Celebrating Nowruz in Mazar-i-Sharif

May 31, 2011   //   by peretz   //   culture, long, photos  //  13 Comments

We chose to cel­e­brate the Per­sian New Year, Nowruz in Mazar-i-Sharif because it is the epi­cen­ter of cel­e­bra­tion in Afghanistan. Over 200,000 peo­ple con­gre­gate at the Rowze-e-Sharif Mosque which the Afghan Shia believe hous­es the tomb of Hazrat Ali ibn Abi Tal­ib whom they con­sid­er Islam’s first Imam. Nowruz is offi­cial­ly rec­og­nized as a nation­al hol­i­day and high rank­ing offi­cials attend the celebrations.

Although the fes­tiv­i­ties are cen­tered on the Mosque, Novruz is a pre-Islam­ic hol­i­day that is not men­tioned in the Koran. Because of this, accord­ing to some of the Sun­ni tra­di­tion, it is con­sid­ered bid’ah (a pro­hib­it­ed addi­tion to the reli­gion.) The Shia on the oth­er hand, con­sid­er it a cel­e­bra­tion of Hazrat Ali’s ascent to the Caliphate on this day in 656 AD.

Both the con­cen­tra­tion of peo­ple and the reli­gious ten­sions sur­round­ing the hol­i­day gave us good rea­son to stay espe­cial­ly alert. The Afghan Nation­al Army (ANA) was equal­ly con­cerned, essen­tial­ly apply­ing a thick secu­ri­ty blan­ket to the cen­ter of Mazar, pro­hibit­ing any civil­ian car traf­fic and screen­ing pedestrians.


Civil­ian Air­ports in Afghanistan aren’t much more than an airstrip sur­round­ed by barbed wire. You land, walk onto the tar­mac, out the chain link fence and you’re done.


At 8AM on the morn­ing of Nowruz, we found our­selves in a desert, 8 miles out­side the city, car­ry­ing a heavy load, and with­out trans­porta­tion. Because of the mil­i­tary lock-down, trans­port vehi­cles were not able to reach the airport.

For at least a mile on the road lead­ing to the air­port, ANA sol­diers were spaced every fifty feet. They shift­ed their weight from foot to foot, smoked cig­a­rettes and stared out across a vast flat plane.

There wasn’t much for us to do oth­er than walk, and so we did.

A con­voy blazed past us towards the air­port. It was com­prised of fifty fan­cy SUVs, (Mer­cedes, Audi, and Toy­ota Land­cruis­ers) fol­lowed by fifty police and mil­i­tary trucks, most­ly 4x4 Toy­ota HiLux pick­ups (a favorite of the Tal­iban) with four seats in the truck beds for sol­diers with guns. Many had machine guns mount­ed on the roof of the cab.

Coin­ci­den­tal­ly we land­ed at the same time as Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai and Gov­er­nor Atta Muham­mad Nur and these boys were here to escort them into town for a pub­lic appear­ance at the mosque.

After a few miles of walk­ing, we found a taxi which we shared with a fel­low pedes­tri­an, a UNDP employ­ee. As the city was cor­doned off, the taxi dropped us on the perimeter.

Taxi Welcome to Mazar

Hotel Barat

Hotel book­ings were at a pre­mi­um for the dura­tion of Nowruz, hard to find and with goug­ing prices. We relied on our friend Mai­wand (the cap­tain of Mazar’s bas­ket­ball team) to secure us a room at a pre­mi­um loca­tion. But in order to hon­or our reser­va­tion, the hotel insist­ed that we pay for sev­er­al extra nights in advance. As this was the best option (and frankly there wasn’t anoth­er) we had to give in.

Work­ing through a maze of secu­ri­ty check­points, we even­tu­al­ly got to our hotel. On the way we learned that the mosque grounds were only open to women in the morn­ing (at least until after Karzai’s appearance.)

Recep­tion strug­gled to find us a room, say­ing that they assumed we weren’t com­ing since we hadn’t showed up two days ago. They had to con­cede all sleep­ing spaces to the sol­diers who were every­where, even on the roof of the hotel, and had cots there too!

