year).

He is quoted to say (my translation)

“Out of more than 30 million Afghans, basically no one knows what a birthday is…”

Is that really true? People have known the day of the year since prehistoric times, and that knowledge seems to have appeared independently on many places all over the world. AFAIK, such different artefacts like the pyramids in Egypt and Stonehenge in England are aligned with winter/summer solstice or the equinoxes and I bet that you can find such "patterns" in ancient Chinese, Indian, South American etc cultures too.

And these days where calenders are cheap, radio is universal since decades (and newscasts are common on radio and the usually mention today's date), even in poor countries, it seems to me very implausible that, even in a war torn and poverty stricken country like Afghanistan, people wouldn't keep track of important dates like when someone is born.

What gives?

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January 1st

This has been reported by many mainstream news outlets including the Washington post which says January 1st is the popular birthdate assumed by citizens of Afghanistan.

Washington post

In Afghanistan, Jan. 1 is everyone’s birthday

January 1 has become a de-facto birthday for thousands of Afghans

NBC News

NBC News claim to have interviewed several Afghans regarding the subject and they clarify that this is indeed the case.

NBC News

There are other complications, too. “Do you celebrate birthdays?” I ask NEWSWEEK translator Sayed, who assures me he is definitely 26. “Oh, no. Of course not,” he says, smiling shyly. In fact, there are no birthdays here, just once-in-a-lifetime type events like the “cradle celebration,” in which Afghans invite friends and family—mostly women—to celebrate a baby’s new bed. “There is only one real party in your life,” says Sayed. “So when you grow up there is no party, until your wedding. Poor families don’t even have big cradle celebrations. Actually, there is no money for parties here.”

Independent

According to the Independent an Afghan named Nazer explains that the reason for this is because people weren't well educated enough in the past to keep record of birthdays.

Independent

“I have been using the first of January for every online registration,” said Nazer Hussain, 23, a recent university graduate. “In the past, people weren’t well-educated enough to keep record of birthdays.”

Hindustan times

The Hindustan times explains that in the absence of official records, Afghans pick January 1 as their birthday

Hindustan times

In the absence of official records, Afghans pick January 1 as their birthday

War

The diplomat claims that the the loss of a newborn's birthday is caused by the war in Afghanistan.

The Diplomat

Consider, for instance, a family that welcomes a baby during a civil conflict. There is no official government to record the newborn’s date of birth. The family might write it on a piece of paper, but that piece of paper might later be destroyed in the war. This is not mere conjecture; it is the reality for Afghan society, and indeed in many countries that have experienced the tragedy of civil war: Vietnam, Sudan, Somalia, as well as Afghanistan.

Aren't Afghans keeping track of their birthdays?

This claim would appear to be true according to many mainstream news outlets that have found copious amounts of citizens of Afghanistan that are willing to vouch for this happening, and according to one source this tragedy is caused by the war which left Afghanistan with no official government to effectively record the birth dates of newborns.

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Not all cultures put the same weight of importance on birthdays the way that many Western cultures do.

And in many Muslim countries, the celebration of birthdays is considered a heresy at worst and just a thing for children — and not adults — to celebrate at best.

“Is that really true? People have known the day of the year since prehistoric times…”

Knowing your birthday and actually caring about it are two different things. And caring enough about it to actually remember it is something else entirely. In many cultures, birthdays are only really acknowledged as children’s holiday to celebrate and not just a thing in general for adults to celebrate.

If you are not raised in a culture that truly reinforces your birthday being something worth remembering and celebrating, you might just as well end up forgetting it.

But that is the celebration aspect of all of this. As far as basic knowledge and why it might be “forgotten” over time, the Wikipedia entry for “Birthday” is quite useful. This is from the section on Islam and birthdays:

“Some Muslim especially from Salafi school of thought oppose the celebration of a birthday as a sin, as it is considered an "innovation" of the faith, or bi'dah while other clerics have issued statements saying that the celebration of a birthday is permissible.”

