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Newroz in Akre, Sebastian Meyer

March 21st is typically marked as Newroz by the Kurdish community, as it is in many other peoples tied to Iranian culture. Newroz in Kurdish areas is typically marked by gatherings and parties, usually outdoors, with the community. There is not much ‘pomp’ as Iranians do with certain events through out the week, but it is probably the strongest cultural expression from Kurds in any year. Traditional clothes for both males and females are worn and dances are common, as are the fires that are lit in party-grounds and some mountaintops. Newroz festivities start a few days before March 21st, typically on the 18th, and can last up until the 22nd or 23rd.

Newroz marks the New Year in cultures that celebrates it, and falls on the Spring Equinox; the beginning of spring fittingly marks a ‘new year’ as a result. “Newroz” can be taken apart into two parts: “New” which means “New”, and “Roz” (or roj, in Kurdish) meaning ‘day’, so ‘new day’ referring to the return of spring. It has roots in pre-Islamic times and draws from Zoroastrian traditions. In particular the use of fire indicates a link to Zoroastrian traditions.

Newroz in Kurdish culture has been present for some time, though it has passed through it is probably only until recently that there has been a unified sense of culture coming from it. Newroz for various reasons has become a means by which Kurds have been able to unite and express themselves, both at home and in expat communities. With the use of fire and colorful costumes, along with music and dancing, it is a potent expression of culture.

The background of Newroz in Kurdish culture goes back to the tale of the tyrant-king Zahak (influenced by the malign spirit Ahriman) and his oppression of people. Zahak’s tyranny was also attributed to the death of life, making it appear to be an eternal winter. Zahak had two snakes, one growing from each of his shoulders, that were fed with the brains of sacrifices. The blacksmith Kaveh ended up losing many of his children to this. A servant within the palace managed to sneak away survivors by switching out one person with a sheep, and mixing parts of the other sacrifice with the brain to create the impression of two human sacrifices instead of one.

This is a familiar story in Iranian cultures, though the Kurdish rendition takes a different interpretation. The story related in Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh has Kaveh leading a revolt to help Fereydun, the legendary king and descendent of Jamshid (who was a descendent of the first man, Keyumars) , another legendary figure in Iranian folklore. Kurds factor in here too, but in the form that the rescued survivors who were hidden in the mountains were the ancestor of Kurds, who as a result of their experience forever shunned the cities- a reflection of the perception of Kurds in Iranian circles in those days as mountain dwellers. Zahak is eventually defeated and sealed in Mount Damavand until the end days. Fereydun returns to his rightful place as king and all is good again.

The Kurdish rendition of the story is different, with no presence of Fereydun and rather focus on Kaveh solely for overthrowing and ending Zahak’s reign. Here, instead of imprisonment, Zahak is killed, and his death allows for the return of the spring. To send the good news, a fire was lit on the mountaintops, and the news spread across the world.

Newroz was always celebrated by Kurdish groups, though it experienced a revival of sorts with the rise of nationalism and Kurdish spirit in the 20th century.  Unfortunately this aspect was used by authorities later to claim the holiday was invented- this is not the case as Kurdish authors had referenced Newroz before, at least judging from preserved poetry in the past. British observers in Iraq after WW I also reported seeing similar celebrations by Kurds too, well before the supposed ‘invention’ by groups in the 1950s.

Newroz is probably more easily celebrated by those in Southern Kurdistan (Iraqi Kurdistan) and in the diaspora than those living in Turkey, Syria, and to an extent Iran. In Iraqi Kurdistan, it is recognized by local authorities and people celebrate it without incident, and their numbers are swelled with Kurds coming in from Iran and sometimes Syria. In Iran while the people can celebrate Newroz, it his devoid of any ‘Kurdish’ flavor that might be construed as separatism by the authorities. In Syria, like Ba’athist Iraq, a sanitized ‘Spring Festival’ was allowed by officials, but those attempting to express their Kurdish identity were seen as causing separatism and as a result their celebrations broken up. An example of that can be seen here from 2008 in the city of Qamishlo in Syria. With the ongoing crisis in Syria, no doubt the celebration of Newroz in Syria has taken on an even more significant meaning.

Turkey had for the longest time outright banned Newroz celebrations, and any attempt to try and celebrate it was met with force. The reason was simple for this- as Kurds did not exist in Turkey, a holiday like Newroz, rooted in Iranian rather than the Turkish culture encouraged by the state, could not exist either. It was only in 2005 that the government, as a result of external pressures, allowed for the celebration of a ‘spring festival’, stylized as Nevruz, to be celebrated on the 21st and 21st only. Since then large celebrations are typically seen in Kurdish populated areas, notably in Diyarbakir and Kurdish neighborhoods in Istanbul. Nationalist rhetoric in Turkey though largely see Newroz still a political tool invented by the PKK and are not likely to feel remorse from police crackdowns on their celebration. To date, the most recent problem with Newroz in Turkey occurred in 2008.

This year it was emboldened by the deaths of the 35 innocent people, largely youths from Sirnak province, at the hands of the Turkish air-force. Combined with the slow Turkish response to the Van Earthquakes, it has reinforced the utter marginalization of Kurds in Turkish society. Accordingly, Kurdish groups in Turkey called for protests on Newroz. Attempts to celebrate Newroz outside the ‘official’ day resulted in police response with tear gas, resulting in the death of a BDP (Peace and Democracy Party, pro-Kurdish rights) politician. Ahmet Turk, one of the major leaders of the BDP, was attacked by the police after the bus he was on was tear gassed by the police. Only in Diyarbakir due to the large turn out was the police afraid to intervene as they knew they would be outnumbered.

In Southern Kurdistan, the events were much more smoother, since unlike their neighbors, Kurdish culture is not ‘restricted’ in Iraq. The usual cities turned out impressive events. Videos follow.

Newroz Pîroz Be!