Roof Patrol

We respond­ed that we paid for the two nights before our arrival only because it was their con­di­tion for reserv­ing the room. Even­tu­al­ly, they kicked out the sol­diers and gave us a room on the top floor.

From our win­dow, you could sur­vey the entire grounds and gar­dens of the mosque. They con­sti­tute a siz­able city park, a square per­haps a quar­ter mile to a side.

Mazar Intersection

It was a dis­play of pri­ma­ry col­ors. The blue tiled mosque was gleam­ing in the cen­ter. The gar­dens were fes­tive­ly dec­o­rat­ed with gar­lands and stream­ers, but pre­dom­i­nant­ly ver­dant green.

Thou­sands of white doves pro­vid­ed an are­al blan­ket, while heli­copters made sur­veil­lance laps above them, drop­ping con­fet­ti and toys on lit­tle red parachutes.

Helicopters and Doves on Patrol

All the TVs were stream­ing live from the main court­yard of the mosque. Karzai was about to speak. We were so close that we heard the loud­speak­ers first and then the TV screen with a slight delay.

Giv­en that we missed a night of sleep, Lou and I actu­al­ly tried to get some rest. An hour lat­er we were jarred awake by the sounds of artillery fire. Along with oth­er hotel patrons, we ran up to the roof to inves­ti­gate. When you hear gun fire and music in Afghanistan, you’re taught to inter­pret that as a wed­ding par­ty. This is also the rea­son why many wed­ding par­ties had been bombed until the mil­i­tary learned to review their intel­li­gence better.

It turned out to be a cel­e­bra­to­ry salute to Karzai.

The Fun­faire at the Blue Mosque

Fail­ing at sleep, we explored the cen­ter of Mazar, its fresh juice stands and shawar­ma joints. When the restric­tion on males was lift­ed, we entered the grounds of the mosque.

Baloon Dealer
The atmosh­pere resem­bled a car­ni­val with ven­dors of col­or­ful bal­loons and toys, blan­ket spreads of semi­precious rocks, jew­el­ry, fes­tive dec­o­ra­tions, hen­na, sur­ma, women’s panties and silk robes.

Spread of Wares
(Night also revealed thought­ful­ly illu­mi­nat­ed sculp­tures and bill­boards arrayed with LEDs.)

Welcome to the year 1390!

Every­one, but espe­cial­ly the youth, were fes­tooned to the Nowruz max. Girls and boys were active­ly par­tic­i­pat­ing in the gaze econ­o­my, the cau­tious give and take, yet not too much of either; cast­ing furtive glances, and if caught, walk­ing straight away.

The boys put on their shini­est shirts and fan­ci­est brimmed hats.

Stylish Kid

Festooned to the Nowruz Max

Festooned to the Nowruz Max

I even saw some girls faces, some­thing entire­ly unimag­in­able in Jalal­abad. But even under the blue burqa clad major­i­ty you could spy the glam­or of the out­fits beneath and guess at the delib­er­a­tion expend­ed to com­pose them. Lit­tle accents on their ankles and toes com­mu­ni­cat­ed vol­umes with the small can­vas that mod­esty afforded.

Were you a bach­e­lor in this cli­mate and only focused on the can­di­dates whose face you could see, you’d be dis­crim­i­nat­ing against the major­i­ty of the pop­u­la­tion. I must admit, there is a cer­tain intrigue in not know­ing what is behind the cur­tain. We saw a boy, tail­ing two glam­orous girls in burqas, tempt­ing them in a very uni­ver­sal way, “I have a car.”

This gave new mean­ing to the term “blind date”.

It all felt very for­eign from the Afghanistan I came to know and rely on while liv­ing in con­ser­v­a­tive Jalal­abad. While even in Jalal­abad it was impos­si­ble not to read into the per­son­al frus­tra­tions of every­one you got to know indi­vid­u­al­ly, it was nev­er on pub­lic dis­play, like this, by everyone.

White Doves at the Blue Mosque

They say that one of the mir­a­cles of the mosque is that when a non-white pigeon appears, it soon turns white. Though I have no proof, I think that what actu­al­ly hap­pens when a non-white one appears is that the care­tak­er kills it, or maybe tries to give it a whiten­ing bath in bleach with the same result.


