Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Nowruz: Festival of Various Ethnicities and Cultures

On 21 March, several nations in the Middle East and East Asia celebrate the Nowruz festival, marking the end of winter and the start of a new cycle of life. This festival is celebrated by people from various ethnicities, religions and nations, including the Kurds, who celebrate it as a symbol of revolution and solidarity.

Nowruz Festival
People dance during a Syrian Kurdish celebration on the second day of Nowruz in the countryside of the town of Qahtaniyah in Syria’s northeastern Hasakah province on March 21, 2021. Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP

Ali al-Ajeel

On 21 March every year, several nations in the Middle East and East Asia celebrate the Nowruz.

This festival is celebrated by people from various ethnicities, religions and nations, often with grand and opulent displays. It is recognised as an official holiday in numerous countries, including Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan.

The Kurds celebrate Nowruz as a festival of special significance and symbolism, particularly since it relates to their aspirations of becoming one nation and solidifies their communal bond.

Origin and Story

Nowruz has been observed for thousands of years, with different cultures celebrating it for varying reasons. However, the festival is widely recognised as a celebration of spring, marking the end of winter and the start of a new cycle of life.

Kurdish folklore hails Kaveh the Blacksmith as a hero of freedom and rebellion against tyranny. Kaveh killed a cruel king who oppressed and murdered his people. He then climbed a mountain to light a fire, a tradition now observed on Nowruz to symbolise “the triumph over injustice and the start of a new day,” as described in Ferdowsi‘s Shahnameh.

Some believe that the Sumerians or Babylonians may have been the first to celebrate the festival on this date, making it the beginning of their calendar. They celebrated Nowruz as the date that the deity Tammuz returned from the dead to breathe life and fertility into the land. Other narratives suggest that Nowruz is the day of prophet Adam‘s descent on earth.

While Kurds celebrate Nowruz as a symbol of revolution, the Persian narrative refers to it as a symbol of ruling and expansion. One of the Persian narratives tells the story of Persian king Jamshid, who rules over jinns and humans. On the day the sun entered Aries every year, he was carried to all the kingdoms under his reign on his golden bed, thus making it a holy day.

According to another account, Jamshid wandered the world and arrived in Azerbaijan, where he commanded his subjects to construct a throne for him. Upon sitting on the throne, the sun illuminated his crown and throne, and his subjects exclaimed, “A new day has come.”

The Rituals

Nowruz Festival
Iranian woman poses by traditional items adorning a Haft Sin (Haft Seen) (an arrangement of seven symbolic items that all begin with the letter S in Farsi) during Nevruz celebrations in Toronto, Canada, on March 18, 2023. Creative Touch Imaging Ltd / NurPhoto via AFP

The Kurds’ most significant ritual while celebrating Nowruz is wearing traditional Kurdish attire. Men wear traditional green shirts, while women wear colourfully decorated gowns, reflecting the brightness and colourfulness of nature.

On the Nowruz night before the new year’s sunrise, festivities start by going outdoors, barbecuing and lighting campfires. It is tradition to celebrate the deeds of Kaveh the Blacksmith. The celebrants chant ancient Kurdish paeans and songs. Nowadays, Kurdish singers and performers have parties where they perform the traditional Choby dance.

Iranians celebrate Nowruz with a special “Haft-sin” dinner table holding the seven S’s. The table has Seer, which is garlic; Sebze, vegetables; Serkeh or vinegar; Samanu, a type of Irani sweet pudding; Seeb, which is apple; Somagh or sumac; and Senjed, which is a type of fruit.

These items may be replaced with others starting with an S, such as Sonbul, an ear of wheat. The table also contained a mirror and a copy of the Avesta. Since the arrival of Islam, it was replaced by the Koran and Divan by Hafez Shiraz, along with a bowl of goldfish.

Some Nowruz celebrants believe that the souls of deceased relatives return to earth on this date to reunite with their families. They are, therefore, eager to prepare the dining table to host the guests from the afterlife. People also play with water as part of the celebrations to symbolise purification and hope for a productive agricultural season.

Kurds celebrate Nowruz alongside Iranians and Afghans. UNESCO listed Nowruz on the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list in February 2010.

Various Peoples

Nowruz is not exclusive to the Kurds and Iranians. According to UNESCO, over 300 million people celebrate it across the globe, including in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, India, Zanzibar, Pemba and some parts of Albania. Some of these countries celebrate it as an official public holiday.

Iran’s way of celebrating Nowruz is unique compared to other regions, and Nowruz is considered the oldest and most important occasion in Iran. Unlike other countries that celebrate it as a traditional festival marking the start of spring, Iran officially recognises Nowruz as the first day of the year. The country uses the Persian calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar, and Nowruz is the year’s official start.

A National Festival

While many people worldwide see Nowruz as a historical or cultural festival, the Kurds view it as a day of liberation for which they have fought for centuries and continue to fight today. Nowruz is an opportunity for Kurds to maintain the connection to their land and reaffirm their Kurdish identity and culture, especially in recent times. Nowruz has become an annual occasion for Kurds from Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria to unite to assert their identity and renew their demands for political and national rights.

In recent years, Kurds in Iran and Iraq have been fortunate. In Iran, the Iranian people celebrate Nowruz themselves with their own traditions. In Iraq, Nowruz celebrations have spread since the Kurds achieved self-administration in the Kurdistan region.

Prior to the 1980s, Kurds in Turkey and Syria used to celebrate Nowruz in small, secretive gatherings in groves, basements and indoors to avoid the security apparatus. They used various tricks to celebrate it publicly, such as attending a young couple’s fake wedding.

Kurds consider Nowruz the third most important celebration after Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr, even though it differs from these two in the sense that it is a national festival rather than a religious one. It is celebrated equally with the two Eids, and preparations for Nowruz start ten or more days before the actual festivities.

Difficulties and Challenges

This year’s Nowruz celebration is proving to be a gloomy affair for residents of Syria’s northeast. Frequent power and water outages in the areas of the Autonomous Administration and steep increases in food and clothing prices have dampened the festive spirit. To make matters worse, Turkish military operations in the border regions have created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty among those preparing for the celebrations.

In an interview with Fanack, Avaz Mohamed, an English teacher in Qamishli, Syria, complained about the increased costs of the Nowruz celebrations. “Buying clothes for my three-member family set me back over $150. On top of that, I have to prepare a large sum to afford food, beverages and desserts,” she said.

Jovan Hassan, a bakery owner in the village of Tall al-Hajar near al-Hasakah, told Fanack, “In the past, al-Jazirah‘s population groups celebrated Nowruz separately. However, that has changed in recent years. Now, all of the region’s residents, be they Arabs or Kurds, celebrate together.” He added, “Unfortunately, price inflation in the region has ruined the occasion since the celebration requires a lot of food and desserts.”

2023’s Restrictions

Celebrating Nowruz has been a primary annual tradition in Syria. Nowruz celebrations grew in regions out of the regime’s grip, run by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, a Kurdish opposition party representing the core of the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF).

The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) has issued an official statement, calling the region’s residents to adhere to several instructions during the four-day Nowruz celebrations.

The statement banned the movement of trucks, tankers and motorcycles from 6am on Sunday, 19 March 2023, until 6am on Wednesday, 22 March. The statement also advised stopping all commercial movements through crossings connected with regime-controlled areas and preventing the entry and exit of all individuals except in urgent humanitarian cases.

Moreover, the statement banned the celebratory firing of weapons, stating that weapons would be confiscated from whoever does fire, be they a civilian or military officer.