“Some Muslims migrating to the United States adopt the custom of celebrating birthdays, especially for children, but others resist.”

While Salafi adherents are effectively conservative Muslims, still it seems they are not innovating an idea of birthdays not being important but rather amplifying a cultural norm of being ambivalent about birthdays.

Additionally, many countries like Saudi Arabia, have had extremists actively going around and post posters that explicitly forbid any birthday celebrations because “…this is heresy under Islam.” as explained in this 1999 BBC News article; bold emphasis is mine:

“Posters have been going up in Saudi Arabia condemning the celebration of birthdays and anniversaries.”

“According to the religious decree now circulating in the capital Riyadh, it is not permitted to hold parties or exchange presents on the occasion of a person's birthday because this is heresy under Islam.”

And while this is an overall implication on my part, one can easily see a war torn Muslim country like Afghanistan creating an atmosphere where birthdays are not as important as other things… Like not dying.

“One In Three Afghans Lacks Identity Documents”

In addition, as explained in this November 2017 article shared in the comments by @user3067860; again the bold emphasis is mine:

“Afghanistan’s government estimates that as many as a third of the country’s population -- an estimated 10 million citizens -- have no identity documents.

“Afghanistan’s current population is estimated to be 30 million. These figures are based on census surveys conducted four decades ago. Most Afghans now carry a handwritten ID card called Tazkara. It is a vital identity and legal document.”

10 million out of 30 million is a massive amount people who are not accounted for on a basic level. But the zinger is in the last sentence:

The current and previous Afghan governments have failed to conduct censuses because of insecurity, a lack of resources, and political wrangling.

What we consider something incredibly basic — a very basic form of identification — is a logistical and political headache in Afghanistan. It’s a fairly good bet that many of those 10 million people who did not have basic, written ID cards don’t feel they need one either.

If they don’t feel they need even a basic handwritten ID, chance are good they don’t care about a formal, full birthday as well.

Thus someone not remembering their literal birthday because, for the bulk of the life they have already lived, it was never a thing to begin with at best. At worst, it was a thing that — if shared — would put them at risk to the whims and actions of others in their community.

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  • 3
    This is the correct answer. The other answer puts too much emphasis on January 1st, which is just the date that many immigrants (including my own Pakistani grandparents) assume when coming to a developed country because they don't know the actual day they were born on.
    – Prometheus
    Apr 4 at 18:00
  • 4
    @d-b The thing you are misunderstanding is in Western cultures, birthdays are neutral in politics and person: It is simply the date you were born on. In cultures where religion rules culture and politics, controlling age and birthday is a way of controlling others. If recognizing your actual birthday is seen as heresy because it is “arrogant” (yes, people in fundamentalist mindsets think this) then you will not waste time to care about your own birthday because it is a negative to you because the community doesn’t care. And recognizing your own actual birthday will make you a heretic. (1/2) Apr 4 at 22:26
  • 4
    @d-b FWIW, it took me a very long time to understand this: In fundamentalist/orthodox t corners of all of the major religions, you recognizing your own identity is heresy. I grew up as a secular Jew in Brooklyn, NY — the heart of Jewish culture in the West — it was utterly astonishing to me to learn about how many simple things we in the West consider “no big deal” are actually acts of heresy to fundamentalist/orthodox Jews. Just dancing or reading poetry, that is not a part of the religious structure, is seen as true heresy. Birthdays make you unique and fundamentalists don’t want that. (2/2) Apr 4 at 22:29
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    @d-b In 2017, the Afghan Population Registration Department estimated that 1 in 3 Afghans didn't have an ID...Not a passport, but any ID. gandhara.rferl.org/a/afghanistan-id-cards/28858360.html Apr 5 at 0:47
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    Anecdotal to this, but possibly useful to point out that not caring about dates does mean you forget them: I don't know when I got married, and neither does my wife, because neither of us cared about it and we did it only for the legal benefits. This is unthinkable to most people, yet it happened trivially because the date simply didn't mean anything to us. Now, the only way for us to tell anyone when our marriage date is, would be to ask the government. If the government collapses due to war or whatever, there will be no way to ever recover it, no matter how much other people care about it.
    – Erik
    Apr 5 at 8:24
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Afghans are Muslims, and Islam requires you to know your exact age for the religious ceremonies and duties. girls for example at 9 and boys at the age of 15 (lunar calendar) will have certain duties.

