Marking a New Century in Afghanistan: Nawruz 1401


The start of the Afghan new year on 21 March 2022, or by solar Hijra calendar 1 Hamal 1401, arrives in Afghanistan with a sense of foreboding and uncertainty for the future, after a mere seven months and five days since the Taleban took power and toppled the Republic. AAN’s Roxanna Shapour reflects on the days leading to the New Year. She finds that although dispirited by the events of the previous year, most Afghans plan to mark the day that, according to the famous medieval scholar Al-Biruni, is when the universe started its motion. The AAN team joins her in wishing all those who celebrate a happy and peaceful Nawruz.

A man shops for saplings and trees at the Omid-e Sabz (Green Hope) nursery in Kabul before Nawruz. Photo: Sayed Asadullah Sadat, 19 March 2022.Last year was full of dramatic changes for the Afghan people. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, established two decades earlier after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and the fall of the Taleban’s first Islamic Emirate, collapsed after then-president Ashraf Ghani unexpectedly left the country on 15 August 2021. On the same day, the Taleban entered Kabul, completing their march to power. What ensued was a dramatic change of fortune for the Afghan people. The Afghan economy, heavily reliant on foreign aid, collapsed and punishing sanctions, now applied by the United States and United Nations suddenly not to an armed group but the government, brought the country’s banking sector to its knees. Some citizens, anxious about what the Taleban’s new rule might mean for them and their families, fled the country to safer harbours abroad in their numbers. As the Taleban went on to establish the second Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, nearly all Afghan households struggled to keep food on the table, find the resources to survive the long winter months and imagine a place for themselves in the new Afghanistan.

This was the backdrop against which many Afghans prepared for the new year. In the days leading up to Nawruz, there was speculation that the Taleban might ban the holiday. Only two days before the holiday began, Taleban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid told the BBC Persian service on 19 March that the Emirate would not stand in the way of people celebrating Nawruz, but it would not mark the holiday with official celebrations. “We do not celebrate any ceremony that is not in Islam,” he said. AAN spoke to several Afghans, both inside and outside the country, who said the events of the past year had dampened Nawruz’s spirit of joy, but insisted they would mark the occasion for their children.

The day the universe started moving

The first day of Nawruz coincides with the vernal or spring equinox, when night and day are of equal lengths, and darkness gives way to light as the days grow longer. It signals the end of the cold winter months and the start of a warmer season of renewal and growth.

There are many myths associated with Nawruz. The early 11th-century thinker, philosopher and astrologer in the court of Mahmud Khan Ghazniwi, Abu Reyhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni, attributed Nawruz to “the day the universe started its motion” (see Kitab al-tafhim li-awa’il sina’at al-tanjim translated as “Elements of the Art of Astrology”, in Persian and English here). The celebrated12th-century poet and mathematician Omar Khayam wrote the “Epistle of Nawruz” or Nawruznameh, an entire book dedicated to Nawruz, and describes the origins of Nawruz:

Jamshid, the fourth King of the Pishdadian dynasty came to understand that the sun emerged after three hundred sixty-five and a quarter days on the first day of the month of Hamal (Farvardin or  21 March) he decreed that the day should be called Nowruz[1]

The mythical king Jamshid, or Yama as he is also known in Afghanistan, ruled over the world for seven centuries and figures prominently in many a Nawruz foundation myth. The celebrated 11th-century poet and raconteur of  Persian mythologies, Ferdowsi immortalised Jamshid’s fabled reign in his epic poem the Shahnameh (Book of Kings). According to Ferdowsi’s legend, Jamshid decreed Nawruz as a public day of celebration after he defeated the forces of evil in a centuries-long conflict. Jamshid’s victory heralded a new era of peace and prosperity, which was to last 300 years: [2]

همه کردنيها چو آمد به جاي

ز جاي مهي برتر آورد پاي

به فر کياني يکي تخت ساخت

چه مايه بدو گوهر اندر نشاخت

که چون خواستي ديو برداشتي

ز هامون به گردون برافراشتي

چو خورشيد تابان ميان هوا

نشسته برو شاه فرمانروا

جهان انجمن شد بر آن تخت او

شگفتي فرومانده از بخت او

به جمشيد بر گوهر افشاندند

مران روز را روز نو خواندند

سر سال نو هرمز فرودين

برآسوده از رنج روي زمين

بزرگان به شادي بياراستند

مي و جام و رامشگران خواستند

چنين جشن فرخ ازان روزگار

به ما ماند ازان خسروان يادگار

These works achieved, Jamshid ambitioned

Rank loftier still, and by his royal Grace

Made him a throne, with what a wealth of gems

Inlaid! which when he willed the divs took up

And bare from earth to heaven. There the Shah,

Whose word was law, sat sunlike in mid air.

The world assembled round his throne in wonder

At his resplendent fortune, while on him

The people scattered jewels, and bestowed

Upon the day the name of New Year’s Day,

The first of Farwardin [Hamal] and of the year,

When limbs repose from labour, hearts from strife.

The noble chieftains held a festival,

Called for the goblet, wine, and minstrelsy,

And ever since that time that glorious day

Remaineth the memorial of that Shah[3]

Preparations for the new century

Afghan families started preparing for Nawruz, as they have for centuries, in the waning days of winter, when nature awakens from its wintry sleep, with the hyacinth and narcissus in bloom and the birds announcing the imminent arrival of spring. As Afghan families wipe away the grime and dust accumulated over winter, there are carpets to be dragged out and beaten, cobwebs to be removed from the corners of rooms, and new clothes to be bought, especially for the children. The sweet smell of samanak (a sweet paste made of germinated wheat traditionally eaten during Nawruz) wafts from the kitchen as the entire family cleans and prepares the fruit and nuts used to make haft mevah (seven fruit). Afghans ring in the new year with this delightful concoction of dried fruits and nuts, including apricots, raisins, senjed (oleaster), walnuts, almonds, figs, and pistachios that are soaked for several days in sugar water infused with the essence of roses or orange blossoms, which is eaten on the first day of Nawruz as a blessing for the year to come.

