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Mazar Sees in New Year at Any Price

In Mazar-e-Sharif, the traditional Nauroz celebration forces some residents to play generous host while others cash in on the boom in visitors.
By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi
The city sparkles in the spring sunshine, and the famous turquoise dome of the Rauza Mosque catches the light. On the streets of Mazar-e-Sharif, a huge crowd waits for the ceremony to begin - some hoping for miracles, others just there for the spectacle.

The northern town of Mazar-e-Sharif is the focus of Afghanistan’s Nauroz celebration marking the beginning of the solar year on March 21.

Tens of thousands of visitors descend on the city every March to witness the hoisting of the “Janda”, a large flag-bedecked pole, over the tomb of Hazrat Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet.

Legend has it that those who sleep by the Janda for several days may be cured of their illnesses. A popular Afghan verse goes, “On the day of Nauroz, as the Janda is raised, dear God will make the sick man well and the blind man see.”

Nauroz is the major event of the year in Mazar-e-Sharif, and a delight to those who brave avalanche and ice in the Salang pass to reach the city from more southerly parts of Afghanistan.

For weeks, municipal workers have been busy cleaning the streets and hanging up decorations. The city is lit up at all hours, since revellers celebrate through the night, strolling along the streets and buying fruits, nuts and sweets from street vendors.

Visitors outnumber locals, judging by the numerous provincial license plates on the cars clogging the roads.

“Nauroz is the best holiday,” said Sayed Naseem, 30, a resident of Ghazni province far to the south. “I come every year to visit Mazar and see people from all over Afghanistan.”

Naseem was eating haft-miva, a concoction of seven different kinds of fruit and nuts which is a traditional treat for the holiday.

Naseer Ahmad, from Shiberghan to the west of Mazar, said he counts the days until Nauroz every year.

“We come to Mazar a month before Nauroz to live in my aunt’s house and get ready for the holiday,” he said, watching a group of street dancers.

“I like the dancing, and the walks around the Rauza. It is so exciting to be here, to have haft-miva with your friends and relatives on the morning of Nauroz.”

The city erupts in music and dance during the holiday, with artists coming from all over Afghanistan to participate.

But locals are less wholehearted in their welcome for the holiday, because it can mean they have to open their homes to large numbers of hungry guests.

“I’ve got three different families in my house; it comes to over 25 people,” said Dost Muhammad, who has a house in Mazar and was out shopping in the bazaar for food.

“I have to buy enough food for 40 days, because I’m not sure when my guests are going to leave.”

Dost Mohammad bought a sack of wheat to make the traditional New Year’s dish of samonak, which requires constant stirring for 24 hours, as well as a barrel of fruit and other delicacies.

“We have the same problem every year,” he smiled. “That’s the reward for people who live in Mazar.”

Shopkeepers in Mazar make large profits out of the holiday influx of tourists, although their usual customers grumble at the higher prices.

“During Nauroz we hike up our prices tenfold. When people return to homes they do not want to go empty-handed,” said Wahab, who has a shop near the Rauza selling sweets.

Hotels, too, take advantage of the crowds to increase their prices, and anyone without relatives in the city will pay premium rates for a room.

“I usually charge 300 afghani [about six US dollars] per room, but during Nauroz I can make 3,000 afghani,” said Muhammad Akbar, manger of the Ferausee hotel. “I keep this hotel only because of the Nauroz period; it wouldn’t be worth it otherwise.”

Smiling, he added, “It doesn’t matter that prices are high; poor people don’t come to Mazar for Nauroz.”

He seemed to be right – as he was being interviewed, several people came in asking for rooms, and they paid right away when they heard the price.

Shoaib, a young man from Herat, explained that many holidaymakers have no choice but to pay exorbitant prices.

“We are sleeping six people to one room,” he said. “It is expensive, but we have to do it. If we were to pass up this room, someone else would take it and then we’d be sleeping on the streets.”

The city government attempts to control prices during Nauroz, but with limited success.

The mayor of Mazar, Muhammad Younus Muqeem, told IWPR that his staff was hard-pressed to cater for the crowds.

“I know the hotel owners and shopkeepers raise their prices, and I have ordered my staff to fine them,” he said. “But during Nauroz people are happy to pay any price. And our responsibility is to keep people happy during these days.”

The municipal government was providing school rooms to house the overflow crowds, but there was still not enough space, he added.

Yet the visitors keep on coming.

“I am not going to miss this night,” said one young man from Jowzjan province. “There’s nothing like it.”

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.

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