Monday, 30 March 2009

Hong Kong Rugby 7s. Elvis was sighted and is not only King, but alive !

Elvis appeared out of nowhere and did an impersonation of Freddie Mercury. An 11minutes medley of rock 'n' roll, including the Queen anthem We Will Rock You, saw Macau-based Australian performer Thomos Griffiths dressed as The King for the day. It brought a packed Hong Kong Stadium, that included Ablai (my nine year old boy) and I, to its feet before the Hong Kong sevens Rugby finals.
Fiji played magnificently to beat South Africa. It was a rollicking fun-packed weekend. I couldn't believe that over 40,000 rugby fans from every corner of the globe, could gather together for the spectacle of rugby, without any violence, drunkenness, or negative behaviour. It was clean and wild fun for most. Here are a few photos and I will fill you in more on details when I find time.

Ablai with Bahadhur, a former Gurkha soldier from Nepal, and his explosive-sniffing dog. Security was tough, but unobtrusive.

At Disneyland we met Alice-in-Wonderland

Ablai and Bob at the ticket vending machine in the Yau Ma Tei station in Kowloon

The ground just before the final.

All good clean fun. A Scotsman showing me what he had under his kilt. I looked and said, " It is gruesome." He replied, "have a look now, it has gruesome more."

After being ripped off by an on-line ticket agency, we brought tickets off the street at a reasonable rate. Ablai proudly hold the tickets.

Ablai with three New Zealand fans at the airport.

Everyone was dressed up for the final.

Ablai with a sailor on the ferry from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island.

Searching Anyone for chicken ? Hunting for the evening meal in Kowloon.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Expeditions and climbs in the Hindu Kush - Afghanistan

Today I updated an article of the various expeditions and climbs I was part of in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan between 1993 and late 1996.
John Tinker (l) and Ian Clarke with Mir Samir in the background. The route they attempted was a ridge on the face just to the left of centre to the left of a small avalanche in a snow gulley: Photo: Bob McKerrow

Mir Samir and ascent of P5000. After years when it was too dangerous to enter the mountains of Afghanistan, New Zealander Bob McKerrow and Englishmen Ian Clarke and Jon Tinker headed for Mir Samir in the Hindu Kush. McKerrow is head of the International Red Cross in Afghanistan and Clarke is a former Royal Marine, now head of the Halo Trust mine clearance organisation in Afghanistan.

Tinker has worked in the country a number of times in the last seven years.The three climbers set out from Kabul on September 23, 1994, acclimatizing near the Salang Pass before setting out for Parian in the upper Panjchir.

There four horses were hired to carry food and equipment up the Chamar valley to base camp at 3,400 m. Clarke's skills were put to the test when the saw air-dropped scatterable anti-personnel mines.

They established a high camp at 4,300 m on September 29.Because of the deep snow, the two Englishmen made slow progress the next day to bivouac at 4,900 meters on an unclimbed snow route on the southwest face of Mir Samir. On October 1 they made While Clarke and Tinker were climbing Mir Samir, McKerrow climbed an unclimbed peak at approximately 5000 metres, a prominent feature when viewed from the Chamar Valley. (end of article from American Alpine Club Journal, 1995.)a summit attempt.but unseasonable deep snow turned the back at 5200 meters, some 600 meters from the summit.

Clarke and Tinker in a burned out tank at the Salang Pass. Photo: Bob McKerrow
The start of the Mir Samir trip. Two horses with supplies are watched by a gunner protecting the valley. Photo: Bob McKerrow

We spent a few night in the Panjcher valley. This trigger-happy commander put us up for a few nights free. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Tinker with parts of land mines which we found scattered through the region. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Bob McKerrow (l) with John Tinker at Base Camp on Mir Samir. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The donkey that carried our supplies in with Mir Samir in the background. Photo: Bob McKerrow

I couldn't resist putting the photo of Eric Newby taken on their attempt on Mir Samir in 1956 and an extract from his obituary in the New York Times, October 24, 2006.

Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1956, Mr. Newby set out on the trip that would make him famous: a voyage by station wagon, foot and horseback to climb Mir Samir, a 20,000-foot peak in Nuristan, a wild region in northeastern Afghanistan. The fact that he had never climbed a mountain did not deter him in the slightest.

Mir Samir. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Mr. Newby chronicled the trip in “A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush,” published in Britain by Secker & Warburg in 1958 and in the United States by Doubleday the next year. As in all his work, the narrative was marked by genial self-effacement and overwhelming understatement.

