Celebrated on 21 March each year, Navroz, marks the spring equinox – the threshold after which the days begin to lengthen – signifying not only a season of bounty, but a time for renewed optimism. Firdawsi, in his epic Shahnama, The Book of Kings, attributes the festival's origin to the legendary King of Persia, Jamshed son of Tehmooraz of the Peshdadian dynasty in Iran. Navroz is referred interchangeably as Nevruz, Newroz, Nauruz, or Nowruz, and marks the beginning of the year in Persian calendar.
Navroz at the Ismaili Centre, Dushanbe
In celebration of Navroz, the Aga Khan Development Network hosted a reception at the Ismaili Centre, Dushanbe. Over 300 people attended the celebration, which was the first Navroz event ever held at the Centre.
Remarkably, it is celebrated in countries as varied as Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, India, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. While the range of festivities is diverse, the unification of friends, families, and communities against a backdrop of music, food, and dance, seems to be a common thread that runs through the various observances of Navroz.
Each year, when Ismaili Muslims gather for Navroz in Canada, they commemorate the beginning of a new year by celebrating diverse traditions of all those in their midst – particularly the members of the Jamat from Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Iran.
Ahmad Wali, 35, of Vancouver fondly remembers a time in the mid 1980s when he celebrated Navroz with his family in Afghanistan. “The night before Navroz, my mother and grandmother would be busy in the kitchen preparing the meal for the next day, and my grandfather would be sitting on the veranda enjoying a steaming hot cup of tea,” he recalls. “My brother would model his new clothing for the celebration while my sisters would run around in the courtyard eating senjed – the red seeds of an oleaster tree, which represents love.”
For the Wali family, no festivity was ever complete without music and of course, food. Wali recalls partaking of a traditional treat during the celebration made of pistachios, hazelnuts, walnuts, raisins, senjit, prunes, and almonds, in mouth-watering syrup. “They are collectively known as haft meiwa,” says Wali, “whereas in Iran they have haft seen: seven items starting with the Persian letter ‘seen.'”
Samanak is another dish that was a special part of Wali's memories of Navroz in Afghanistan. It is made of wheat germ, and its elaborate preparation by women from dusk to dawn includes singing of a special song: Samanak dar josh o ma kafcha zanem. Degaron dar khwab o ma Dafcha zanem (We are stirring the boiling pot of Samanak; even if others are sleeping, we are playing the Dafcha [drum]).
While it is difficult to find all the ingredients necessary to make an authentic haft meiwa or samanak in Canada, members of Wali's family make up for it by having multi-day family dinner celebrations where they serve seven dishes. The number seven is considered auspicious in many cultures and faiths – in 10th century Jibal (a region of western Iran), the Navroz festivities would last seven consecutive days.
Navroz celebration in Afghanistan also includes games and competitions. As a young boy, Wali took part in egg fighting with his brother and cousins, in which painted hard-boiled eggs would be used in a battle and the person whose egg was left intact would be the winner. That wasn't all.
“My father and uncles would partake in the game of buzkhashi where they would grab a goat from the ground with their bare hands while on horseback. The winning team would win a prize,” recalls Wali.
Jumping over fire on Navroz was another tradition that Wali commonly practiced in northern Afghanistan. After migrating to Canada, he found that the exercise, with its roots in Zoroastrian tradition, is practiced in the West as well. “When I was younger, we would go to Ambleside beach to jump over fire,” states Wali.
In a celebratory programme organised by members of the Jamat from Aghanistan in Vancouver, songs, dances, and food were showcased from Afghanistan, demonstrating their diverse traditions. For Wali it is a source of great pride that Navroz is celebrated so joyously by Canadian Muslims and is recognised by the Western world as an important festival with roots in a glorious history. Indeed, in 2010, the General Assembly of the United Nations recognised 21 March as the International Day of Navroz, describing it as a spring festival of Persian origin celebrated for over 3 000 years.
Although celebrating Navroz in his homeland will always be a fond reminiscence, Wali believes that adapting old traditions to new ways allows old memories to be revisited and new ones to be created. “It is the traditional food, the music, the children playing, the families enjoying meals together, and friends that make celebrating Navroz unique and memorable,” he says. “It is amazing how a celebration with a bit of spice, music and family can trigger our senses and memories.”