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Nowruz is banned in Afghanistan, but families continue to celebrate

Shararah's 2021 Nowruz feast isn't possible this year because of a ban on the holiday by the Afghan government.
Shararah
Shararah's 2021 Nowruz feast isn't possible this year because of a ban on the holiday by the Afghan government.

The Taliban may have banned the Nowruz holiday, but it cannot erase the Persian new year from people's minds.

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

The 23-year-old teacher is Zooming in from a modest apartment in Kabul, Afghanistan, reflecting on the holiday that marks the start of spring. Despite the late hour, Shararah is animated, her face growing increasingly brighter as she describes the once-bustling streets of Mandawi market in Kabul's old district, colorful stalls that she and her sister would navigate one by one. A place, she says, where "you could find everything from a needle to a cow."

But in early March, the Taliban's Ministry of Vice and Virtue confirmed that there will be no official Nowruz celebration this year. This came about less than seven months after the Taliban reclaimed the government as the U.S. military withdrew.

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 designated as "magus," or pagan, and abolished, exactly as it was in 1996, when the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan.

"The whole point," Shararah says, "is to abolish anything that doesn't have a significance in Islam, even if something is related to your own culture."

The ban comes at a time when this food-centered holiday is harder to celebrate; rates of food insecurity and malnutrition have reached proportions described by the World Food Programme as "hell on Earth." This is largely because of sanctions and the freezing of Afghan assets that have resulted in the collapse of the economy.

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

In years past, the preparations for Nowruz would have already begun. "We would clean the house, buy new clothes, and, of course, get the food," Shararah says.

The time in the markets wasn't simply about commerce. Even before the Taliban, Kabul did not have a nightlife and most shops closed by early evening — except on the night before Nowruz.

"All the people would be going around, enjoying the decorations and lightings, having an ice cream, just being together," she says. "Kabul — Afghanistan — has never been a safe place for women. If I was out at night without a man, say my brother, I would feel a little on edge. But with the festival, there was such different energy that we didn't worry."

On Nowruz, families would traditionally rise early, don new clothes and start the day with prayer. After offering gratitude for the new year, the day would become more celebratory, turning toward family — and feasting. "It would be me, my cousins, my aunts and uncles, and our grandmother, sitting on cushions and having this huge sofra, the cloth that you put down with the foods on top."

'No one is going to stop this celebration'

The food.

Shararah's words tumble over each other as she describes dish after mouthwatering dish.

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

The sofra would also include sabzi, sauteed mixed greens — "like the green of spring;" gulpea, deep fried cauliflower layered with tomatoes; and gosh-e fil, Afghani elephant ears sprinkled 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 would take our bowls and count all the pieces, one saying like, 'I think I got a pistachio,' and another like, 'Wow, why don't I have one in my bowl!?' It would be so fun to just count the fruit and try to get each other jealous that I got more fruits than you."

Prepared a day or two before Nowruz, haft mewa ("seven fruits" in Persian) is a combination of seven dried fruits and nuts. The ingredients are not set but typically include a combination of pistachios, almonds, walnuts, cashews, cherries, raisins, currants, apricots, apples or senjed (a small sweet and tangy berry shaped like an olive). They are washed, peeled, mixed together and soaked in water, which some scent with rose or cardamom. The result, a light, deeply satisfying mélange of fruits and nuts, serves as a reminder of the abundance the land brings forth.

"This is the one dish we do not shop for," Shararah explains. "It's almost like an unwritten rule that relatives in the village will automatically send dried fruits and nuts to families in the city. Every household would have dried foods in their cupboards at all times."

Until this year. Even though she's a member of what she describes as "the privileged population," Shararah and her family have been affected by food insecurity. "We have depleted our savings and reached a point where we try to cook things that need the least amount of groceries and will turn out bigger in amount. Like many people, we avoid eating meat and eat mostly things with rice or plain bread."

The cupboards, once chock-full of nuts and dried fruit, are now meager, she says. "Right now, we only have small amounts of almonds and walnuts, and I don't think we can make haft mewa with two things." But, she insists, "It's OK."

"Our Nowruz table this year will maybe look like dinner from last night, but I know my sister will still make an effort to make it special," Shararah says. "Even if we don't have an extravagant sofra, we will still visit my uncle and have some home-baked bread together. It's going to be simple; it's going to be small; but it's going to be something. No one is going to stop this celebration."

Nowruz is a day of new beginnings, but now it is also a time of resilience. "A year ago, I could not have imagined that I would live in a country that would be under the rule of people like the Taliban. It seems surreal, crazy. But here I am. Afghans always find a way to enjoy whatever they have. It seems absurd at this moment, but I want to believe this new year will bring new opportunities, despite everything."

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