The reason why so many people descend on Mazar for new year is a bit lost on me. The mosque is a shrine to Ali, every Shia’s favorite imam. Some believe he is buried here, although the general consensus is that, although the white camel that carried his dead body around might have fallen down dead at this very spot, the imam’s body was most likely picked up again and moved on to Iraq, where there’s another shrine to the eminent imam.
The mosque, decked out in blue tiles, is very impressive and can be said to have some resemblance to the Taj Mahal, but that’s hardly a reason to celebrate new year in this place. The only slightly logical connection that I can think of is that Ali is a Shia favorite, Shia islam is big in Iran, the origins of the new year on the 21st of March are Persian, so there’s some sense in celebrating the Persian new year at the country’s biggest Shia shrine.
The night before, I had expected huge crowds, but not so. Apparently, Afghans celebrate the new year at home. However, the first day of the new year, the crowds were all-consuming. Last year, several people got killed in a stampede and I could see how this happened when a whole crowd descended on a poor guy who was made out as a thief. Literally hundreds of people turned on the guy, the crowd moving as one all over the square in front of the mosque.
We had gotten to the mosque early, being welcomed by deafening canon shots, making me think at first the mosque was under attack, in the hope of seeing Karzai raising the country’s flag at the mosque, apparently a recurring pastime on new year’s day. The flag raising was scheduled for around ten. We arrived at nine, but already we were too late. The flag raising had been moved ahead, apparently for security reasons.
We strolled around the mosque a couple of times, checking to see if we could find any gray pigeons, who are said to turn white, like the other pigeons, within forty days after their arrival, but we didn’t see any. Afterwards enjoying the mosque, we bought a bunch of Mazari sweets. Some to bring back home, some to bring back to the office. We left with 15 kilos of sweets.
Said to be introduced by the Mongols, Buzkashi is big in the north, were the country’s central Asian roots are much more apparent. Around the new year, the biggest buzkashi games of the country are staged in Mazar and it only made sense to check it out.
We estimated some 15000 spectators and maybe as much as 100 horses in the game. What was intriguing was the field, which was not marked in any way. This meant that minute by minute, people were edging closer to the players, trying to get a glimpse of what was going on, only to run away on a true stampede when the multitude of half-crazy horses would come their way, being led by a fast racing horseman, holding a 75 kilo dead goat in one hand and pushing his horse onward with the whip in his other hand.
Several times, I had to find shelter next to one of the few 4×4 jeeps which leisurely kept their position, ON the field. Not bandits, terrorist attacks, bad roads or anything else, THIS was the most dangerous aspect of our trip to Mazar.
In the evening, we strolled past several of the venues of the city-wide concert. Staged by a Dutch guy, the many venues saw performers from Afghanistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Azarbaijen and probably others.
At Balkh university, where Azif, our driver, again managed to talk us into the VIP area, we were treated to a rather amusing spectacle.
Realize that during our couple of days in Mazar we saw very few women and, most certainly, in and around the mosque, there were practically none, not even shopping in one of the many shops on the large ring road around the mosque.
The women have to stay at home for these things, although they do get their own day at the mosque, when no men are allowed to visit.
At the university theater, for the concert, I had spotted a couple of ladies, although I figured most to be foreigners, except for one, also sitting in the same VIP area as we were. At some point, I noticed her getting up to leave, when she started to put on a burqa. At the same time, some 10, apparently women, also started to put on burqas around her, and the attention of the whole auditorium switched to these ladies in one corner and what happened on stage, for several minutes, was of no importance.
Also, we found the audience to be very participatory with the show, clapping, yelling, commenting and also dancing. What’s rather different is that it’s only the men who dance, resulting in interesting scenes when, quite often, the men dance as if they’re women and, occasionally, forming couples, dancing with other men, where one clearly takes on the male role, the other taking on the female role.