Sunday, March 22, 2009

Mountains of our Minds - Afghanistan

Ioday I discovered a review of my book Afghanistan Mountains Of Our Minds at the following website. Thankyou Paterika. It brought tears to my eyes.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Afghanistan Mountains Of Our Minds

By Bob McKerrow
Review by Patricia Hendy (aka Paterika Hengreaves)

I have travelled to many far away places. Never to Afghanistan but a New Zealander who is a mountaineer, polar traveler, family man, humanitarian, kayaker, skier, Head of Delegation for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Indonesia, writer and poet through his book made me feel as though I was there with him in Afghanistan In 1976 amid the suffering of the people from the great devastation of an earthquake and then lingering with him on his return to Afghanistan for three years in a time-capsule of 1993 to 1996. A period punctuated by grave destruction to the lives of those mountain people caused by the invasion of the Russian Army that occupied the country for nine years.

In his book, Bob reminisces through his poetic eyes. He draws you into his mind by sharing so eloquently and in an elevated style his experiences of the destruction, sufferings of the mountain people caused by natural and man-made calamities and how the Afghans went about their daily lives picking up the pieces tempered with their undying love of their mountains and their cultural roots, shaped and hardened in every way by their natural environment; that to many outsiders such would seem to border on the fringe of modern civilization as westerners know it. I loved the feeling I got when I was transported back in time, not by gory pictures or sound-bytes that make media headlines but rather through the muse, that for centuries has shaped minds of these mountain people. The main theme of the book draws contrast of a once peaceful country where people were living in harmony with their mountain lands. It highlights the indomitable spirit and tenacity of the Afghans and to chronicle the tragedy and beauty from real journeys into their mountains through a medium the Afghans have used throughout their existence.

Here are some more reasons why I like this book. The order in which I tell you does not place on them any degrees of which is more importance than the other. Anyway, here it goes:

I don't get the feeling that I'm served with cooked-up stories. This comes from the authentic imagery I get from reading the contents of the book. The imagery flashes the doings of real people, in my mind's eye, interacting with various circumstances in their immediate surroundings. I cite just two of the many examples in the book as listed below:


Whisper wind, whisper higher
Over mosaic dome and silver spire
Blow on in a peaceful hush,
Don't disturb the Hindu Kush...


You pass my door
As bombs fall
Scuffing leaves
You've lost all

Everything in one bag
Plastic, once leather
You walk with dignity
In worsening weather

I reach for the handle
To let you in
A tank track rattles
Your body thin

Your husband was shot
Three children blown apart
I want to say sorry
But my throats parched

How do I say sorry
When I'm riddled with guilt
We supplied the weapons
For the blood that's spilt

I try to tell my friends
What you've been through
They read and say little
It's too remote to be true

So come inside
And share my food
The whole world's stuffed
Except me and you.

I like the way the book is presented. I like his style of writing. It is soft and gentle on a flowing cadence and yet forceful. It is not threatening in any way but comes across as a genuine fire-side chat as he skillfully takes me with him down memory-lane and having the courtesy to introduce me to his many friends among them Dr Abdul Samay Hamed, Ali Haider Waheed Warasta, Alberto Cairo, Nancy Dupree, Ahmed Shah Massoud, Masood Khalili and Steve Masty that have played key roles in getting him to this point…sharing wisdom about a country vastly misunderstood. His poetry stands tall, for a linear approach would not have done the job well, for key elements that feed on soul of the Afghan people would have been overlooked. Wise decision to evoke the muse in this regard.

I like the way the book cleverly draws my attention to cultural and creative minds of the people of Afghanistan that match their love of the mountains in a poetic ensemble throughout the 125 pages. This one such instance rolls off my tongue with sweet-raspberry taste tantalizingly beautiful:

Drink wine in the citadel of Kabul
Send round the cup without stopping,
For it is at once a mountain,
A sea, a town, a desert

Found on Babur's citadel in Kabul tells how the great Mogul ruler love the city of Kabul and the mountains of Afghanistan. Clearly the books alludes to the fact that poetry runs deep in the DNA of the people of Afghanistan. Their historical roots are revealed as well.

The larger theme of the book is about how the mountains shape the people, people shape the mountains. They dominate the landscape of Afghanistan and these massive ramparts have shaped the lives, culture and the minds of the Afghan people for thousands of years.

Thus, the book gives authentic proof of how their natural environment influences their lives, culture and their aspirations. I get the sense of how one can go about bridging the cultural divide that seems to separate the east from the west. Take this instance cited in the book for what it is worth, young soldiers armed to the teeth, but keen to share their poems composed between periods of transient calmness.

