Nowrozetan Mobarak! Akhtar de Mobaraksha! Happy New Year! It’s that time of year again, the Spring Equinox, when all former members of the Zoroastrian Empire celebrate the festival of Nowruz, or “New Day”. This holiday is celebrated by Iranians, Afghans, Tajiks, Kashmiris, Turkmens, Azeris, Uzbeks, Kurds, Turks, Albanians, Uyghurs, and all other ethnicities influenced by the Persian Empire. It is a public holiday in Georgia and was added to the Canadian calendar in 2009.
It’s also the time of year when Afghans (and I’m sure other non-Iranian groups) get asked the question, “Oh, you celebrate that too?” I can understand the confusion. The word “Persian” in popular culture usually is synonymous with “Iranian”, and so, if you’re not Iranian, then why celebrate a Persian new year?
What is little known is that Afghans share not only an ancient culture with Iranians, but also the language of Farsi. Simultaneously, this means that much of Afghanistan followed Zoroastrianism, the first monotheistic faith of the Persian Empire. Nowruz marks the beginning of Spring, and so, all former members of the Persian Empire celebrate on this day.
It is even believed that Zoroaster, the founder of the faith, was born and died in Afghanistan. Zoroaster spoke “Old Avestan”, a language native to Afghanistan. In essence, Nowruz is a very Afghan holiday. Afghans also continue to speak Dari, the ancient form of modern-day Iranian Farsi. Dari was the Middle Persian court language of the Sassanids, and is still spoken in Zoroastrian temples, and many old Persian poets wrote in this form.
I point out all these historical nuances because it gets pretty annoying when Afghanistan’s cultural practices and traditions are cited as being “adopted” from other cultures, when in essence, we’re kinda the OG’s of those cultures. So no, Nowruz was not “adopted” or “inherited” by Afghans. Nowruz is Afghan. Even today, the biggest recorded Nowruz gathering is in Afghanistan, in the province of Mazar e Sharif, where 200,000 people show up for Jahenda Bala, at the Hazrat e Ali shrine.
So, Nowruz Mobarak, to all those who celebrate, and continue the tradition of our people, once united under the Persian Empire, and under Zoroastrianism. It is beautiful that this holiday survived the Islamic conquest, and serves to unite us once again, regardless of faith, language, or nationality.
Below are some Afghan Nowruz traditions:
- Guli Surkh festival: The Guli Surkh festival which literally means Red Flower Festival (referring to the red Tulip flowers) is the principal festival for Nowroz. It is celebrated in Mazar-e Sharif during the first 40 days of the year when the Tulip flowers grow in the green plains and over the hills surrounding the city. People from all over the country travel to Mazari Sharif to attend the Nawroz festivals. Various activities and customs are performed during the Guli Surkh festival, including the Jahenda Bala event and Buzkashi games.
- Jahenda Bālā : Jahenda Bala is celebrated on the first day of the New Year (i.e. Nawroz), and is attended by high-ranking government officials such as the Vice-President, Ministers, and Provincial Governors. It is a specific religious ceremony performed in the Blue Mosque of Mazar that is believed to be the site of the tomb of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the fourth caliph of Islam. The ceremony is performed by raising a special banner whose color configuration resembles Derafsh Kaviani. This is the biggest recorded Nowroz gathering where up to 200,000 people from all over Afghanistan get together in Mazar central park around blue mosque to celebrate the banner raising (Jahenda Bālā ) ceremony.
- Buzkashi: Along with other customs and celebrations, normally a Buzkashi tournament is held during the Guli Surkh festival in Mazaris Sharif, Kabul, and other northern cities of Afghanistan.
- Haft Mēwa : In Afghanistan, people prepare Haft Mēwa (literally translates as Seven Fruits) instead of Haft Sinwhich is common in Iran. Haft Mewa is like a fruit salad made from 7 different dried fruits, served in their own syrup.
- Samanak: It is a special type of sweet dish made from germinated wheat, and is normally cooked or prepared on the eve of Nawroz or a few days before the Nawroz. Women take a special party for it during the night, and cook it from late in the evening till the daylight, singing a special song: Samanak dar Josh o mā Kafcha zanem – Dochtaran* dar Khwāb o mā Dafcha zanem (* Dochter mains 1 daughter 2 young Lady or girl)
- Special cuisines: People cook special types of dishes for Nowroz, especially on the eve of Nowroz. Normally they cook Sabzi Chalaw, a dish made from rice and spinach , separately. Moreover, the bakeries prepare a special type of cookie, called Kulcha-e Nowrozī, which is only baked for Nowroz. Another dish which is prepared mostly for the Nowroz days is Māhī wa Jelabī (Fried Fish and Jelabi) and it is the most often meal in picnics. In Afghanistan, it is a common custom among the affianced families that the fiancé’s family give presents to or prepare special dishes for the fiancée’s family on special occasions such as in the two Eids.
- Sightseeing to Cercis fields: The citizens of Kabul go to Istalif, Charikar, or other green places around where the Cercis flowers grow. They go for picnic with their families during the first 2 weeks of New Year.
- Jashn-e Dehqān: Jashn-e Dehqan means The Festival of Farmers. It is celebrated in the first day of year, in which the farmers walk in the cities as a sign of encouragement for the agricultural productions. In recent years, this activity is being performed only in Kabul and other major cities, in which the mayor and other high governmental personalities participate for watching and observing.
- Kampirak: Like “Haji Nowruz” in Iran, he is an old bearded man wearing colorful clothes with a long hat and rosary who symbolizes beneficence and the power of nature yielding the forces of winter. He and his retinue pass village by village distributing gathered charities among people and do his shows like reciting poems. The tradition is observed in central provinces specially Bamyan and Daykundi.