Jahen­da Bala

In the inner court­yard, a group of Shia hud­dled close and were work­ing them­selves into a trance by chant­i­ng. They were present for the Jahen­da Bala, a flag rais­ing cer­e­mo­ny, com­mem­o­rat­ing the col­ors of the ban­ner that Hazrat Ali raised in bat­tle for Islam.

This reli­gious prac­tice was pro­hib­it­ed dur­ing the time of the Tal­iban and to the con­di­tioned eye of a Sun­ni Pash­tun, it still seemed like the work of heretics.

Even Najib revealed his prej­u­dice. His face became flush and he said, “Let’s go. I’ll tell you about this later.”

Afghan Nation­al Army’s most heav­i­ly armed man

We spent a cou­ple hours wait­ing for Najib’s friend Sheikh in the com­pa­ny of the ANA’s most heav­i­ly armed man. He had a quiver with four RPGs and car­ried anoth­er loaded one in his hand.

Afghanistan's most heavily armed man

Najib guid­ed us next to him and remarked that we were in the safest place in town, but I did not agree with his assess­ment. There wasn’t a place for miles in over­crowd­ed Mazar where such a weapon could be used effec­tive­ly with­out sub­stan­tial col­lat­er­al dam­age. In fact, being next to such a war machine made me feel like more of a target.

Besides, the RPG slinger said he had only ever fired four rounds, all for prac­tice. It’s an expen­sive plea­sure. He claimed each round cost $10,000 but I doubt he knew what he was talk­ing about.

Afghanistan's most heavily armed man

There were a few kids hang­ing out with the sol­diers. Fre­quent­ly, they’d ask to play with the guns or just tugged at the bar­rels with­out ask­ing. And sol­diers, who were Afghan kids them­selves and could relate, oblig­ed, non­cha­lant­ly pass­ing the guns around with­out so much as a word of cau­tion to not point them at people.

Sheikh and Nasir

We were wait­ing for “Sheikh”. He’s a busi­ness asso­ciate of Najib’s rel­a­tive Nasir. Nasir had recent­ly run up a huge debt with Najib and then dis­ap­peared. Such a thing strains but does­n’t nul­li­fy friend­ships. Najib lament­ed, “if only we were still on good terms with Nasir, we could ride across the entire north of Afghanistan and have peo­ple slaugh­ter goats in our hon­or and show us a good time. Sheikh was our stand in for Nasir and though I don’t know what it would have been like with Nasir, Sheikh was an excel­lent host.


Sheikh car­ried him­self with the air of a suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man on the verge of secur­ing a large con­struc­tion con­tract with the Amer­i­cans which would make him even more successful.

His first ges­ture was to give a crisp 100$ bill to his nephew (who dou­bled as his min­ion and dri­ver) to get us “something”. He then flagged down a Pash­tun police com­man­der and got us an escort to the governor’s pri­vate­ly owned amuse­ment park on the south­ern reach­es of the city.

Once inside, we were sur­round­ed by blinky lights, LEDs, glowy orbs and illu­mi­nat­ed sculp­tures. It was strange­ly rem­i­nis­cent of Burn­ing Man. Frankly, much of this adven­ture felt that way. Najib got ride tokens.


In line for one of the carousel rides, we met a Russ­ian speak­ing boy, Ali. He over­heard me talk­ing to Najib and came to make friends. We talked about his time in Rus­sia, his fas­ci­na­tion with Hip Hop. On his shoul­der he car­ried a large boom box. He wore huge sun­glass­es. His skater hat was at an angle. His shoe laces were neon green and pink. We were yelling in Russ­ian, Eng­lish and Pash­to, all of Sheikh, Ali, Lou, Najib and me; all scream­ing over each oth­er, mer­ry mak­ing. One of the guards approached us and tried to get Lou to leave the men’s line (where we all were and hadn’t even real­ized there was a sep­a­rate one.) Najib and Ali start­ed berat­ing him loud­ly, even­tu­al­ly shoo­ing him away. We were whipped around on teth­ered swings and even got pudgy Sheikh to strap in for the flight with us.

