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Celebrating Nowruz in Central Asia

Friday 23 March 2007

Source: Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst
By Erica Marat

On March 21, states whose territory was part of the Silk Road trade route between China and Europe celebrate Nowruz, a holiday rooted in the Zoroastrian tradition and translated as “new day” from Persian. These include the five Central Asian states, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Afghanistan, parts of Turkey, India, Pakistan, China and Russia.

Nowruz, spelled differently in each state, has become one of the attributes illustrating ethnic peculiarities among the Central Asian nations. Every year, massive celebrations are staged in the Central Asian capital cities. Along with some common rituals prepared and performed under Central Asian governments’ supervision, Nowruz is also a venue for parading national costumes, dances, and food. The holiday is associated with values of unity, forgiveness and new beginning.

For some Central Asians, the historical background of Nowruz was largely unknown until 1991, when the holiday was introduced after the collapse of the Soviet regime. Although Nowruz does not signify any religious identity, its celebrations quickly incorporated a blend of Islamic and pagan traditions. The scope of Nowruz celebrations is usually similar to national independence days. Celebrations of both Nowruz and independence days are primarily promoted by Central Asian political elites. Public employees and students are mobilized to prepare celebrations. Streets are cleaned and decorated with Nowruz banners.

In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan Nowruz is gaining increasing importance and popularity among the local public. Of all Central Asian states, these two states have the most eclectic collection of religious and cultural holidays. Urban Kazakh and Kyrgyz publics celebrate Christmas according to Western and Russian Orthodox calendars.

In Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the celebration of Nowruz has always been a well-planned and extravagant activity. Former Turkmen president Saparmurat Niyazov merged Nowruz with women’s day, thus attributing the holiday a peculiar connotation. Niyazov cancelled International Women’s Day on March 8 and instead sought to emphasize women’s role in Nowruz celebrations. Both the Turkmen and Uzbek governments usually tighten security in public places during Nowruz celebrations, fearing mass unrests. In Uzbekistan, the scope of Nowruz celebrations at times depends on current security situation in the country.

For Tajikistan, Nowruz has a special meaning. By celebrating Nowruz, the Tajik government primarily emphasizes the country’s links to Persian civilization. On March 11, Tajik president Emomali Rahmonov organized a forum of Farsi mass media outlets to further promulgate his idea of creating a common Farsi TV channel in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. The channel would foster a common Farsi information medium. Although Rahmonov’s project is far from being implemented, it raises a number of sensitive issues in each of the three countries.

For Tajikistan, the emphasis of its Persian roots distances the country from its Central Asian neighbours and Russia. Domestically, incorporating Zoroastrian symbols into the national ideology reduces the role of Islam in state politics. Arguably, Rahmonov’s ideological projects based on Zoroastrian history sought to alienate the Islamic Renaissance Party, Tajikistan religious opposition. In Afghanistan, Rahmonov’s project may find opposition among Pashtuns, who deny their belonging to Persian civilization. Furthermore, building ties with Iran is counter-intuitive to Afghanistan’s relations with the U.S.

In their public speeches on Nowruz celebrations, Central Asian presidents usually promote values of national unity and the importance of state sovereignty. Nowruz is used as a sign of strong ethnic identity that survived seven decades of the Soviet rule, when the holiday was forbidden.

After gaining independence, some Soviet holidays were discontinued in the Central Asian states. These mainly included November 7, the Day of the 1917 Revolution, and April 22, Lenin’s birthday. A number of professional holidays, such as Cosmonauts’ Day (April 12), were forgotten during the independence period as well. However, some Soviet holidays, usually containing loose political connotations and celebrated internationally, continued to be part of the local culture. Among them are New Year’s Eve, International Women’s Day, and International Labour Day. The Day of the National Defender on February 23, although not an official holiday in any of the Central Asian countries, is still popular. Except for Turkmenistan, these holidays are not banned by governments and sometimes are even encouraged.

For most Central Asians Nowruz is part of their imagined pre-Islamic past. The Central Asian public’s knowledge and skill in celebrating Nowruz is growing, with more people associating themselves with the holiday. As Nowruz is gaining popularity throughout the region, more people follow traditions of cooking sumolok, a traditional wheat-based dish, as well as celebrating the holiday in family settings.

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