So in order to practice such ceremonies they either memorize it or write it down (usually at the back of Quran as its a sacred book and it will be retained and kept safe).

They may not celebrate their birthdays, but this does not apply to everyone for the obvious reasons (one being living under harsh conditions brought by continuous war)


Updates:

Concerning the act of recording the date of birth you can get an idea by reading this and here. The second link states exactly what I have mentioned here (i.e. recording the date on back of Quran for example) which in the original Persian text says:

به خاطر این که تاریخ تولد در افغانستان به طور رسمی ثبت نمی شود، برخی از والدین باسواد، تاریخ تولد اطفالشان را بر روی یک تکه کاغذ می نویسند و اغلب در جلد قرآن شریف از آن نگهداری می کنند.

Translation:

“Because birth dates are not officially recorded in Afghanistan, some literate parents write their children's birthdays on a piece of paper and often keep them on the cover of the Holy Quran.”

You can clearly see that there are actually a lot of people that do know the exact date. Those who do not, know the approximate time, i.e. the year or some symbol that makes them remember the time they were born.

In modern times, most people have birth certificates (obviously except for some remote villagers) and they do celebrate birthdays. Though it may not be that glamourous like in the west. This is especially true for the newer generations.

Concerning why many Afghans choose Jan 1, it's because they do not want to go through the hassle of converting the Jalali (Hijri Shamsi) date (which is only used in Iran and Afghanistan) to Gregorian, and thus they just go for the January first! this is also stated in the second link I provided earlier.

For Birthday in Afghanistan you can watch the following videos and music's which show Afghans do celebrate their birthdays as well, especially post-war era when the prosperity continues on: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kjdB9DZO-PA&ab_channel=Sultansultani
https://www.facebook.com/charityhelp.org/videos/1803378733029228/
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PMqV1_6NUbY&ab_channel=AfghanMedia
https://www.facebook.com/111173307432845/posts/156882486195260/

Couple of birthday ceremony music's:
https://www.aparat.com/v/AiwEa/
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MdX8hf1GQPk&ab_channel=GoodVision
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CX1Iu7qU2NM&ab_channel=Phoenix

And here is a newspaper (Morning Kabul) that talks about birthday and depicts a sample story in MazarpSharif, again denoting that this is actually something very common nowadays: https://subhekabul.com/%D8%AC%D8%A7%D9%85%D8%B9%D9%87/impact-birthday-party-child/

So in short, they do record the date of birth since several years ago (link) and they do celebrate their birthday, though it may not be everyone (again because of the obvious reasons mentioned earlier)

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  • I live there and interact with afghans on a daily basis, would that count? Also note that what I described here is not specific to Afganistan, this is one of the old traditions throughout the whole middle east. especially in the era where birth certificates didn't exist.
    – Hossein
    Apr 5 at 11:15
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    Please provide some references to support your claims. If you can't provide references, please delete.
    – Oddthinking
    Apr 5 at 12:02
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    How does anyone know you have lived this life? This is the internet, you could be anyone from anywhere and have any motivation to write an answer that may or may not be correct. Perhaps if this is something you have regular experience of you might be in a better position than many to know where to find a reference.
    – ewanc
    Apr 5 at 13:31
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    OK added some new refs and hopefully we can all rest assured that what I have said earlier was not wrong. hope this helps
    – Hossein
    Apr 5 at 16:26
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    @Giacomo1968 What do you mean? The zodiac sign is (AFAIK) are not recorded in "the west" but (AFAIK) basically everyone know it anyway.
    – d-b
    Apr 5 at 23:24

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