Nowruz or Iranian New Year in the US has its roots in Ancient Persia and, specifically, the religion of Zoroastrianism. There are celebrations all over Central Asia, particularly in the Turkmen and Kurdish communities. Dating back over 3000 years, the festival represents the start of spring (hence the March 20th or 21st start date) and pays particular attention to Earth’s elements: fire, water, earth, air, and ether. It’s celebrated on the Spring Equinox every year with events that can last from three to seven days. In Turkey, Nevruz (Turkish translation of Nowruz) has been a point of Kurdish pride and demonstration that has over recent years become increasingly political.
During celebrations, many people wave about the colors red, green, and yellow. They have a beautiful hue when the flags wave about and, not coincidentally, these are also the colors of the Kurdistan flag, leading to many Kurdish people hoisting their flags during the parades. In many parts of Turkey, this practice can be incredibly polarizing. The tenuous relationship between the Turkish government and the Kurdish people has the bloodstains of terrorism and military intervention drowning a diplomacy that is barely treading water.
The holiday’s intentions in Turkey were so partisan that the government banned the festivities until 2005. Then, the state acquiesced but referred to them as the “Spring Holiday” to appease both sides of the nationalist coin.
Festivities opened up during a lull in the conflicts and, according to people I talked to, were actually a unifying force for many. Like other Turkish holidays, it’s a time to get together with your family and neighbors and exchange food. I spoke to a family that would celebrate with their Kurdish neighbors by exchanging dishes from their home cities. The Turks who hailed from the Aegean coast would bring sarma – grape leaves stuffed with rice, meat, and vegetables – and the Kurds who came from Batman brought içli köfte – baked wheat stuffed with ground beef, rice, and Levantine spices. Afterwards, the parents would help the others out, whether it be around the house or tutoring the children for an upcoming test.
Why People Celebrate Newroz
The holiday, which is three days in Turkey, has an unbreakable tie to nature and our connection with it. It is a time, much like our New Year’s, where you bring promise and optimism about your future into practice. At night, your community joins together and dances, and then they build bonfires that everyone takes turns jumping over. It is a rite of purification. There is a traditional poem that is read before, “my yellow is yours, your red is mine.” You are asking the fire to take away your sickness and your negativity and feed you its energy.
On a day that symbolized nature’s awakening, it seemed the sharp divide was dissipating. My fiancée was a child in the coastal city of Izmir and knew the holiday was Kurdish but had always seen it celebrated jointly. It wasn’t until university in Istanbul when she saw Turks opting not to take part and the songs starting to carry nationalistic overtones that she understood just how political it was. The 40-year-old Turkish-Kurdish conflict had gone through many ebbs and flows. The Turkish Government began loosening its restrictions on the recognition of Kurdish culture and influence in the public sphere and PKK would agree to ceasefires. Then, months later there would be an inflammatory remark, or more blood spilled, and the whole process would renew.
Connection with Politics
In 2013, Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of PKK, wrote a letter read to the crowd in Diyarbakır where over one million people gathered in the streets for Nevruz and announced the ceasefire between the PKK and Turkish Government followed by two years of de-escalation.
The peace held only for so long. As the situation in Turkey grows more unstable so does the relationship between Turks and Kurds. Ties marred by military crackdowns and terrorist attacks with shouts across the aisle like battling brothers in the backseat of a car about who hit who first.
Inside the home, much has remained the same for thousands of years. Like Christmas or Halloween, the way in which we decorate our homes defines much about how we celebrate. Nowruz is no different. Each home possesses Haft-siin (seven S’s), which represent the core ideas of the celebration: sib (apples) symbolize health and beauty, senjed (Persian olive) is love, siir (garlic) is medicine, somaq (sumac berries) is the sunrise, serkeh (vinegar) are age and patience, sabzeh (lentil sprouts in a dish) symbolize rebirth, and samanu (germinated wheat pudding) is affluence.
A defining characteristic in Iran is a two week period of family reunions and friendly gatherings. In Turkey, the holiday isn’t federal, and therefore most cannot take time off to travel. So, with oppression and warfare quickly becoming the defining characteristic of the region, and Istanbul’s international community inability to go see family and friends, Nowruz’s participants gather with their “spiritual families” to ring in the new year.
Nowruz in Turkey
This year a low round table sits within a circle of people from Iran, Syria, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, Turkey and the occasional American surrounding it, not in chairs, but the more traditional method of cushions on the floor. They must gather the weekend before in a friend’s apartment to appease their work and school schedules.
Many of the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds are in Istanbul out of necessity, homes ravaged by war, they are lucky if they came from a university at a time when their home schools could still provide transcripts. Most, along with the Afghanis here, work in Tourism or cold calling Arabs abroad to convince them to purchase properties. For the Iranians, Istanbul was a place they could come to that accepted them and don't possess the same characteristics as their theocracy back home. They could run and drink in the streets, not confined to secrecy in their own homes. Now they grow weary from seeing their parents' stories from years ago being acted out by politicians here on TV.
Outside in confined parks with spaces dictated by the municipal government the colors red, yellow, and green wave strong within a cage of police barriers. The pyres lie unlit, and crowds watch uneasily. Local administrations uniformly canceled 2016’s celebrations after a bombing in Ankara killed 108 at a rally for HDP, the pro-Kurdish party, whose ministers in Parliament were all arrested and barred from the government shortly after the coup.
Just blocks away, the group still sits on the ground laughing and gushing over the food. Saffron rice gets pretty expensive in Istanbul, so people usually reserve it for special occasions. Most of the haft siin is here, except the lentils and pudding are conspicuously missing. There's no need or desire for dancing. Nevertheless, the energy remains high. Most of the group is only tangentially acquainted, one person is friends with one or two of the others who is friends with another, etc. Still, the conversation flows with discussions about how they all celebrated growing up fill the room as if they were once neighbors. The thoughts of home slowly create an awkward static in the room until one person starts talking about how they are moving to Poland and others chime in with their experiences there or traveling in the Baltics.
The Politics Today
On April 1st, shortly after the holiday, Turkish President Tayyıp Erdoğan unironically proclaimed himself as a "guardian of peace" to a crowd in Diyarbakır, the city with the highest Kurdish population in Turkey. Experts see it as a way to try and shore up support for his presidential referendum. While his supporters claim the vote will steady a government that has seen multiple fist fights among MPs in the chamber in the past year and various coups in the preceding decades. His detractors say the new constitution that's proposed will just grant Erdoğan the ability to be a dictator because his role would give him the ability to dissolve Parliament and eliminate the term limit that he views like the Ides of March.
In a race that is being called 50/50 by significant pollsters, Turkey is at a crossroads politically, creating immense uncertainty about the nation's future. After two years of shock-inducing terror attacks, an attempted coup, and subsequent purge of public servants, Turkey hovers above the flame with many hoping it will ignite the populace with unity and stability for the coming year.
A special thank you goes out to the many people whose input about this festival, its practices, and its meaning were invaluable in the creation of this article