Bob McKerrow reading some pages from Eric Newby's A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush to children whose Grandfathers helped Newby. We retraced a large part of their journey, Photo: Bob McKerrow

Reviewing the book in The New York Times Book Review in 1959, William O. Douglas, a noted travel memoirist who by day was a justice of the United States Supreme Court, called the book “a chatty, humorous and perceptive account.” He added: “Even the unsanitary hotel accommodations, the infected drinking water, the unpalatable food, the inevitable dysentery are lively, amusing, laughable episodes.”

Here is the article I wrote on various climbs in Afghanistan we did between 1993 and 1996..

No foreigners have climbed in Afghanistan since the Soviets arrived in late 1978. I had heard about the passes and valleys strewn with land mines so it was with some trepidation I embarked from Kabul in October 1994 on what was probably the first expedition into the Hindu Kush for at least 17 years.
Roads in the Hindu Kush are difficult to negotiate in winter. We are heading up to the Salang Tunnel which is the only tunnel through the Hindu Kush. Photo: Bob McKerrow

I travelled with two British climbers, Ian Clarke and John Tinker, to the Chamar valley for an attempt Mir Samir, a peak made famous by Eric Newby in his book, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Tinker was fresh off an ascent of Everest by a new route on the north side and Clarke was head of a British Mine clearance organisation in Afghanistan and was a necessary companion as the area had received large amounts of small scatterable mines, dropped from Soviet aircrafts to prevent the freedom fighters crossing the mountain passes.

Having lunch at our base camp with a bunch of Pashtoon soldiers returning from just being released from prison in the north, to their home in the east of Afghanistan, a journey of 400 km through remote wild mountain areas. John Tinker left, and Ian Clarke 3rd from left. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Our safety was dependent on his knowledge of mines and where battles had taken place. Tinker and Clarke attempted an unclimbed face on Mir Samir and got surprising high considering the unseasonably soft snow that had fallen.
The mountains to the extreme left of Mir Samir at the head of the Chamar Valley. Photo: Bob McKerrow

While the others were attempting Mir Samir, I climbed an unnamed peak around 5000 metres and looked over to the enticing mountains of Nuristan, formerly Kafirstan. We explored a number of neighbouring regions with the hope of returning to do further climbing. .In June 1995 I did another trip was Clarke, crossing from the Panjcher valley to southern Badakshan by way of the 4260 m Anjuman Pass.

Early 1995, Ian Clarke and I did another trip over the Anjuman Pass on a journey towards the Wakhan Corridor. Photo: Bob McKerrow

It was a unique opportunity to explore this spectacular part of the Hindu Kush and check routes on the major peaks in the area ranging from 5900 to 6500 metres.

A rather dubious group we came across. Photo: Bob McKerrow

One of the best peaks in the area in Kohi Bandak. The highlight of the trip was when returning back over the Anjuman Pass when at about 3400 metres in high alpine pastures we met about 50 Kuchi (nomad) families on their annual journey to this area. Some were on the move, other camping in their black, low-slung goat hair tents. We passed strings of camels with babies and young children with intricately embroidered bonnets, tied on the backs.

Camped at a lake on the northern side of the Hindu Kush. We crossed by Kotali Anjuman, the low pass on the right. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Kuchi nomads wending their way through the Hindu Kush.

Young girls with page-boy style hair cuts, flashed their shy blue eyes at us as we passed.

We stopped in tents to share pots of tea and watched how they cared for their animals. Young goats were inside the tent, sheltering from the hot sun, women tenderly carried young lambs in their arms, and an old lame sheep, rode past on the back of a camel. Over the hillsides women and children were gathering alpine herbs, wood, leaves and wild vegetables. Nearby an old women was weaving a carpet. This is what the mountains of Afghanistan are about, tough friendly mountain people who have a symbiotic relations with the hills. They name their children after the mountains, names such as ‘Kohzad’, meaning of the mountains.

Kuchi nomads on the move.

Despite the warmth of the people, many disasters befall them. Thousands are killed annually by avalanches and landslides. In late March word reached Kabul that a massive landslides had hit the village of Qarluk, situated high in the mountains of Badakhshan.
I was part of a Red Cross survey team that walked and rode by horse to the site. The whole village had been engulfed killing 350 people, all women and children. The landslide occurred at 11 am when the men and boys were out in the fields and the women. We arrived to find only one female survivor, 11 year old Gulnesa Beg, her arm broken in two places and with her good arm, hugging her father. A whole village wiped out by nature. Here we spent weeks running a relief operation to assist during the emergency phase and started helping these rugged Hazara people put their lives back together again.

