The Nauroz festival as a social site: understanding faith, ethnicity and nation-ness in Afghanistan
Sharifi, Mohammad Omar
MetadataShow full item record
This thesis examines the ways in which contemporary communities across Afghanistan practice and interpret the traditional cultural practices associated with Nauroz, the Persian New Year celebrated on the spring equinox. It is based on ten months, from October 2015 to July 2016, of ethnographic fieldwork, participant observation and historical work in the city of Mazar-e Sharif. It focuses on the traditional ceremonies organized by the local population in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif that culminate in ceremonies annually attended by hundreds of thousands of people. These Nauroz events include elements drawn from ancient Zoroastrianism, Persian poetry, Sufism, and Sunni and Shia Islamic traditions that have been synthesized into a national Afghan tradition that spans religious sectarian and ethnic divisions. This tradition has survived profoundly disruptive attacks that attempted to discredit it by a communist government in the 1980s and Islamist governments in the 1990s. Since 2001 it has been revived and its defenders proclaim it a unique Afghan tradition that is national without being nationalistic, religious without being sectarian, and politically independent without being divisive. The research revealed that the Nauroz ceremonies in Mazar-e Sharif generate a sense of nation-ness and national community that Afghans rarely display overtly in other contexts. This develops during debates over what constitutes “authentic” religious practice and how to meld local customary practices into a universalistic faith that Afghans see as central to their identity. The research also documents paradoxical politics of Nauroz wherein representatives of the central government in Kabul justify themselves by journeying to Mazar-e Sharif to make speeches and engage in debate. They seek the approval of an important regional elite and by extension the nation as a whole via mass media. Because the context is ceremonial, people are sharply critical without seeming to threaten the government’s stability. These dialogical interactions produce an evolving but resilient sense of nation-ness despite the persistent weakness of formal state institutions. It is a dialectic between state and citizen, between center and periphery, that helps explains how Afghanistan maintains a strong sense of national community within a weak state.