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Central Asia, Afghanistan celebrate Novruz
Celebrants hope the holiday brings peace and good fortune
By Saadi Shakar, Rukhshona Ibragimova, Aibek Karabaev and Farzad Lameh
The celebrations vary from family to family and business to business.
In Almaty, Daniyar Alikov and his son planted an apple tree.
Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev plans to take in a buzkashi match.
For Dilshod Azimov, an Uzbek retiree, the celebration will be a family feast.
But no matter what religion they follow or what country they are in, everyone knows it is a time to celebrate.
It is Novruz.
On March 20-21, the peoples of Central Asia will join others in India, Iran, Turkey, the Trans-Caucasus, Russia, Albania and Macedonia in celebrating Novruz, the holiday marking the arrival of the spring equinox. Novruz means “new day” in Farsi.
“We have evidence that the Novruz celebration took place even in ancient times”, said Kazakh historian Khakim Ilzkhysbaev. “The Novruz celebration is connected to Zoroastrianism, which had adherents from India to the Near East”.
Though the celebration has ancient roots, the ways to commemorate it appear to have evolved over time, based on each culture.
“According to our ancient tradition, on this day you have to plant a tree”, Akilov said. “My son and I planted an apple tree outside our house. The dinner table must have yogurt soup. You have to eat as much of it as possible to have a rich and fertile year”.
For Azimov, it is time to feast.
“We love this holiday; we load the table with dishes, we make sweetened wheat sprouts and wheat-and-mutton stew ”, Azimov said. “But the delay in payment of pensions and government workers’ salaries, the mandatory donations exacted from entrepreneurs and farmers — that’s the price we pay every year for Novruz”.
The celebration isn’t limited to citizens. National governments and international bodies also mark the holiday.
This year the UN General Assembly recognised March 21 as the international day of Novruz. In 2009 Novruz entered the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
This will be the first year that Kazakhstan celebrates Novruz officially, where March 20-24 will be official holidays. The celebration also continues until March 24 in Uzbekistan but goes until March 25 in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Turkmenistan will have a relatively modest celebration, March 21-22.
The celebration in Kazakhstan will include concerts and contests with the participation of star performers, the organisation of free luncheons for the needy, and distribution of groceries.
In Uzbekistan, the government declared the month before Novruz a “community work month” to improve public amenities and green spaces. At that time, citizens carried out a national “khashar”, cleaning streets, building facades, places of worship and cemeteries; and planting fruit and ornamental trees.
Uzbekistan traditionally puts new infrastructure into service to mark Novruz. This year, workers turned Tashkent’s Matbuotchilar Street into a green zone. The capital also opened the Bazaar-Art exhibition, which displays works of art by artists from across Uzbekistan.
The Palace of Youth Creativity is hosting the Landscapes of Our Homeland art exhibition during Novruz.
The timing and location of the main Tashkent concert will remain a secret until the last moment. That concert will take place in one of the capital’s squares March 21 with President Islam Karimov present. The secrecy “is in the interests of security”, according to a spokesperson for Karimov’s bodyguard.
As with any party, celebrations don’t come cheap.
“The cost of staging Novruz festivities will be covered by local governmental budgets, businesses and various (charitable) funds”, stated the press service of Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
Donations might not have been voluntary. According to witnesses, a month before the holiday, district governments in Tashkent convened local entrepreneurs and asked them to give 300,000 UZS each (US $141) for greening the city.
“I offered to transfer funds from my bank account”, said Tashkent entrepreneur Il’Khomzhon Rakhimov, “but they demanded cash from me, for which I wouldn’t get a receipt ”.
Bishkek’s Old Square will host a concert, along with an improvised sports area for budo karate, tae-kwon-do, wushu, kuresh wrestling, tugs-of-war, arm wrestling, ping-pong, mancala and chess.
More concerts and sports will be held elsewhere in the city.
In addition, the Administration for Trade, Services and Protection of Consumer Rights is organising temporary marketplaces in the high-rise residential districts of Asanbai and Dzhal and at the intersection of Ivanitsyn and Shopokov streets.
Osh is hosting the President’s Cup of buzkashi and Bakiyev plans to attend.
Tajikistan has also scheduled concerts and food distributions for the needy.
According to tradition, on this day mass weddings and circumcisions take place. Kulob will witness the simultaneous circumcisions of 35 boys.
Novruz festivities began March 19 in Dangar with the participation of the Tajik and Turkmen presidents. In honour of the holiday, contests in Tajik national wrestling (gushtingiri) took place.
Dushanbe will see its own gushtingiri contests March 21, as well as horse races in the hippodrome. The victors will receive shares in the Rogun hydropower station.
Before Novruz arrives in Afghanistan, locals sew new clothes, rearrange the house and make a drink called haft mewa or haft seen by combining dried fruits in water.
In the northern provinces, some celebrants grow wheat in special pots in order to make a dish called samanak. Women use the long hours needed to prepare this dish to socialise.
Mustafa, 30, of Afghanistan, feels optimistic about the coming year.
“On the eve of Novruz, my mom cooks spinach and rice with lamb, which is traditionally common in Kabul”, he said. “On Novruz, we are going to meet our relatives and friends and wish them a Happy New Year”.
Jamil Sharify, 23, urged the police and military to guarantee security nationwide, especially in Mazari Sharif. That city will see Mela-e-Gul Surkh, the “red flower of the new year” celebration.
Unfortunately, the celebration has become a target of non-revellers. March 17 the National Security Administration in the northern Afghan province of Balkh announced that it had detained five suspects in connection with charges of plotting terrorist attacks. The five allegedly planned terrorist acts during Novruz celebrations in Mazari Sharif.
“I am hopeful of celebrating Novruz in peace and prosperity”, Sharify said. “I am optimistic that many people will go out and celebrate this occasion, but still there is fear of suicide attacks, mostly in the southern cities … and even in Kabul”.