The main theme and sub-theme of the book are captured alluringly in the well crafted quatrains full of tone, texture in streams of rhythm and rhymes that not only reflect sadness, joy, longing, anguish, desperations, hope, love and of course, romance that mirror the essence and spirit of these mountain people. And here, I quote you yet another extract from the book, "Acorn and the Horse" . The imagery I get from it is that of romance that bloomed in a war-torn country in the region of Turkmenistan and it is painfully beautiful. I get the feeling too that the voice in this book found his beautiful mountain flower. I have emboldened those lines that have led me to draw that conclusion. Here it goes:

An acorn plucked from a dry dusty tree
Has no meaning really
But in the crumbling mountains
Separating Turkmenistan from Iran
Symbolism is strong as blood
Now in the hand of a Kazakh women
Whose ancestors have ruled the steppes since
Chenghis galloped through with his hordes

As we strode towards the mountain stream
Shoulder to shoulder
Kazakh, Uzbek, Russian, Afghan Turkmen and Scot
Blood meant nothing at that moment
But it has been spilt for centuries
Across this very stretch of land
Once Parthian, Persian, Mongol now Turkman
Like a green acorn, a brief oasis of peace

Two green acorns were casually passed
Symbolism of cultures apart
Yours is the horse, mine the oak and kauri
Spars for ships of the great oceans
Can I not give you something for yours?
Like bridle, whip or stirrup
When you ride east and I sail south
Conquering the wandering white horses

I'm glad I read this book. It has erased my negative attitude to that part of the world through my own lack of understanding of their cultural heritage. And from reading this book which came to my home on January 2009, my sixth sense tells me that no conquering nation will ever drive these Afghan people from their lands and mountains they love, their poetry handed down to them through time in memorial. The metaphoric language in the book supports my contention and this is but one such example,

East is east and west is west
And never the twain shall meet
It was Kipling at his best
The words rang clear and deep

You don't have to be a connoisseur of poetry to find this book appealing. Also you'll find many useful gems sitting on the lines that can help one to reach into the minds of the Afghan people. The cultural route is the only way, in my opinion, to traverse their mountains, the book concurs.

This book, therefore, is a must read for all those brave men and women taking up base camps in Afghanistan. Trust me, you have to read the book to experience what I have experienced or even more; and to feel its full impact on your mind, for no amount of my words will suffice.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Nowruz 2009

A Buskashi game at Parwan, Afghanistan on Nowruz, 21 March, 2006. Note how low the winter snow still is on the Hindu Kush. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Happy Nowruz ! I think of all those children in so many troubled countries who today will have big smiles on their faces as they celebrate Nowruz. With new clothes, a good meal and a day free of chores, they will be playing their favourite games in dusty, or snow-covered fields.

I have celebrated Nowruz many times in Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan Bangladesh and India. With my wife being Moslem, we are celebrating Nowruz in our home today. It is probably celebrated with the most vigor in Mazar I Sharif in Afghanistan, where a huge fertility pole is raised with ribbons tied to it. Each ribbon represents someones prayers. Celebrated on 21 or 22 March, depending on the country, I never forget the dates as it falls on my birthday.

Nowruz is celebrated from Iran to Indonesia. In Bukhara, Uzbekistan, it is celebrated with great fervour. The Kalyan Minaret, Bukhara.Photo: Bob McKerrow

In Northern Afghanistan the feritliy pole is a pre-Islamic celebration seen as a phallic symbol. Around 21 March, the winter snows starts to melt and the celebrations and prayers are in the hope that the spring will bring plenty of water to nourish the crops and bring fertility to land and people.

The Holy Blue Mosque in Mazar I Sharif where the fertility pole is raised on Nowruz. Photo: Bob McKerrow

I celebrated Nowruz in Mazar I Sharif in 1994, 1995 and again in 2003. and on three other ocassion in Kabul. What a festival of food, horsemanship, flowers, poetry reading, pageantry, colour and fun.

An Uzbek drummer celebrates the fertility pole being raised in Mazar I Sharif at Nowruz. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The most important Zoroastrian festivals are the six Gahambars and Nowruz which occurs at the spring equinox. According to the late Professor. Mary Boyce[4]: It seems a reasonable surmise that Nowruz, the holiest of them all, with deep doctrinal significance, was founded by Zoroaster himself. Between sunset of the day of the 6th Gahanbar and sunrise of Nowruz was celebrated Hamaspathmaedaya (later known, in its extended form, as Frawardinegan). This and the Gahanbar are the only festivals named in the surviving text of the Avesta.

For many, Nowruz is a time for reflection. A Tajik man at the grave of poet Jami, near Herat, Afghanistan, Photo: Bob McKerrow

The Shahnameh, dates Nowruz as far back to the of Jamshid, who in Zoroastrian texts saved mankind from a killer winter that was destined to kill every living creature[5].

The mythical Persian King Jamshid (Yima or Yama of the Indo-Iranian lore) perhaps symbolizes the transition of the Indo-Iranians from animal hunting to animal husbandry and a more settled life in human history. In the Shahnameh and Iranian mythology, he is credited with the foundation of Nowruz. In the Shahnama, Jamshid constructed a throne studded with gems. He had demons raise him above the earth into the heavens; there he sat on his throne like the sun shining in the sky. The world's creatures gathered in wonder about him and scattered jewels aound him, and called this day the New Day or No/Now-Ruz. This was the first day of the month of Farvardin (the first month of the Persian calendar)[6]. The association with Jamshid can be seen that in Persian, the festival is also called Nowruz-i-Jamshidi (The Jamshidi Nowruz).