Oth­er People’s Women

We toured the amuse­ments and spot­ted a large group of girls sit­ting around a pic­nic blan­ket. Najib cau­tioned us about walk­ing too close. He said that they are oth­er people’s women and if we approached too close, we may have to resolve the mat­ter with their men.


Sheikh’s dri­ver reap­peared with “chars” (the Afghan word for hash). Sheikh’s chars han­dling skills were mas­ter­full, like a true char­si (chars user). We sat on train tracks in the process. Through Najib’s trans­la­tion Sheikh inquired about the logis­tics of com­ing to the US and specif­i­cal­ly how much mon­ey he’d need to save up in order to have a week’s worth of good times. “Will $20,000 be enough?” I asked his inten­tions. He replied defen­sive­ly, “no casi­no, no bars, no girls… just nor­mal things.” I said that a few thou­sand should be plen­ty. “And what if … what if, we did some casi­no, some bar and some girls?”

Afghan Ice Cream Vendor in In-N-Out t-shirt

We bought ice cream from a boy in an IN-N-OUT t‑shirt.


Jama Khan

The next day Sheik showed up with a new side kick, 19 year old Jama Khan. Jama is the son of war­lord Coman­dan Haji Akhtar دمحم رتخا ېجاح Coman­dan Haji Akhtar is on the Balkh Provin­cial Coun­cil and has a pret­ty awe­some ride (4x4 SUV).

Accord­ing to Jama and Sheikh, Jama’s old­est broth­er Wali Muham­mad Ibrahim Khil was killed by Amer­i­cans after the gov­er­nor Atta Muham­mad Nur told them he was work­ing with the Tal­iban. Whether he was or was­n’t, it used to be that say­ing some­thing like this to the Amer­i­cans was a rather good way to elim­i­nate a pow­er­ful competitor.

Sheikh was ten­ta­tive with our plans. “Where you want to go? How about you come to my village?”

Ah, that elu­sive Afghan vil­lage(!), idyl­lic, pas­toral, won­der­ful, and … every­thing, except it’s infest­ed by Tal­iban.  (Najib tells us that this is espe­cial­ly true of Sheikh’s village.)

Sheikh insist­ed, “I’ll make sure you are safe.”

Najib said “Thank you, but NO” on our behalf and instead we aimed the SUV for the neigh­bor­ing city of Balkh.

Pic­nic in Balkh

Balkh is a frail old­er broth­er to Mazar. It is an ancient city (4,000 years old) and a his­tor­i­cal cen­ter of Zoroas­tri­an­ism. Due to a Malar­ia out­break in the late 19th cen­tu­ry, the region­al cap­i­tal shift­ed to Mazar-i-Sharif (but the province is still called Balkh.)

In con­trast to Mazar’s square grid around the Blue Mosque, Balk is arranged in a radi­al grid around a cir­cu­lar park con­tain­ing the Green Mosque.

While his min­ion picked up a bag full of meat in town, Sheikh gave us a guid­ed tour of the park. We then dropped the meat at a near­by relative’s house which we simul­ta­ne­ous­ly raid­ed for pic­nic sup­plies: a large ther­mos of tea, a whole ser­vice of tea cups, vinyl table cloths and woven rugs.

Boys on Walls

From there we climbed the ancient city walls of Balkh to get good views and to select the per­fect (read “isolated”) pic­nic spot. Sheikh decid­ed on a fur­rowed field next to a shady grove where he unfurled the car­pets in such a way that the fur­rows became recessed rows of seats around an ele­vat­ed table.

Picnic in Balkh w/Sheikh

A few more rel­a­tives appeared with the meat, already pre­pared, in a pot.

Hun­gry, we ate the lamb, the Afghans teach­ing us to suck out the mar­row, and got our hands greasy and then han­dled cups of tea and Pep­si bot­tles, spread­ing the grease; and then made futile attempts to wipe our hands clean with tis­sue papers, which are the nap­kins of choice in Afghanistan.

What if “men with gun­s” appear?

The con­ver­sa­tion turned to the sub­ject of safe­ty and how nice it is that we are sit­ting here with a war­lords son (Jama Khan) which would be use­ful if men with guns appeared.

