On March 21 of each year, millions of Kurds, Persians, Pashtuns, Azeris and other ethnicities celebrate Nowruz, which means “new day” in Persian and Kurdish and is equivalent to New Year’s Day for these communities.
Nowruz is considered the only holiday celebrated by different ethnicities and religious groups across the globe. It is an official holiday in many countries, including Iran, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, the South Caucasus, the Crimean Peninsula, the Balkans, Kashmir, the Indian state of Gujarat and northwest China.
For hundreds of years, Nowruz was seen as a religious or cultural holiday for most of those who celebrate it. More recently, however, it has taken on a more national character among the Kurds and has become an annual event for Kurds to underline their identity, demands, and national and political rights in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
The ritual of the Kurds begins March 20 at sunset, with the lighting of the Nowruz fire — a custom dating back to the era of the fall of the Assyrian Empire at the hands of Medes (the Kurds’ ancestors), namely Kawa, the blacksmith who went out to the mountains with a torch of fire in hand to send a sign of victory to the people, according to the Kurdish narrative explaining the history of Nowruz.
Hussein al-Hajj, a young man from the village of Afrin in northern Syria, told Al-Monitor, “Nowruz for us represents a new day and the beginning of spring. It also means for us — as Kurds — the triumph of justice over injustice, just as Kawa triumphed over Dahak, the oppressor.”
He said, “Dahak was an Assyrian king and an oppressor. He is the equivalent of Nimrud, who was killed by the Prophet Ibrahim. On March 20, we light a fire to remember the fire lit on the roofs of houses as a sign of victory over Nimrud. The next morning at sunrise we celebrate a special day — Nowruz.”
Hajj noted, “Before 2021, the Syrian regime used to restrict us, the people of Afrin, from celebrating this holiday. ‘A voluntary workday’ was imposed by government institutions, departments and schools in Kurdish-majority areas under threats of political prosecution.”
He said, “But after the Kurdish Democratic Party took control over Afrin, we had the greatest freedom to celebrate on this day. Before the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition took hold of the area, celebrations and festivities used to be set two months ahead of the holiday, usually at Maydanki [a lake], near Afrin. Everyone, young and old, prepared for the celebration in an arena, where no less than 200,000 women, men and children gathered. Huge crowds went to the mountains and into nature to celebrate, sometimes despite the rain and the cold weather. Famous singers with their bands were also invited to celebrate with the people of the city.”
“But after Operation Olive Branch was launched by Turkey and the Syrian National Army [SNA] factions against Syrian Democratic Forces' positions surrounding Afrin in 2019, things completely changed for us,” he added. "The holiday became bleak. It was when the Turkish forces attacked us, and it was impossible to celebrate. They said they were liberating the areas. When we returned to our village near Afrin, a neighbor lit a fire inside her home and not outside because she was afraid. Her house is located inside the valley, in an inconspicuous location. But the village’s security forces learnt what she was doing and they stormed her house, put out the fire and smashed some furniture pieces on their way.”
Hajj said, “We did not celebrate the holiday in 2019. In 2020, the Turkish-backed rebel forces expanded their control over the city of Afrin and the villages surrounding it, and normal life gradually began to return to the area. I decided to continue my secondary education after a two-year hiatus because of the war.”
“One week before Nowruz in March 2020, the secondary school principal who is Kurdish said that the Turkish government-backed Directorate of Education in Afrin decided not to have an official holiday on March 21, and any student who absented themselves would not be allowed to sit for the final exams. I had to go to school that day, although I wished I could have celebrated this significant day with my family,” he noted.
He added, “On the same day, the school administration forced us to sign papers attesting that we attended school by an administrative order. This was very strange for us as we did not even have sign-in sheets. All Kurdish students signed a paper that we attended school on March 21, 2020, as proof that we did not celebrate the holiday, which they wanted us to denounce and not recognize at all.”
Hajj explained that in 2020 “the administration of most of the districts annexed to Afrin — such as Sharan, Bulbul and Rajwa — gave out flyers stating that it was forbidden to celebrate Nowruz.”
“Last year, we held a very small and low-key celebration for the Kurds, in the presence of some figures from the Syrian National Coalition [SNC], in one of the event halls in Afrin. On March 21, we lit a fire inside our house. It was a small victory for us because no one bothered us. But it was a secretive celebration,” Hajj concluded. “Nowruz will never be the same again for us. We will never be able to celebrate with tens of thousands of people or even hundreds of thousands of Kurds as we used to do on this great day for us.”
According to a report on Syria TV, very few Kurds in the countryside of Afrin celebrated the holiday this year by lighting a fire on the roof of their houses in the mountains.
In a statement March 21, the SNC extended greetings to all the Syrian people in general, and Syrian Kurds and Kurds in the rest of the world in particular, on the occasion of Nowruz, which it praised as “a holiday of great national, cultural and social importance.”
The coalition called on “our people in the east of the Euphrates with all its components, especially the Kurds, to join hands to renew the spirit of the Syrian revolution, and to rise up again against the criminal [Bashar] al-Assad regime, and against the terrorist Democratic Union Party militias affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party, and expel them from Syria to Qandil, where they came from,” the Sham media organization reported.
March 20 also marks the fourth anniversary of the entry of the Turkish armed forces along with the SNA to the city of Afrin in 2018.
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