A soldier at Nowruz celebrations in Mazar I Sharif. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The Iranian scholar Abu Rayhan Biruni of the 10th century A.D., in his Persian work "The Tafhim" provides a description of the calendar of various nations. Besides the Persian calendar, various festivals of Arabs, Jews, Sabians, Greeks and other nations are mentioned in this book. In the section on the Persian calendar(تقویم پارسیان), he mentions Nowruz, Sedeh, Tiregan, Mehregan, the six Gahanbar, Parvardegaan, Bahmanja, Isfandarmazh and several other festivals. According to him: It is the belief of the Persians that Nowruz marks the first day when the universe started its motion.[7].

In his work titled the Nowruznama, Omar Khayyam, a well known Persian poet and Mathematician writes a vivid description of the celebration in the courts of the Kings of Persia:

From the era of Keykhosrow till the days of Yazdegard, last of the pre-Islamic kings of Persia, the royal custom was thus: on the first day of the New Year, Now Ruz, the King's first visitor was the High Priest of the Zoroastrians, who brought with him as gifts a golden goblet full of wine, a ring, some gold coins, a fistful of green sprigs of wheat, a sword, and a bow. In the language of Persia he would then glorify God and praise the monarch..

Buskashi, a game of daring, courage and supreme horsemanship. Mazar I Sharif 21 March, 1995. This game was a Nowruz celebration. Photo: Bob McKerrow

This was the address of the High Priest to the king : "O Majesty, on this feast of the Equinox, first day of the first month of the year, seeing that thou hast freely chosen God and the Faith of the Ancient ones; may Surush, the Angel-messenger, grant thee wisdom and insight and sagacity in thy affairs. Live long in praise, be happy and fortunate upon thy golden throne, drink immortality from the Cup of Jamshid; and keep in solemn trust the customs of our ancestors, their noble aspirations, fair gestes and the exercise of justice and righteousness. May thy soul flourish; may thy youth be as the new-grown grain; may thy horse be puissant, victorious; thy sword bright and deadly against foes; thy hawk swift against its prey; thy every act straight as the arrow's shaft. Go forth from thy rich throne, conquer new lands. Honor the craftsman and the sage in equal degree; disdain the acquisition of wealth. May thy house prosper and thy life be long!"

The term Nowruz first appeared in Persian records in the second century AD, but it was also an important day during the time of the Achaemenids (c. 648-330 BC), where kings from different nations under the Persian empire used to bring gifts to the emperor (Shahanshah) of Persia on Nowruz.[8]

Nowruz was the holiday of Arsacid/Parthian dynastic Empires who ruled Iran (248 BC-224 AD). There are specific references to the celebration of Nowruz during the reign of Vologases I (51-78 AD), but these include no details. However, We have reasons to believe that the celebration is much older than that date and was surely celebrated by the people and royalty during the Achaemenid times (555-330 BC). It was, therefore, a highly auspicious occasion for the ancient peoples. It has been suggested that the famous Persepolis complex, or at least the palace of Apadana and the Hundred Columns Hall, were built for the specific purpose of celebrating Nowruz. However, no mention of Nowruz exists in Achaemenid inscriptions (see picture) [9]. It also happened to coincide with the Babylonian and Jewish new years .

Extensive records on the celebration of Nowruz appear following the accession of Ardashir I of Persia, the founder of the Sassanid dynasty (224-651 AD). Under the Sassanid emperors, Nowruz was celebrated as the most important day of the year. Most royal traditions of Nowruz such as royal audiences with the public, cash gifts, and the pardoning of prisoners, were established during the Sassanian era and persisted unchanged until modern times.

Nowruz, along with Sadeh (celebrated in mid-winter), survived in society following the introduction of Islam in 650 AD. Other celebrations such Gahanbar and Mehragan were eventually side-lined or were only followed by the Zoroastrians, who carried them as far as Turkey. Nowruz, however, was most honored even by the early founders of Islam. There are records of the Four Great Caliphs presiding over Nowruz celebrations, and it was adopted as the main royal holiday during the Abbasid period.

Following the demise of the Caliphate and the subsequent re-emergence of Persian dynasties such as the Samanids and Buyids, Nowruz was elevated to an even more important event. The Buyids revived the ancient traditions of Sassanian times and restored many smaller celebrations that had been eliminated by the Caliphate. Even the Turkish and Mongol invaders did not attempt to abolish Nowruz in favor of any other celebration. Thus, Nowruz remained as the main celebration in the Persian lands by both the officials and the people.

Local variations
Today, the festival of Nowruz is celebrated in many countries that were territories of, or influenced by, the Persian Empire: Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, parts of the Middle East, as well as in the former Soviet republics of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan,Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. It is also celebrated by the Zoroastrian Parsis in India and Pakistan as well by certain Iranic inhabitants in Pakistan's Chitral region. It is also celebrated by the Iranian immigrants from Shiraz in Zanzibar.[10] In Turkey, it is called Nevruz in Turkish, Sultan Nevruz in Albanian. In some remote communities located in parts of western Iran, the holiday is referred to as Nuroj, which literally means New Day in the Kurdish language.