Rohullah sells sabza (sprouted grains) and mahi (goldfish) near an intersection in Herat city for the coming Nawruz. Photo: Reza Kazemi, March 2020.

One of the most important rites of Nawruz is the age-old tradition of did va bazdid (paying and repaying visits) when younger people visit their elders and the elders, in turn, repay the visits in the days that follow. This year, for many Afghans who are separated from their families, paying visits is made possible only by technology on digital platforms such as Zoom and WhatsApp. The several Afghans AAN spoke to, lamented their separation from their loved ones and said that they didn’t feel much like celebrating Nawruz this year in light of recent events in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, they said they would mark the occasion for their children, albeit in a pared-down fashion. They said they wanted to ensure a measure of continuity for their kids and keep alive the emotional connections with their culture, their families and their millennia-long traditions. Still, they stressed that the physical separation from their loved ones was particularly difficult at this time of year. To drive home the point, one person recited Rumi’s Lament of the Reed: [4]

بشنو این نی چون شکایت می‌کند

از جدایی‌ها حکایت می‌کند

کز نیستان تا مرا ببریده‌اند

در نفیرم مرد و زن نالیده‌اند

سینه خواهم شرحه شرحه از فراق

تا بگویم شرح درد اشتیاق

Hear the reed’s complaint

It tells a tale of separations

Since they tore me from the reedbed

Men and women have grieved my dirge

I seek a heart that knows of partings

A doleful tale of longing to recount [5]

This year, with so many Afghan families scattered to the four corners of the universe and so many inside the country feeling the pressures of economic hardships and the strain of an uncertain future, it might not seem like there is much to celebrate. But Nawruz is more than just one day of celebration in the calendar year. It is a time for reflection and hope – reflecting on the past and the lessons it has to offer and hoping for a bright future and the bounties it will bring. This year, to be sure, Afghans around the world will be reflecting on the past and what was lost, [6] but they will also be reflecting on what remains and what the future might bring for themselves, their families and Afghanistan.

Afghanistan continues to face an uncertain future at the dawn of this new century. However, the past informs the present and the future and the last 100 years (see footnote 6) are a resounding testament to the enduring Afghan spirit not only to survive but to thrive. It’s important to remember that Nawruz is a celebration of possibilities and things yet to come. It is a reminder to us all that time changes all fortunes and that the human spirit will prevail in the end. It’s a day to reflect on the past but with eyes firmly on the future. It is the start of a new day and the hope that better times are at hand.

The AAN team wishes all Afghans, wherever they may be, a happy Nawruz and a prosperous and peaceful future for Afghanistan, with the following verse: [7]

به خویشان، به دوستان، به یاران آشنا به مردان تیزخشم که پیکار می‌کنند به آنان که با قلم، تباهی دهر را به چشم جهانیان پدیدار می‌کنند بهاران خجسته باد، بهاران خجسته باد

و این بند بندگی، و این بار فقر و جهل به سرتاسر جهان، به هر صورتی که هست نگون و گسسته باد، نگون و گسسته باد

To relatives, to friends, to acquaintances, to the angry men who wage war, to those who with their pens expose perdition for the world to see

Happy spring, happy spring

And may this yoke of oppression and this weight of poverty and ignorance be routed and defeated the world over [8]

Edited by Jelena Bjelica and Kate Clark


1 See Armanshahr Publications’ 2014 edition of the Nowruznameh revised by the late Mojtaba Minawi, with an introduction by Partaw here.
2 See Ferdowsi, Shahnameh (Book of Kings) / Jamshid in Persian.
3 From Ferdowsi, Book of Kings / Jamshid; translation by K. E. Eduljee.
4 See Ghazal #1 in Masnavi-e Manavi, an anthology of poems written by 13th-century Persian-language poet Maulana Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi here.
5 AAN translation
6 At the beginning of the 14th century one hundred years ago, Afghanistan had newly gained its independence from the British Empire. The Anglo-Afghan treaty was ratified in Kabul in November 1921, three months before Nawruz. The 14th century saw the demise of two kings, the violent birth and death of successive governments allied with the Soviet Union (USSR), the occupation and subsequent departure of Soviet forces (1979-1989), a brutal civil war (1989-1996), the first Taleban Emirate (1996-2001), the US-led invasion in 2001, the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (2004-2022), a peaceful transition of power from Hamid Karzai to Ashraf Ghani in 2014, the rise of the Taleban insurgency in 2006 that led to unfathomable destruction and staggering loss of life and ultimately the fall of the Republic on 15 August 2022.
7 The poem Baharan khojasteh baad (happy spring) was written by Dr Abdullah Behzadi, a member of Iran’s Tudeh party, in honour of Patrice Lemamba, the first Prime Minister of the Republic of Congo, who was executed by firing squad in February 1961. Years later, Iranian director and poet Keramat Daneshian, who was himself executed in February 1974, composed a song with a few verses of this poem, which was put to music in 1979 by the noted Iranian composer Esfandiar Monfaredzadeh.
8 Translation by AAN