In Kabul, a happy Islamic new year

After decades of war, repression, Afghans celebrate freedoms

March 22, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KABUL, Afghanistan - The year 1381 dawned here yesterday, and for many Kabul residents, it came none too soon.

Tens of thousands of people marched in parades, danced and threw picnics in a boisterous celebration of the Islamic calendar's new year, called Nowruz. The holiday had been outlawed by the sternly fundamentalist Taliban regime. But this was a new year, and, in every way, a new season.

Outside the municipal stadium - where not long ago the Taliban publicly executed criminals - pushcart vendors hawked coconuts, caramel-dipped popcorn and mugs of cherry juice. Men had egg contests, in which contestants tap the ends of hard-boiled eggs together and the owner of the uncracked egg eats his opponent's. On a hill overlooking the stadium, picnickers ate lunch near the battle-scarred tomb of the father of former King Mohammad Zahir Shah.

FOR THE RECORD - On the front page of yesterday's editions of The Sun, an article from Kabul, Afghanistan, and its headline incorrectly identified the Nowruz celebration. It is a Zoroastrian holiday, a secular celebration that can be traced to Persian traditions that predate Islam.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Inside the stadium, farmers from Kabul's suburbs marched together carrying shovels like rifles on their shoulders or stood in horse-drawn carts as they rocked past the concrete stands. Other men raced horses on a track around the soccer field.

So many people showed up for the parades that thousands had to be turned away from the stadium gates by guards wielding wooden staves.

"I haven't seen such a crowd before," said Faizal Rabi, 28, a vendor who shoveled a mix of raisins, walnuts and almonds in plastic sacks and sold them for about 30 cents each.

Nuragha, 21, who spent two years as a refugee in Pakistan, parked his cart and its wheel of fortune game near the stadium. A small mob of bettors placed their 1,000-Afghani notes - worth about 3 cents - on the wooden table in hopes of winning the prizes: a toy helicopter, a dusty digital watch or a combination plastic comb and brush. After 15 minutes and dozens of spins, nobody won anything. Nor did anyone walk away.

Of course, Nuragha said, the Taliban could have beaten him for running a gambling table. But this was the start of a new year and, many here hope, a new Afghanistan.

Women who are not begging are seldom seen in public in Afghanistan, and the crowd outside the stadium was overwhelmingly male. But three women wearing pale-blue burqas arrived with their seven children for a picnic.

"We are all happy for this freedom," Simagol, 40, said emphatically. "Before, we were all in hell. Now, we are in paradise."

During the days of Taliban rule, said Rala, 30, "we could not have come here. It was impossible for us to go out of the house." But the burqa, and the attitude toward the role of women that it represents, has outlasted the Taliban. The sight of the women talking to a male reporter quickly drew a large crowd of men. And the three women quietly disappeared.

Some women were bold enough to sit in the picnic grounds with the masks of their burqas raised. At least one who sat in the exclusive upper level of the stadium to watch the horse races did not wear a burqa at all, just a head scarf.

"Last year, we didn't have any Nowruz; it was a crime to cele- brate," said Khoja, 65, who took his three grandsons to the picnic grounds near the stadium. The two older boys were dressed in crisp red jumpsuits, reserved for holidays. "This year, my children, they want to eat cookies, eggs, everything. This year, we are much happier."

Sgt. Major Leo Berg of the Netherlands and two other Dutch soldiers stood guard in a four-wheel-drive vehicle equipped with a machine gun. Although they parked in a pool of mud, a crowd surrounded them and gawked.

"It always happens," sighed Berg, as he and his soldiers sat looking lethal but vastly outnumbered.

"Hello! How are you!" children shouted, echoing the English phrases that every Afghan seems to know.

The mood was just as buoyant elsewhere in the city. A military helicopter dropped pink leaflets extolling the holiday over residential neighborhoods. Officials with the International Security Assistance Force, the international peacekeeping troops, reported that one Afghan solider was injured when he shot himself in the foot with "celebratory gunfire."

At the Herat Restaurant, a man tapped his fingers on a drum and sang a comical song about the sudden shifts in prices in the bazaar. His audience clapped in unison. Men drank the juice of squeezed bananas and raw eggs, a beverage considered to be an aphrodisiac.

But Nowruz is mainly a family holiday, when friends and relatives come over for a feast. By tradition, every family eats haft miwa - literally, the "Seven Fruits" - which consists of almonds, mulberries, raisins, figs and other fruits. Occasionally, an Afghan family has the time and money to offer samanak, a dish consisting of the tender shoots of wheat sprouts.

At ceremonies throughout the city, the red, green and black flag of King Zahir Shah was raised. Last year, the only flag permitted was the plain white flag of the Taliban.

Some Afghans also granted themselves a portion of hope.

"The difference between this Nowruz and previous ones is the mood of the people," said Mohamed Taher, a 45-year-old engineer with the Ministry of Rural Development. People endured war for 23 years, but that could finally change, he said.

"The year 1381 should be a year without sorrow."

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