In Iran, the greeting that accompanies the festival is Eydetoon Mobārak (mubarak: felicitations) in Persian. In Turkey, the greeting is either Bayramınız Mubarek/kutlu olsun (in Turkish (the same greeting applies for other festivals as well)).

Nowruz in modern Iran
In Iran, preparations for Nowruz begin in Esfand (or Espand), the last month of winter in the Persian solar calendar. Below is information about Nowruz as celebrated in Iran.

Khane Tekani
Persians, Afghans and other groups start preparing for the Nowruz with a major spring-cleaning of their houses, the purchase of new clothes to wear for the new year and the purchase of flowers (in particular the hyacinth and the tulip are popular and conspicuous).

In association with the "rebirth of nature", extensive spring-cleaning is a national tradition observed by almost every household in Persia. This is also extended to personal attire, and it is customary to buy at least one set of new clothes. On the New Year's day, families dress in their new clothes and start the twelve-day celebrations by visiting the elders of their family, then the rest of their family and finally their friends. On the thirteenth day families leave their homes and picnic outdoors.

During the Nowruz holidays people are expected to visit one another (mostly limited to families, friends and neighbours) in the form of short house visits, which are usually reciprocated. Typically, on the first day of Nowruz, family members gather around the table, with the Haft Seen on the table or set next to it, and await the exact moment of the arrival of the spring. At that time gifts are exchanged. Later in the day, the first house visits are paid to the most senior family members. Typically, the youth will visit the elders first, and the elders return their visit later. The visits naturally have to be relatively short, otherwise one will not be able to visit everybody on their list. A typical visit is around 30 minutes, where you often run into other visiting relatives and friends who happen to be paying a visit to the same house at that time. Because of the house visits, you make sure you have a sufficient supply of pastry, cookies, fresh and dried fruits and special nuts on hand, as you typically serve your visitors with these items with tea or sherbet. Many Iranians will throw large Nowruz parties in a central location as a way of dealing with the long distances between groups of friends and family.

Some Nowruz celebrants believe that whatever a person does on Nowruz will affect the rest of the year. So, if a person is warm and kind to their relatives, friends and neighbours on Nowruz, then the new year will be a good one. On the other hand, if there are fights and disagreements, the year will be a bad one.

One tradition that may not be very widespread (that is, it may belong to only a few families) is to place something sweet, such as honey or candy, in a safe place outside overnight. On the first morning of the new year, the first person up brings the sweet stuff into the house as another means of attaining a good new year.

Chaharshanbe Suri

The night before the last Wednesday of the year is celebrated by the Iranian people as Chahârshanbe Sûrî Persian: چهارشنبه سوری, (Azerbaijani: Od çərşənbəsi meaning wednesday of fire, Kurdish: Çarşeme surê, چوارشه‌مه‌ سوورێ meaning red wednesday), the Iranian festival of fire. This festival is the celebration of the light (the good) winning over the darkness (the bad); the symbolism behind the rituals are all rooted back to Zoroastrianism.

The tradition includes people going into the streets and alleys to make bonfires, and jump over them while singing the traditional song Zardî-ye man az to, sorkhî-ye to az man; This literally translates to "My yellowness from you, your redness from me," with the figurative message "My paleness (pain, sickness) for you (the fire), your strength (health) for me."

Serving different kinds of pastry and nuts known as Ajīl-e Moshkel-Goshā (lit. The problem-solving nuts) is the Chahārshanbe Sūrī way of giving thanks for the previous year's health and happiness, while exchanging any remaining paleness and evil for the warmth and vibrancy of the fire.

According to tradition, the living are visited by the spirit of their ancestors on the last days of the year, and many children wrap themselves in shrouds, symbolically re-enacting the visits. They also run through the streets banging on pots and pans with spoons and knocking on doors to ask for treats. The ritual is called qashogh-zany (spoon beating) and symbolizes the beating out of the last unlucky Wednesday of the year.

There are several other traditions on this night, including: the rituals of Kūze Shekastan, the breaking of earthen jars which symbolically hold ones bad fortune; the ritual of Fal-Gûsh, or inferring one's future from the conversations of those passing by; and the ritual of Gereh-goshā’ī, making a knot in the corner of a handkerchief or garment and asking the first passerby to unravel it in order to remove ones misfortune.

Haft sin table

Haft Sīn (هفت سین) or the seven 'S's is a major tradition of Nowruz. The haft sin table includes seven specific items starting with the letter 'S' or Sīn (س) in Persian alphabet). The items symbolically correspond to seven creations and holy immortals protecting them. The Haft Sin has evolved over time, but has kept its symbolism. Traditionally, families attempt to set as beautiful a Haft Sīn table as they can, as it is not only of traditional and spiritual value, but also noticed by visitors during Nowruzi visitations and is a reflection of their good taste.