Picnic in Balkh w/Sheikh

To which, Jama respond­ed by say­ing that we’re safe not because of him, but because Sheikh is here.

To which Sheikh said, that if guns appear there won’t be a Sheikh here, because guns are guns and bul­lets don’t discriminate.

To which, every­body laughed and con­sid­ered the sit­u­a­tion resolved to the extent possible.

Kid­s’ Table

Not twen­ty feet off, behind the grove of trees, a few kids were pick­ing at the mud and glanc­ing at us with mis­chie­vous faces. Sheikh first shooed them away, but when they didn’t budge, he invit­ed them to eat with us, and when they proved too shy to respond, he round­ed up a bunch of meat on a plate and half of a Pep­si bot­tle and gave it to them. And so our pic­nic picked up a children’s table.

Girls can drive?

Back in Mazar, Sheikh itched to go back to the carousels. Jama Khan want­ed to dri­ve his jeep into the moun­tains. We com­pro­mised by dri­ving out of the city past the car­ni­val grounds where Jama could show us a bit of reck­less dri­ving. Then he turned to Lou and said, that if he could see a girl dri­ve a Jeep offroad that would real­ly make his day. And Lou took him up. In all our time in Afghanistan, we saw a female the behind the wheel just once, (and it was the Shari-Naw neigh­bor­hood of Kabul.)

Ran­som for a Good Time

We ini­tial­ly met up with Sheikh in order to pay him back the 100$ deposit he had sub­mit­ted on our behalf to Hotel Barat. And while I had giv­en the mon­eys to Najib, he hadn’t com­plet­ed the trans­fer to Sheikh. When I asked him about it, he said “Wait, I’ll give it to him at the end. This way he still has a rea­son to hang out with us and show us a good time!”

Our final day in Mazar we got some shop­ping done, and before long Jama Khan was call­ing ask­ing to hang out. He showed up with a body guard who he proud­ly announced was on the min­istry of interior’s pay­roll. To prove the point he made the boy pull out his ID card and show us. Sur­pris­ing­ly the ID card was also his salary card. It does­n’t real­ly mat­ter who you are until you show up in front of the cashier at the bank. When you col­lect YOUR salary is when it is impor­tant to know who YOU are.

Ministry of Interior

Today Jama want­ed to go show us the moun­tains he didn’t get to the day before, and so we drove south, past the gar­gan­tu­an Sovi­et bread fac­to­ry, past the car­ni­val grounds, past emp­ty streets of sub­di­vid­ed lots with retain­ing walls and some con­struc­tion, and then streets with lots with­out con­struc­tion, just retain­ing walls, and then lots, but no retain­ing walls, but just grav­elled roads in a grid, and out­door sewage ditch­es mark­ing their bound­aries antic­i­pat­ing the city’s expan­sion. There were only shep­herds there to graze their sheep, though there wasn’t much (left) to graze. The sheep tried to escape the heat by hid­ing in sewage ditches.

But Jama drove onward.

Juma Khan drove with­out regard for streets. He re-land­scaped the hills.

All of these plots, I learned lat­er, were from a planned expan­sion of the city orches­trat­ed by the gov­er­nor. We’ll be big­ger soon! The state can make mon­ey sell­ing plots of land!

After dri­ving for a while we seemed no clos­er to the moun­tains in the dis­tance. We were in the steppe and occa­sion­al­ly you could spot anoth­er group that voy­aged to these hills.  This is where they came to escape the bus­tle of the city (and the Tal­iban of the vil­lage.) This is where they came to be alone with their fam­i­lies. These were the “mountains” that Jama want­ed to take us to, as this is where he would come with his friends, rip donuts in his 4x4 and toke the chars.


(Click here for a more in-depth descrip­tion of the game. )

Novruz is also the cul­mi­na­tion of a Buzkashi sea­son and so we asked Jama to takes us to the match. It became clear after some prod­ding that he didn’t feel com­fort­able going.

It turns out that just like Amer­i­can oil tycoons buy foot­ball teams, Afghan war­lords main­tain sta­bles of buzkashi hors­es and teams of star rid­ers under their care.

