In what has become a Nowruz
tradition, Azerbaijan's president participated in
an egg-breaking competition with two popular
characters associated with the spring holiday. And
this year, as in previous years, Ilham Aliyev got
the best of Kosa (Beardless) and Kechal
In Azerbaijan, a former
part of the Persian Empire where Nowruz has deep
roots, the president has for years used the
Persian New Year as an occasion to highlight his
public image by visiting
Baku's old town and lighting
a traditional Nowruz fire.
It could be
written off as fun and games, but in many areas of
the world where Nowruz is celebrated, the politics
of the holiday can be serious business.
There are cases where regimes, whether
religious or not, have regarded Nowruz as a threat
to their dominance and banned the holiday
altogether. There are others where minority groups
have identified themselves with the holiday and
turned it into an unofficial national symbol. And
there are those instances where even the date of
the holiday has been subjected to the will of
But in no place is the
politics of Nowruz more evident than in Iran.
Pre-Islamic Iran is the cradle of Nowruz,
where it is believed to have been a holiday of the
ancient Zoroastrian religion. It is so deeply
rooted in the Iranian tradition and has such a
powerful influence that even the Islamic
Revolution of 1979 could not ban it. An official
six-day holiday in Iran - and 14-day vacation for
schools - Nowruz has nevertheless been under
constant fire from Muslim clerics, who call it
Ironically, the rejection of
Nowruz has united fundamentalist Shi'ite Muslims
in Iran and Sunnis in Afghanistan in their disdain
of national traditions.
attitude, however, is more ambiguous toward
Nowruz. While the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei, has issued repeated fatwas, or religious
edicts, saying that Nowruz "has no religious basis
and will create a lot of damage and [moral]
corruption," he is also the first to officially
mark the beginning of Nowruz with a national
Iran's conservative president,
Mahmud Ahmadinejad, has exploited Khamenei's mixed
message. Seeing that ordinary Iranians have always
considered Nowruz a powerful national symbol that
transcends religion and goes back into Persia's
millennia-long history, he has used Nowruz to
present himself as a nationalist and gain more
public sympathy in his power struggle with the
The Iranian president has
also seized the day as a tool of regional
influence. He has invited neighboring Armenia's
president to visit Tehran to attend Nowruz
celebrations, for example. And this year he was
joining Afghan President Hamid Karzai in
Tajikistan to participate in Nowruz festivities.
For the more than 30 million Kurds
scattered across several countries including
Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, Nowruz has long been
a symbol of their struggle for national identity
and unity. The celebration of Nowruz was only
legalized in Turkey in 2000 under pressure from
the European Union. Turkish authorities also use a
different spelling - Nevruz - and reclaimed it as
a Turkish holiday.
Prime Minister Tayyip
Erdogan's government has also given some cultural
rights to Kurds - who form at least 20% of the
population and celebrate the holiday according to
their own traditions.
surrounding the holiday in Turkey descended into
violence on March 20 when Kurdish protesters
clashed with police trying to prevent Nowruz
festivities in two southeastern towns. At least
nine people were hurt when people in the Turkish
capital, Istanbul, and another city tried to mark
But many Kurds will be
looking toward the autonomous Iraqi region of
Kurdistan, where President Massoud Barzani made
his annual Nowruz address on March 21.
Iraqi Kurds suffered decades of murderous
repression under Saddam Hussein, but even the
Iraqi dictator stopped short of banning Nowruz. He
instead declared an official "Day of the Tree" on
The Nowruz protests in Kurdistan
and southeastern Turkey come amid a year-old
uprising in neighboring Syria, which also has a
strong Kurdish minority.
Bashar al-Assad's embattled regime has promised
that it would allow Kurds to celebrate Nowruz. The
holiday, which the Syrian regime associates with
Kurdish separatism, has been banned since 1963,
when Assad's father came to power.
family is part of the Shi'ite Alawite sect, which
also celebrates Nowruz.
Nowruz was reinstated as an official holiday after
the fall of Taliban in 2011. Even during Taliban
rule, the spirit of Nowruz was so strong among
Afghans that they kept celebrating it discreetly
at home despite an official ban.
insurgents have issued periodic warnings against
the observance of the holiday, and authorities
have been constantly on the watch against possible
bomb attacks during massive Nowruz gatherings in
Kabul and the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif.
In Central Asia's former Soviet republics,
Nowruz has been a recognized official holiday. But
even times of celebration can take on an
authoritarian hue, as in Uzbekistan, where
President Islam Karimov has declared that he alone
can decide when the holiday should start.
RFE/RL's Farda, Iraqi, Afghan and
Azerbajani services contributed to this report.