The Essence of Nawroz: Afghan New Year
Pictured here: Haft maywa*
Nawroz** is the Afghan New Years, celebrated across neighboring countries in Central Asia as well. It marks the first day of Spring, typically around March 21, and is a joyous cultural occasion that brings families together.****
As we embark upon the countdown to Nawroz, I'll be sharing unique recipes, both Afghan and fusion Afghan American, as well as detailing cultural customs. But first, I share with you an essence of the feeling of Nawroz as you join me in our countdown to Spring.
Spring has always been my favorite season, the cool breeze of winter giving way to the warm hug of sunshine parting the gray clouds into clear blue skies, whispering wakefulness into the ears of nature, bringing life to the emerging buds of flowers. Color reclaims the Earth, hues of greens, reds, pinks, and yellow slowly rising, enveloping our senses with a visual signal that a new year has come. It is this reawakening of the Earth that Nawroz celebrates.
My earliest memories of Nawroz date back to a small townhouse in suburban Ohio, my mother having set aside one of her precious plastic serving trays as an untouchable item in the kitchen (the other 3 plastic serving trays having already been compromised in the winter, utilized as a makeshift sled on snow days). This particular green tray was not to be touched, as it was preserved for the two weeks prior to Nawroz. It sat in a place of honor and high regard, near the windowsill on the counter, bringing in just the right amount of sunlight. On this tray my mother spread seeds, nurturing them until they grew into a web of white roots intertwined. She poured her love and longing into each seed, washing the roots and letting them flourish into short sprouts of wheat grass that struggled to grow in the corner of our modest kitchen.
As the sun crosses the equator, equalizing day and night, the wheat has grown to an appropriate height, ready for harvesting just as Nawroz begins. The night before Nawroz, the wheat is cut, my mother laboring over the intense dish made specially for Nawroz: Samanak. The wheat grass is run through a food processor, a strainer, and eventually makes its way into a very large pot that we only ever used otherwise to make rice enough to feed 60 people. Additional ingredients are added, and a large heavy wooden spoon is used to stir the mixture over the course of 24 hours as it slowly simmers. I would stare at the pot in awe, this looked to me as a child like a strange brown pudding, that for some reason took an immense amount of labor, but was filled with so much love. This dish was not only a celebration of Nawroz, but a connection to my mother's childhood, of an Afghanistan that was flourishing, beautiful, stable, where the neighborhoods came alive and families gathered with ease and joy before the endless wars began.
And every year as I looked curiously at the large pot, watching her diligent care for each step of the process, she shared with me the same stories. She kept her memories of that Afghanistan, the generosity, love, and care of a community that came together to celebrate new beginnings. Over the years my aunts would join in when they could with my mother, helping her in the laborious process. It was an opportunity to socialize, to connect in sisterhood, and an excuse for us cousins to spend late hours together on a school night in each other's company if we were so lucky.
Spring came to our home with its many signals calling in Nawroz: in the laughter of my mother and aunts in the kitchen, the smell of cardamom and chai, the feeling of the slippery skin of almonds being peeled by my siblings and I, the shared glances with my brother as we swiped a pistachio into our mouths from the large bowl we had just shelled, the colorful flowers my father brought in the house in vases all over our home, the shouting conversations of loud phone calls to our relatives across the country, and the taste of haft maywa*.
Nawroz looks different in each diasporic Afghan home, with core traditions such as haft maywa, spending time with family, preparing an elaborate meal, enjoying tukhm jangee***, and so many more being enacted to the capabilities of each family. Some simply bring colorful tulips to the table, others go kite flying, but in each moreso than the physical actions there lives the essence of Nawroz: an emotional feeling, a connectedness to a past that lives on in the character of the community. A community that is loving, incredibly generous, family oriented, and most of all one that continues to choose to smile, despite the difficulties that life has brought these displaced refugees.
The traditions are a symbolic representation of reliving of a new day, a new future, a new Afghan community, one no longer geographically bound within the borders of the country, but bound by the cultural traditions that embody the characteristics of the values that bring out the hallmark of Afghans: a loving, generous, hospitable peoples who are resilient and tenacious in the face of any challenge that comes their way.
Spring is my favorite season, because Spring is Nawroz. And Nawroz is a beautiful window into the depths of the heart of my people, a kinship with individuals who come from a land my eyes have not seen, but my soul carries as tangibly as the soul beneath my feet.
I hope you'll continue to join me as we embark on preparing for Nawroz and get a chance to bring a flavor of the joy and celebration into your home.
What are your family's favorite traditions and dishes for Nawroz? Let me know in the comments below.
* Haft Maywa is a dish I will go into further detail in a later post, it is a traditional component of Afghan nawroz, taking seven dried fruits and nuts that start with the letter seen (the equivalent of the letter S in Dari/Farsi) and soaking them in water to create a sweet dish
** pronounced N-ow-r-oh-z in the Afghan dialect of Dari/Farsi
*** Tukhm Jangee is a game played with color dyed boiled eggs, tapping them against each other in an effort to crack your opponent's egg shell while maintaining yours
**** Within the Afghan American diaspora, Nawroz is a unique melding of Afghan cultural customs in an American context. There are many resources that discuss the historical trajectory of Nawroz in Central Asian cultures.