20/04/2022 by Manon Royet 0 Comments
Persian New Year: Afghan Refugees’ First Celebration in the UK
Nowruz would have certainly looked very different in Afghanistan, where people usually celebrate in an intimate setting, with their families. But this first celebration in the UK remained a moment of communal closeness and homage to a shared culture and self-understanding. The refugees summoned an incredible sense of resilience and managed to enjoy the festivities despite the traumatism of being separated from their homes and families.
On the 20th of March, outside St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, attentive Londoners could catch a glimpse of richly dressed women adorned with hypnotic black kohl and imposing gilded jewellery.
On the cloudless London Sunday, newly arrived Afghan refugees celebrated together for the first time since fleeing their country after the Taliban takeover in August 2021. They rushed to enter the medieval church for Nowruz, centrally located in the City between the Gherkin and Liverpool Street station. Nowruz means ‘New Day’, as the vernal equinox marks the first day of the year in the Solar Hijiri calendar, used in both Iran and Afghanistan. It is also known as the Persian New Year.
The celebration is an unmissable and endurant tradition in Afghanistan, where it has been commemorated for over 3,000 years. Nowruz is inextricably associated with new beginnings, the ousting of winter infertile darkness, and its replacement with spring lushness and good luck. St Ethelburga’s is a good fit for the event: behind the gate on the left of the building, a small, squared entrance garden rife with plants, lanterns, and flowers welcomes the refugees into the new season. Standing as a small, delineated oasis of peace and nature in the heart of London’s business district, the garden leads to an inside glass corridor gorged with light. By the transparent door, Jo, the Centre’s project coordinator and Paiwand’s advocates are letting people in, greeting them joyfully – the words ‘Nowruz Mubarak’ resonating in a multitude of tones and voices – and crossing their names on the register.
The outfits are dazzling; embroidered sequinned dresses of green, red, purple, pink, ornamented headscarves, and layers of golden jewellery unmistakably catch the eye. Refugees of all ages are dressed up to the nines. While some borrowed dresses from the charity staff, others travelled all the way to an Afghan shop in Southall, almost two hours away from the hotel, just to get their Nowruz clothes. It is clear that this day is of prime importance to them, even 4,000 miles from Kabul. The outfits are not the only thing that underwent extensive preparation. Young people and adults alike took great care in preparing a wealth of poems, speeches, and songs in the two official languages of the country, Dari and Pashto, which they read lyrically one by one throughout the party. All celebrate the renewal brought about by the New Year: ‘Nowruz has come’ is repeated in several songs, like an aphorism.
The place has been decorated for the occasion by Paiwand. Afghan flags and golden ‘Happy New Year’ signs are scattered on the walls, and colourful oriental rugs cover the floors. Refugees were able to eat traditional Nowruz food cooked by an Afghan caterer. ‘Kulcha-e Nowruzi’, or Nowruz cookies, and ‘Haft Mewa’, a compote made from dried fruits and nuts, are set out on one of the two tables. The other one is lined with ‘Haft-Sin’ items. ‘Haft-Sin’ is the tradition to gather seven items on a table whose names begin with an ‘S’, and it is an unavoidable part of Nowruz celebrations for Afghans. This generally means sabzeh (sprouts), seeb (apple), samanu (sweet paste made of germinated wheat and water), seer (garlic), and senjed (fruit of the lotus tree), somaq (sumac), and serkeh (vinegar). Each item refers directly to something specific in the Persian culture – senjed symbolises love; seer, good health – and all are linked to the New Year in that they are symbols of recommencement and rejuvenation.
Overall, the event was a success. Nowruz would have certainly looked very different in Afghanistan, where people usually celebrate in an intimate setting, with their families. But this first celebration in the UK remained a moment of communal closeness and homage to a shared culture and self-understanding. The refugees summoned an incredible sense of resilience and managed to enjoy the festivities despite the traumatism of being separated from their homes and families. That afternoon, they ate together, sang, and danced passionately for many hours. Towards the end of the day, women stopped by the henna stand to get temporary tattoos on their hands before walking back to the hotel. Around six, most people had left.
The next day, I was volunteering at the hotel where most of them live. A lot of the residents came to the desk. They needed support with visa information, GP registration, and transportation cards. It was odd seeing them dressed in black and grey again. The resplendent necklaces, the colourful dresses and black makeup had vanished. So had the festive demeanour. I wondered: What will they retain from yesterday? How ephemeral was the joy I saw them share? Discussing biometric appointments and resettlement schemes, I glanced at the brown henna designs on their hands, the only remaining sign of the party, and I hoped they would be able to take something of Nowruz’s new beginning with them.