The buzkashi field there­fore is not real­ly a safe place. It’s proxy war. But real war occa­sion­al­ly breaks out in the stands also. It’s the one pub­lic event where per­son­al scores are set­tled by assassination.

In the end, Jama agreed to take us, but “only for a lit­tle bit”.

These buzkashi grounds were very dif­fer­ent from the mud­dy snowy pit we vis­it­ed in the Pan­jshir Val­ley. It was a large hot dusty field lord­ed over by a gar­gan­tu­an Sovi­et bread fac­to­ry. On one side were the stands, seat­ing sev­er­al thou­sand peo­ple. A water truck was zig zag­ging through the field dur­ing the game, spray­ing the ground, try­ing to keep the dust down.

Soviet Bread Factory towering over Nowruz Buzkashi Match in Mazar

Jama dis­ap­peared and left us with his body guard. When he returned, it was on a horse. The buzkashi hors­es aren’t too tall, as then it would be too hard to reach down and grab the dead goat from the sad­dle, but they are hard work­ers. All of the hors­es were drenched in sweat yet they per­sist­ed in run­ning full gal­lop at the min­i­mal urging.

Nowruz Buzkashi Match in Mazar

In fact, a buzkashi horse is hard to keep still. If you don’t do any­thing, it takes off. It’s like hav­ing a car with­out the gas ped­al. It always assumes the ped­al is floored. You have to active­ly say stop.

Buzkashi Rearing

The hors­es are also remark­ably easy to rear. Both Lou and I gave the hors­es a try and suc­cess­ful­ly got them on their back legs, kick­ing in the air, over and over again.

Buzkashi Rearing

With Jama by our side, we were a part of the action rather than pas­sive observers.

Nowruz Buzkashi Match in Mazar

Our sched­ule was tight. From the horse track, we went to the bas­ket­ball court.

Bas­ket­ball Practice

My pipe dream for Mazar was that Najib and I get to join the Mazar bas­ket­ball team for a prac­tice ses­sion. I tried get­ting in touch with Mur­ta­zo, but for a cou­ple days all his text mes­sages report­ed that his father for­bid him to go out­side because it was dangerous.

Our con­nec­tion was Mai­wand, the cap­tain, the same guy who helped us out with the hotel. When we met Mai­wand, Najib grabbed him lov­ing­ly and they walked hand in hand all the way to the bas­ket­ball court.

Najib and Maiwand

Nei­ther Najib nor I were pre­pared to play, but they took care of us, giv­ing us sneak­ers and shorts and uni­forms and we went through the whole stretch­ing, warmup and exer­cise rou­tine. They split us up into teams and we played a few prac­tice matches.

MuryEmo leads Warm-Ups

At one point, there was a loud BOOM and a pil­lar of smoke rose just behind the wall of the court. Some of us ducked to the groud, but then Mur­ta­zo laughed, “it’s just a truck tire blow out!” and we went back to playing.


Half way through prac­tice, there was a tea break.

Tea Break

Many of the boys spoke to me in Russ­ian on the court. They were com­mon­ly Uzbeks or Tajiks edu­cat­ed across the bor­der. The coach had also stud­ied in Russia.

Najib tried some fan­ci­ful spin move and end­ed up twist­ing his ankle. Just as he sat on the bench, Sheikh arrived. He came bear­ing gifts, some per­fume for me and face cream for Louisa. At that point Najib asked him for Nasir’s where­abouts and gave him the 100$ bill.

Farewell Afghanistan, farewell Najib …

The next morn­ing we were out of Mazar and the next day we were in Delhi.

Nai­jb was on the verge of tears when we part­ed. “It will be bor­ing with­out you. Thank you. You’ve changed my life. I will nev­er for­get you.” I owe him at least a blog post, and prob­a­bly a lot more, so that you will under­stand why.

I’ll just add, since it’s a feel­ing that I’d rather not for­get, but when we board­ed the Air India air­plane in Kab­ul and I saw the female flight atten­dant walk by in a pair of tight fit­ting pants, I felt abashed­ly tit­il­lat­ed. There was a sight I had been deprived for the past three and a half months. Absurd, I know, sorry.