Nowruz is banned in Afghanistan, but families continue to celebrate

The Taliban may have banned the Nowruz holiday, but they can’t erase the Persian New Year from people’s minds.

“When I think of Nowruz, I can only think of food,” Shararah (a pseudonym to protect her identity) says with a broad smile.

The 23-year-old teacher zooms in from a modest apartment in Kabul, Afghanistan, reflecting on the holidays that mark the start of spring. Despite the late hour, Shararah is lively, her face growing brighter as she describes the once-bustling streets of Mandawi Market in Kabul’s Old Quarter, colorful stalls she and her sister browsed a par. a. A place, she says, where “everything could be found, from a needle to a cow”.

But in early March, the Taliban’s Ministry of Vice and Virtue confirmed that there would be no official celebration of Nowruz this year. It came less than seven months after the Taliban took over the government as the US military retreated.

The holiday – dating back 3,500 years and celebrated by more than 300 million people across the Middle East, Central Asia and the Caucasus – has been branded “mage” or pagan and abolished, just as it was. in 1996, when the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan.

“The goal,” says Shararah, “is to abolish anything that has no meaning in Islam, even if something is related to your own culture.”

The ban comes at a time when this food-centric holiday is harder to celebrate; food insecurity and malnutrition rates have reached proportions described by the World Food Program as “hell on earth”. This is in large part because of the sanctions and the freezing of Afghan assets that have led to the collapse of the economy.

Despite the odds, Shararah and her family – along with families from Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan – will quietly gather behind closed doors to give thanks for what they still have.

In years past, preparations for Nowruz would have already begun. “We were cleaning the house, buying new clothes and, of course, getting the food,” Shararah says.

Time in the markets was not just about trading. Even before the Taliban, Kabul had no nightlife and most shops closed in the early evening, except on Nowruz eve.

“All the people were walking around, enjoying the decorations and the lighting, eating ice cream, just being together,” she says. “Kabul – Afghanistan – has never been a safe place for women. If I went out at night without a man, says my brother, I would feel a bit on edge. But with the festival, there was a so different energy that we don’t have don’t worry.”

In Nowruz, families traditionally rose early, put on new clothes and started the day with prayer. After offering gratitude for the New Year, the day became more celebratory, family-oriented – and party-oriented. “It would be me, my cousins, my aunts and uncles, and our grandmother, sitting on cushions and having this huge couchthe fabric you lay with the food on it.”

“No one will stop this celebration”

The food.

Shararah’s words jostle as she describes appetizing dish after dish.

“Afghans are obsessed with meat, you know? When the meal is at home, my sister qabuli, mutton rice covered with carrots and caramelized raisins. She makes a plain rice but makes it colorful with nuggets of saffron and sugar. I love nuggets.”

the couch would also include sabzisautéed mixed greens – “like spring green”; gulpea, fried cauliflower covered with tomatoes; and gosh-e wireAfghan elephant ears dusted with powdered sugar.

But the real star of the Nowruz table would be haft mewa — a sweet and savory compote. “Me and all the other kids were taking our bowls and counting all the pieces, one saying, ‘I think I have a pistachio’ and the other, ‘Wow, why don’t I have one in my bowl. “It would be so much fun to just count the fruit and try to make each other jealous that I have more fruit than you.”

Prepared a day or two before Nowruz, haft mewa (“seven fruits” in Persian) is a combination of seven dried fruits and nuts. Ingredients are not defined but usually include a combination of pistachios, almonds, walnuts, cashews, cherries, raisins, currants, apricots, apples or senjed (a small sweet and tart berry in the shape of an olive). They are washed, peeled, mixed and soaked in water, some flavored with rose or cardamom. The result, a light and deeply satisfying blend of fruits and nuts, reminiscent of the abundance of the earth.

“It’s the only dish we don’t buy,” Shararah explains. “It’s almost like an unwritten rule that parents in the village will automatically send dry fruits and nuts to families in town. Every household would have dry food in their cupboards at all times.”

Until this year. Despite being part of what she describes as “the privileged population”, Shararah and her family have been affected by food insecurity. “We have exhausted our savings and reached a point where we try to cook things that require the least amount of groceries and will turn out to be the greatest. Like many people, we avoid eating meat and mostly eat things with rice or plain bread.”

Cupboards, once filled with nuts and dried fruit, are now meager, she says. “At the moment we only have small quantities of almonds and walnuts, and I don’t think we can do haft mewa with two things.” But, she insists, “It’s okay.”

“Our Nowruz table this year may look like last night’s dinner, but I know my sister will always make an effort to make it special,” Shararah said. “Even if we have no extravagance couch, we will still visit my uncle and eat homemade bread together. It’s going to be simple; it will be small; but it’s going to be something. No one will stop this celebration.”

Nowruz is a day of new beginnings, but now is also a time of resilience. “A year ago, I could not have imagined that I would be living in a country that would be under the control of people like the Taliban. It seems surreal, crazy. But here I am. Afghans always find a way to take advantage what they have. It seems absurd right now, but I want to believe that this new year will bring new opportunities, despite everything.”

Copyright 2022 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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