The Haft Sīn items are:

sabzeh - wheat, barley or lentil sprouts growing in a dish - symbolizing rebirth

samanu - a sweet pudding made from wheat germ - symbolizing affluence

senjed - the dried fruit of the oleaster tree - symbolizing love

sīr - garlic - symbolizing medicine

sīb - apples - symbolizing beauty and health

somaq - sumac berries - symbolizing (the color of) sunrise

serkeh - vinegar - symbolizing age and patience

Other items on the table may include:

Sonbol - Hyacinth (flower)

Sekkeh - Coins - representative of wealth

traditional Iranian pastries such as baghlava, toot, naan-nokhodchi

Aajeel - dried nuts, berries and raisins

lit candles (enlightenment and happiness)

a mirror (symbolizing cleanness and honesty)

decorated eggs, sometimes one for each member of the family (fertility)

a bowl of water with goldfish (life within life, and the sign of Pisces which the sun is leaving)

rosewater, believed to have magical cleansing powers

the national colours, for a patriotic touch

a holy book (e.g., the Qur'an, Avesta, Bible, Torah, or Kitáb-i-Aqdas) and/or a poetry book (almost always either the Shahnama or the Divan of Hafez)

New Year dishes
Sabzi Polo Mahi: The New Year's day traditional meal is called Sabzi Polo Mahi, which is rice with green herbs served with fish. The traditional seasoning for Sabzi Polo are parsley, coriander, chives, dill and fenugreek.

Reshteh Polo: rice cooked with noodles which is said to symbolically help one succeed in life.

Dolme Barg : A traditional dish of Azeri people, cooked just before the new year. It includes some vegetables, meat and cotyledon which have been cooked and embedded in vine leaf and cooked again. It is considered useful in reaching to wishes.

Kookoo sabzi : Herbs and vegetable souffle, traditionally served for dinner at New Year. A light and fluffy omelet style made from parsley, dill, coriander, spinach, spring onion ends, and chives, mixed with eggs and walnut.

Sizdah Bedar
The thirteenth day of the new year festival is Sizdah Bedar (literally meaning "thirteen to out", figuratively meaning "hit the outdoors on the thirteenth"). This is a day of festivity in the open, often accompanied by music and dancing, usually at family picnics.

Sizdah bedar celebrations stem from the ancient Persians' belief that the twelve constellations in the Zodiac controlled the months of the year, and each ruled the earth for a thousand years at the end of which the sky and earth collapsed in chaos. Hence Nowruz lasts twelve days and the thirteenth day represents the time of chaos when families put order aside and avoid the bad luck associated with the number thirteen by going outdoors and having picnics and parties.

At the end of the celebrations on this day, the sabzeh grown for the Haft Seen (which has symbolically collected all sickness and bad luck) is thrown into running water to exorcise the demons (divs) from the household. It is also customary for young single women to tie the leaves of the sabzeh before discarding it, so expressing a wish to be married before the next year's Sizdah Bedar. Another tradition associated with this day is Dorugh-e Sizdah, literally meaning "the lie of the thirteenth", which is the process of lying to someone and making them believe it (similar to April Fools Day).

Newroz celebration by Kurds

The word 'Newroz' is Kurdish for 'Nowruz'. The Kurds celebrate this feast between 18th till 21st March. It is one of the few ‘peoples celebrations’ that has survived and predates all the major religious festivals. The holiday is considered by Kurds to be the single most important holiday of every year.

With this festival Kurds gather into the fairgrounds mostly outside the cities to welcome spring. Women wear gaily colored dresses and spangled head scarves and young men wave flags of green, yellow and red, the colors of the Kurdish people. They hold this festival by lighting fire and dancing around it . [11].

The main Kurdish greeting that accompanies the festival is, Newroz pîroz be! literally translating to Holy Newroz, or, simply, Happy Newroz!. Another greeting used is, Bijî Newroz!, simply meaning Long live Newroz!

The festival was illegal until 1995 in Turkey, where the majority of Kurds live [12], and Turkish forces arrested Kurds celebrating Newroz [13]. In Newroz 1992 at least 70 people celebrating the festival were killed in clashes with Turkish security forces [14]. The holiday is now official in Turkey after international pressure on the Turkish government to lift culture bans. Turkish government renamed the holiday Nevruz in 1995, and reclaimed it as a Turkish holiday[15].

Newroz is still largely considered as a potent symbol of Kurdish identity in Turkey. Newroz celebrations are usually organised by Kurdish cultural associations and pro-Kurdish political parties. Thus, the Democratic Society Party was a leading force in the organisation of the 2006 Newroz events throughout Turkey. In recent years the Newroz celebration gathers around 1 million participants in Diyarbakır, the biggest city of the Kurdish dominated Southeastern Turkey. As the Kurdish Newroz celebrations in Turkey often are theater for political messages, the events are frequently criticized for rather being political rallies than cultural celebrations.

In other largely populated Kurdish regions in the Middle East including Iraq and Syria, similar celebrations are carried out with fires, dancing and music. In Iran, it is the most important festival of the whole year.

Nowruz in Afghanistan
In Afghanistan, Nowroz festival is traditionally celebrated for 2 weeks. Preparations for Nowroz start several days beforehand, at least after Chaharshanbe Suri, the last Wednesday before the New Year. Among various traditions and customs, the most important ones are:

Haft Mēwa: In Afghanistan, they prepare Haft Mēwa (Seven Fruits) instead of Haft Sin which is common in Iran. Haft Mewa is like a Fruit salad made from 7 different Dried fruits, served in their own syrup. The 7 dried fruits are: Raisin, Senjed (the dried fruit of the oleaster tree), Pistachio, Hazelnut, Prune (dry fruit of Apricot), Walnut and whether Almond or another species of Plum fruit.