In August this year, the highlight of my time in Afghanistan was a trip to Nuristan, the legendary 'land of light'.
Parun Valley, Nuristan. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The Afghan Red Cross is establishing a medical clinic in the Parun valley and I went with our medical staff. Nuristan hugs the southern side of the Hindu Kush and is been isolated from the rest of the country. Six main valleys make up Nuristan each with their own language and for four to five months of the year, the mountain passes in and out of Nuristan are blocked. In is an area where snow panthers, wolves and fox thrive in forests almost untouched by human hand, this is paradise on earth. These blue-eyed and sometimes blond haired people claim they are either descendants of the original Aryans, while others say they are descendants of Alexander the Great. In 1895 they were forcibly converted to Islam and even today their are remnants of their former pagan past. Nuristani villages cling to mountain sides, sometimes perched on peak-tops. a legacy of the past to avoid invaders. Like the mountain Tajiks, the Nuristanis are true mountaineers. In 1889 George Robertson the author of the book ‘Kafirs of the Hindu Kush’, described the Nuristanis as" 'magnificent mountaineers<-"' because of their mountain skills, fitness and agility.
Skiing near the Salang Pass. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The northern entrance to the Salang Tunnel and the men who keep the road open. February 1996. Bob McKerrow

A soldier we met on the way. Photo: Bob McKerrow Mckerrow and Tinker sorting out gear at Base Camp in 1994. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The writer sitting on an old Soviet tank. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Our last climbs in Afghanistan were in June 1996. I went with Mathias Luft, Ross Everson and Bruce Watson. Mathias and Ross climbed  Kohe Jalgya 6000+m, the peak in the background in the photo above. Bruce and I climbed a 5000 m peak 

So in three years in Afghanistan, (1993-96)I was fortunate to get out to many parts of the Hindu Kush, and explore, trek and climb. With the difficult security situation today, I was so lucky to have taken that opportunity.

Happy Nowruz

A Buskashi game at Parwan, Afghanistan on Nowruz, 21 March, 2006. Note how low the winter snow still is on the Hindu Kush. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Happy Nowruz ! I think of all those children in so many troubled countries who today will have big smiles on their faces as they celebrate Nowruz. With new clothes, a good meal and a day free of chores, they will be playing their favourite games in dusty, or snow-covered fields.

I have celebrated Nowruz many times in Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan Bangladesh and India. With my wife being Moslem, we are celebrating Nowruz in our home today.

The feritility pole with thousands of prayer flags tied to it, is raised at the Nowruz celebrations at the Blue Mosque in Mazar I Sharif. March 21 1994. Photo: Bob McKerrow

It is probably celebrated with the most vigor in Mazar I Sharif in Afghanistan, where a huge fertility pole is raised with ribbons tied to it. Each ribbon represents someones prayers. Celebrated on 21 or 22 March, depending on the country, I never forget the dates as it falls on my birthday.

Nowruz is celebrated from Iran to Indonesia. In Bukhara, Uzbekistan, it is celebrated with great fervour. The Kalyan Minaret, Bukhara.Photo: Bob McKerrow

In Northern Afghanistan the feritliy pole is a pre-Islamic celebration seen as a phallic symbol. Around 21 March, the winter snows starts to melt and the celebrations and prayers are in the hope that the spring will bring plenty of water to nourish the crops and bring fertility to land and people.

The Holy Blue Mosque in Mazar I Sharif where the fertility pole is raised on Nowruz. Photo: Bob McKerrow

I celebrated Nowruz in Mazar I Sharif in 1994, 1995 and again in 2003. and on three other ocassion in Kabul. What a festival of food, horsemanship, flowers, poetry reading, pageantry, colour and fun.

An Uzbek drummer celebrates the fertility pole being raised in Mazar I Sharif at Nowruz. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The most important Zoroastrian festivals are the six Gahambars and Nowruz which occurs at the spring equinox. According to the late Professor. Mary Boyce[4]: It seems a reasonable surmise that Nowruz, the holiest of them all, with deep doctrinal significance, was founded by Zoroaster himself. Between sunset of the day of the 6th Gahanbar and sunrise of Nowruz was celebrated Hamaspathmaedaya (later known, in its extended form, as Frawardinegan). This and the Gahanbar are the only festivals named in the surviving text of the Avesta.

