Vodka & tonic or beer? our host asked.
Beer please - and can I have a lemon wedge in mine? Then I pointed southwest, There’s another fire. This is the oddest New Year’s Eve I’ve celebrated yet.
Indeed. This Saturday past marked New Year’s Eve with – wait for it – Sunday being Nowruz, or New Year’s Day according to the calendars of the Persians, the Kurds, and those sun-loving Zoroastrians. And according to nature’s calendar, it was the spring equinox. Celebrated throughout the Middle East (including Turkey where Kurds are admonished not to have any fun at all), this year even the UN got on the bandwagon and officially recognized Nowruz, this 3,000-year old Spring Festival, as an International Day. There is, of course, a Kurdish spin on it which includes elements cobbled together from a medieval historical text, a thousand-year old poem, and a 16th century folktale worthy of a Tim Burton film.
So, in a nutshell (and yes it’s important): an evil king who just happens to have a pair of snakes growing out of his shoulders - which would make buying off the rack an impossibility for him - has conquered Iran. Because these snakes are giving him the mother-of-all backaches and he has no access to Absorbine Junior, he insists on having 2 youths sacrificed to him every day so that their brains may be fed to the snakes. For reasons unknown to me, this daily snack works wonders on the snakes and hence his back. But because he is evil and because no one likes a sore back, he also stops spring from coming. A millennium into his rule (apparently his subjects are long-suffering or just hate their children), the individual assigned to rustling up the snakes’ lunch decides to dupe the serpents by killing an adult and mixing his brains with those of a sheep.
As the people become disgruntled with the Evil King’s rule (apparently his subjects are long-suffering or just hate their children), a blacksmith named Kava (himself the father of 6 of the snakes’ snacks) trains those children saved by the One Adult/One Sheep Brain Subterfuge to bear arms, and leads a revolt against the Evil King, ultimately killing him with a hammer. There is much rejoicing. The Brave Blacksmith sets fires on the hillsides to let everyone know that the king is dead and the reign of terror over. Presumably mothers throughout the region sigh a huge sigh of relief and spring returns – but I’m just reading between the lines on that last point.
Kava the Blacksmith set fires, ergo everyone in Kurdistan - who in fact believe that they are his very descendants - sets bonfires alight on Nowruz Eve - bonfires to celebrate and/or symbolize the triumph of spring over winter, of light over darkness, of Good over Evil. And why was the smoke of these fires inky-black and toxic? Because Kurds were busy burning tires not fragrant logs. And why were they burning tires – which I’m pretty certain is against the law here? Because Kurdistan is desperately trying to re-green its countryside which is not very green but rather beige. It would seem that for many many years a certain individual – referred to by Kurds as The Leader of the Previous Regime – (hint: he was hanged on December 30th, 2006 just northeast of Baghdad) pretty much razed Kurdistan (for which he bore no love but lots of cannisters of chemical gas) of its trees.
I don’t know to what extent the Kurds think of The Leader of the Previous Regime when they light their bonfires or the Evil King (or perhaps they have become one and the same), but Nowruz has definitely become a political expression of Kurdish identity and independence. In any case, Kurds appear to be terribly respectful of their saplings dotting the city and countryside. Hence the burning tires.
So to sum up: Nowruz is a really really big deal and can last several days onwards up to a week. Unless you're an English teacher and then you find yourself writing this from work because you are bored as there are no freaking students in town.
Atop our roof, as we raised our glasses to the year 2710, we watched the guards at the end of the street toss aside their AK-47's and heave another tire onto the fire. Peeee-yoooo, they (the tires, not the guards. Well maybe the guards) reeked something fierce. But the city itself - apart from the odd bonfire here and there - was (as I said) weirdly silent: it would seem that during Nowruz, every Kurd with access to something with wheels (and possibly hooves) hits the mountains to go picnicking. And to say that picnicking is anything less than a national obsession would be committing an act of blasphemy. We toasted the guards who had to work.
Oh! - and the rifles? The "sudden reports of random rifles", I mentioned earlier. Well, this is, after all, Iraq.