Samanak: It is a special type of sweet dish made from Wheat germ. 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 - Degarān dar Khwāb o mā Dafcha zanem

Mēla-e Gul-e Surkh (Persian: ميله‌ى گل سرخ): The Guli Surkh festival which literally means Red Flower Festival (referring to the red Tulip flowers) is an old festival celebrated only in Mazari Sharif during the first 40 days of the year when the Tulip flowers grow. People travel from different parts of the country to Mazar in order to attend the festival. It is celebrated along with the Jahenda Bālā ceremony which is a specific religious ceremony performed in the holy blue mosque of Mazar that is believed (mostly by Sunnite Afghans) 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) in the blue mosque in the first day of year (i.e. Nowroz). The Guli Surkh party continues with other special activities among people in the Tulip fields and around the blue mosque for 40 days.

Buzkashi: Along with other customs and celebrations, normally a Buzkashi tournament is held. The Buzkashi matches take place in northern cities of Afghanistan and in Kabul.

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, Barā'at and in Nowroz. Hence, the special dish for Nowroz is Māhī wa Jelabī.

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.

Jashni Dehqān: Jashni 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.

Zoroastrian Faith
Zoroastrians worldwide celebrate Nowruz as the first day of the New Year. Parsi Zoroastrians of South Asian origin celebrate it as "Nowroj", "Navroz", or "Navroj" on the fixed day of March 21, while Zoroastrians of Iranian background generally celebrate, like other Iranians, on the actual Spring Equinox date. Because different Zoroastrian communities in India/Pakistan and Iran have evolved slightly different calendar systems, there is some variance. Adherents of the Fasli variant of the Zoroastrian calendar celebrate Nowruz in March, but today, most other Zoroastrians also celebrate on this day.

Other variants of the Zoroastrian calendar celebrate the Nowruz twice: once as Jamshedi Nowruz on March 21st as the start of spring, and a second Nowruz, in July/August (see Variations of the Zoroastrian calendar), as either new year's eve or new year's day. That the second Nowruz is celebrated after the last day of the year, known as Pateti, which comes after a Muktad period of days remembering the dead. Many Parsis are confused by this, and mistakenly celebrate Pateti as if it were Nowruz, when in fact Nowruz is the day after. Some attribute this confusion by some as celebrating the last day of the year (contrary to what might be expected from a term that means "new day"), may be due to the fact that in ancient Persia the day began at sunset, while in later Persian belief the day began at sunrise.

Zoroastrians of Iranian origin generally put up a Haft Sin table as do other Iranians. Zoroastrians of Parsi (South Asian) origin do not traditionally use a Haft Sin. They set up a standard "sesh" tray- generally a silver tray, with a container of rose water, a container with betel nut, raw rice, raw sugar, flowers, a picture of Zarathustra the prophet, and either a floating wick in a glass filled with water topped with oil for fuel, or an "afargania", a silver urn with a small fire nourished by sandalwood and other fragrant resins.

Bahá'í Faith
Naw-Rúz in the Bahá'í Faith is one of nine holy days for adherents of the Bahá'í Faith worldwide and the first day of the Bahá'í calendar occurring on the vernal equinox, around March 21.[16] The Bahá'í calendar is composed of 19 months, each of 19 days,[17] and each of the months is named after an attribute of God; similarly each of the nineteen days in the month also are named after an attribute of God.[17] The first day and the first month were given the attribute of Bahá, an Arabic word meaning splendour or glory, and thus the first day of the year was the day of Bahá in the month of Bahá.[16][18] Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, explained that Naw-Rúz was associated with the Most Great Name of God,[16][18] and was instituted as a festival for those who observed the Nineteen day fast.[19][20]

The day is also used to symbolize the renewal of time in each religious dispensation.[21] `Abdu'l-Bahá, Bahá'u'lláh's son and successor, explained that significance of Naw-Rúz in terms of spring and the new life it brings.[16] He explained that the equinox is a symbol of the messengers of God and the message that they proclaim is like a spiritual springtime, and that Naw-Rúz is used to commemorate it.[22]

As with all Bahá'í holy days, there are few fixed rules for observing Naw-Rúz, and Bahá'ís all over the world celebrate it as a festive day, according to local custom.[16] Persian Bahá'ís still observe many of the Iranian customs associated with Nowruz such as the Haft Sîn, but American Bahá'í communities, for example, may have a potluck dinner, along with prayers and readings from Bahá'í scripture.

Nowruz around the world
Nowruz is celebrated in Greater Iran, Caucasus, Central Asia and by Iranians worldwide. It is a public holiday in: Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan [23], Tajikistan [24], Uzbekistan [25], Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kashmir [26], and Kyrgyzstan [27].

In Albania Sultan Nevruz is celebrated as a manily mystical day by the Bektashi sect, there are special ceremonies in the Tekke led by the clergy and large meals are served there. It is considered the historical Albanian New Year by the Bektashis, who refer to old Illyrian evidence.

Nowruz is also celebrated by Kurds in [28]Iraq and Turkey [29] as well as by Parsis in India and Pakistan.

Other notable celebrations take place by Iranians around the world, such as Los Angeles, Toronto, Cologne and in United Kingdom, mainly in London [30].

But because Los Angeles is prone to devastating fires, there are very strict fire codes in the city. No fires are allowed even on one's own property. Usually, Iranians and Azerbaijanis living in Southern California go to the beaches to celebrate the event where it is permissible to build fires. [31]

In Afghanistan during the reign of the Taliban, Nowruz was banned until 2001 where it came back as popular as it was before the Taliban.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Afghanistan's Soviet remnants

Lyse Doucet worked for the BBC in the late 1980s for the BBC in Afghanistan and has been one of my favourite journalists over the years as she is able to drill deep and get the story behind the story. I rate her alongside Christiane Amanpour from CNN who I met a number of times in 1993-96 in Afghanistan. I got to know Lyse a little after 9/11 when she was covering from the BBC from Islamabad where I was based for some time.

My two favourite war correspondents who covered Afghanistan, Lyse (l) and Christiane (r)

Here is a superb story that appeared recently on the BBC website written by by Lyse Doucet.

Ahmad and Nek Mohammad: Little betrays their Ukrainian past

It took a call to an Afghan military commander, a chat with a police chief, a nod to a governor, and tea with a spook but we were finally given permission to pass through the gates to the Friendship Bridge linking northern Afghanistan to the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan.

On the plain white bridge spanning the Amu Darya river, only a lone car rolled by every few minutes or so.

And then, a freight train came thundering down the rails, shattering an eerie quiet, allowing us to imagine a time centuries ago when mighty armies invaded across this border.

From Alexander the Great to the 19th Century Great Game, this has been the edge of empire.

Three decades ago, the Soviet Red Army came across this bridge.

Then, in 1989, the last of 100,000 soldiers rumbled the other way in an armoured column.

They left behind a country in ruin and returned home to a Soviet empire on the verge of collapse.

Some 15,000 Red Army soldiers lost their lives and more than a million Afghans were killed in a Cold War confrontation between a Soviet-backed government in Kabul and mujahideen fighters armed by the West and Islamic neighbours.

'If I hadn't converted they would have killed me'

The Soviet commander, Gen Boris Gromov, a decorated war hero, was the last to cross this bridge in a carefully choreographed farewell.

In Moscow, a foreign ministry spokesman announced "not a single Soviet soldier was left in Afghanistan".

I was based in Kabul then and watched the troops go. But ever since then, I've heard stories of the ones that never left.

Twenty years on, in the north-eastern town of Kunduz, I met Private Alexander Levenets and Gennady Tseuma, two village boys from Ukraine, former teenage conscripts.

The Afghan war turned their lives inside out. Alexander became Ahmad. Gennady is Nek Mohammad. But fate dealt them each a different hand.


Alexander deserted his unit to escape the brutality of his Russian officers.

As we walked through a depot of rusting Soviet weaponry in Kunduz, he remembered his walk into the darkness one night, believing he faced certain death.

Some 15,000 Red Army soldiers lost their lives

The Russians had warned - anyone who surrendered would be tortured by the mujahideen.

But instead they took him in. He eventually converted to Islam and fought his former Russian comrades.

"I had hatred toward them and treated them as they had treated me."

Gennady was taken prisoner by a different mujahedeen group and forced to choose between conversion or death.

A quarter of a century on, little betrays their Ukrainian past. To all appearances, they are Afghan Muslims with their traditional shalwar kameez - tunic and trousers - and greying beards.

Some 15,000 Red Army soldiers lost their lives

Among the "Afghantsy" - the Soviet soldiers who fought in this war - a small number deserted or were taken prisoner.

A few were honoured as special Muslims when the Taleban came to power. Some have gone back to their old homes.

Emotional reunion

Ahmad, with his gentle bearing and embroidered Muslim cap, wants to put the past behind him.

"I don't remember anything from Ukraine. There's nothing left for me there." His mother and only brother are now dead.

He drives a white estate taxi to support his wife and four daughters.

"I have no regrets," he says with a smile as his daughters play Afghan hopscotch in the fading light of day inside their walled compound.

In this conservative Afghan culture, his wife remained out of sight.

Nek Mohammad also has four children and an Afghan wife he married when she was just a young teenager.

But there is also Sergei - a brother who was only 11 when he left for the front.

In the past few weeks, Sergei managed to collect money and courage to visit.

As we sat on cushions, in Afghan custom, on a carpeted floor, Nek Mohammad recalled their emotional reunion.

"Sergei said, what happened to you? See what has fate done to us."

'I deserted the Soviets to fight for the mujahideen'

Sergei wants him to come home. Nek Mohammad is torn. "I wanted to go but my wife's family did not let her. My children are sweet. I could not leave them."

When Nek Mohammad turns on his satellite television to listen to Russian music, the women cavorting on screen offend Ahmad, who averts his gaze.

Nek Mohammad watches with a wry smile. "We never used to have that kind of stuff."

Their lives were changed forever by this war. But so was the fate of an entire country when the Soviet Union invaded to prop up an unpopular government in Kabul begging for help.

"It was a mistake," admitted Russia's Ambassador in Kabul, Zamir Kabulov, when we visit the memorial to Moscow's dead on the far edge of their gleaming new embassy in Kabul.

He was a young diplomat during the Soviet occupation and has spent almost all his career in Afghanistan.

Now he has a stark warning for the West.

"Tragedy is being repeated again. I feel that the Americans and other partners waging a war on terror have neglected historical lessons."

Ambassador Kabulov often speaks with some barely concealed satisfaction over the plight of former Cold War rivals. That annoys Western diplomats who dismiss history lectures from Moscow.

In 2001, when US and British led troops helped topple the Taleban, they were welcomed as liberators, not occupiers. It was hailed as a new start.

But as the Taleban advance close to Kabul, and civilian casualties mount from errant US and Nato air strikes, Afghans ask why the countries who came to help are now failing them.

But Nato governments are urgently reviewing their strategies. An extra 17,000 US troops are being deployed.

The Cold War railway relic on the northern border will soon help to bring in Nato supplies as it steps up its Afghan campaign.

Tragedy is being repeated again. I feel that the Americans and other partners waging a war on terror have neglected historical lessons

Zamir Kabulov,
Russian ambassador

Sunday, March 1, 2009

the Afghan Woman and other poems by Samay Hamed

Afghan women outside the Mosque in Mazar-I-Sharif. Taken 1976. Photo: Bob McKerrow

I will never forget that snowy winter in Mazar I Sharif, Northern Afghanistan. in 1993- 94 when I met Waheed and his brother Samay Hamed. Waheed was a scrawny 17 year old who had learnt some BBC English. The killing in Kabul had reached hundreds a day and as various factions fought, people fled to Mazar-I-Sharif for sanctury wher ethere was relative peace. Hundreds of thousands of displaced people needed assistance from the Red Cross, so I moved their to increase the volume of our humanitarian assistance.

I employed Waheed as an interpretor and his brother Samay Hamed worked as a Doctor for the Afghan red Crescent Society.

When I published my book of poems and photographs in 2003, Mountains of Our Mind, I included 12 of (Abdul) Samay Hamed's poems. Since then he has gone on to be one of Afghanistan's leading poets.

The other day Samay Hamed wrote to me and shared me his lates poems. He is happy for me to share them with you.

Can I see what I wish?

I see my mother watching my gritty grave
on this grizzly ground
She is pouring tears and water into the broken pot
for the desert-pigeons

I can even sense the fragrance of her face
The fragrance of her old cloth - flowered
with colorful patches-

I see my father selling left-over parts of the mortar-shell
to the iron-peddler to buy a nipple
for my month-old sister

I see my brother making bricks from dust and sweat
to rebuild our house
He is making, too, a big brick for my grave
to prevent whirlwinds destroying my silence

From this gritty grave on this grizzly ground

I can feel my playmate chewing a fresh leaf,
riding on a wooden horse

I see our neighbors praying for my little soul
while she crosses the singing bridge

I see every one in the violet face of our village
after violence


Can I ever see my month-old sister
sitting with my mother on the roof of our home,
inviting small birds to a morning snack?

With not a single bullet to interrupt them?

Can I?

The Afghan Woman

The Afghan woman in a blue veil
looks like a piece of sky torn off and fallen
on the smoking street
she is trying to rise again
but it seems that a wave is frozen
The Afghan woman,

When she reaches her hand out from her cloth-cell to
to sell a chewing-gum
Several small and colorful rainbows
dance round her wrist

The Afghan woman
hides her love in the shoes she has never worn
Pays her father’s debt with her virgin dreams
Tells her problems to a cloudy mirror
in the dark corner of a basement

The Afghan woman
Is cooking
But still not working!

A baby on her left arm
A teenage boy in her right hand
She is running faster then machineguns


The bridge is crossing the Afghan woman!

The Mosque in Balkh, near Mazar-I-Sharif. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Ouch! Telephone cards!

The orphan boy is shouting from his shirt
of dust and smoke:
Telephone cards! Telephone cards!
He runs after the sleepless cars
He follows the waving baskets of grapes
He stands in front of a shop
full of perfume and shooting stars
The shopkeeper hits at him with a fly-swat

Ouch! Telephone cards! Telephone cards!

Since he was 5 years old
he has been selling hundreds of telephone cards

But his own second-hand mobile had never rung!

We have to believe

The black and white film of the night
is always the same here
Just its red burning subtitles change

Sometimes they change so horribly that you want
to write under the window :

Minus 18-years old!

It is difficult, but we have to believe
there is a lover plying guitar with her/his
blood-lightings behind this wall

It is difficult, but we have to believe
this sky, covered by red full-stops of bullets
Will turn to a poetry collection of galaxies again

The window will open us towards the fresh breath
of hidden forests
The door will welcome sunny smiles

It is difficult, but we have to believe
a silken child is opening the cage of our bones
to emerge like a free-form Haiku

To translate us for ourselves

In spite of our difficulties we must believe

Samay Hamed (l) and Waheed Warastra (r)