For many, Nowruz is a time for reflection. A Tajik man at the grave of poet Jami, near Herat, Afghanistan, Photo: Bob McKerrow

The Shahnameh, dates Nowruz as far back to the of Jamshid, who in Zoroastrian texts saved mankind from a killer winter that was destined to kill every living creature[5].

The mythical Persian King Jamshid (Yima or Yama of the Indo-Iranian lore) perhaps symbolizes the transition of the Indo-Iranians from animal hunting to animal husbandry and a more settled life in human history. In the Shahnameh and Iranian mythology, he is credited with the foundation of Nowruz. In the Shahnama, Jamshid constructed a throne studded with gems. He had demons raise him above the earth into the heavens; there he sat on his throne like the sun shining in the sky. The world's creatures gathered in wonder about him and scattered jewels aound him, and called this day the New Day or No/Now-Ruz. This was the first day of the month of Farvardin (the first month of the Persian calendar)[6]. The association with Jamshid can be seen that in Persian, the festival is also called Nowruz-i-Jamshidi (The Jamshidi Nowruz).

A soldier at Nowruz celebrations in Mazar I Sharif. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The Iranian scholar Abu Rayhan Biruni of the 10th century A.D., in his Persian work "The Tafhim" provides a description of the calendar of various nations. Besides the Persian calendar, various festivals of Arabs, Jews, Sabians, Greeks and other nations are mentioned in this book. In the section on the Persian calendar(تقویم پارسیان), he mentions Nowruz, Sedeh, Tiregan, Mehregan, the six Gahanbar, Parvardegaan, Bahmanja, Isfandarmazh and several other festivals. According to him: It is the belief of the Persians that Nowruz marks the first day when the universe started its motion.[7].

In his work titled the Nowruznama, Omar Khayyam, a well known Persian poet and Mathematician writes a vivid description of the celebration in the courts of the Kings of Persia:

From the era of Keykhosrow till the days of Yazdegard, last of the pre-Islamic kings of Persia, the royal custom was thus: on the first day of the New Year, Now Ruz, the King's first visitor was the High Priest of the Zoroastrians, who brought with him as gifts a golden goblet full of wine, a ring, some gold coins, a fistful of green sprigs of wheat, a sword, and a bow. In the language of Persia he would then glorify God and praise the monarch..

Buskashi, a game of daring, courage and supreme horsemanship. Mazar I Sharif 21 March, 1995. This game was a Nowruz celebration. Photo: Bob McKerrow

This was the address of the High Priest to the king : "O Majesty, on this feast of the Equinox, first day of the first month of the year, seeing that thou hast freely chosen God and the Faith of the Ancient ones; may Surush, the Angel-messenger, grant thee wisdom and insight and sagacity in thy affairs. Live long in praise, be happy and fortunate upon thy golden throne, drink immortality from the Cup of Jamshid; and keep in solemn trust the customs of our ancestors, their noble aspirations, fair gestes and the exercise of justice and righteousness. May thy soul flourish; may thy youth be as the new-grown grain; may thy horse be puissant, victorious; thy sword bright and deadly against foes; thy hawk swift against its prey; thy every act straight as the arrow's shaft. Go forth from thy rich throne, conquer new lands. Honor the craftsman and the sage in equal degree; disdain the acquisition of wealth. May thy house prosper and thy life be long!"

The term Nowruz first appeared in Persian records in the second century AD, but it was also an important day during the time of the Achaemenids (c. 648-330 BC), where kings from different nations under the Persian empire used to bring gifts to the emperor (Shahanshah) of Persia on Nowruz.[8]

Nowruz was the holiday of Arsacid/Parthian dynastic Empires who ruled Iran (248 BC-224 AD). There are specific references to the celebration of Nowruz during the reign of Vologases I (51-78 AD), but these include no details. However, We have reasons to believe that the celebration is much older than that date and was surely celebrated by the people and royalty during the Achaemenid times (555-330 BC). It was, therefore, a highly auspicious occasion for the ancient peoples. It has been suggested that the famous Persepolis complex, or at least the palace of Apadana and the Hundred Columns Hall, were built for the specific purpose of celebrating Nowruz. However, no mention of Nowruz exists in Achaemenid inscriptions (see picture) [9]. It also happened to coincide with the Babylonian and Jewish new years .

Extensive records on the celebration of Nowruz appear following the accession of Ardashir I of Persia, the founder of the Sassanid dynasty (224-651 AD). Under the Sassanid emperors, Nowruz was celebrated as the most important day of the year. Most royal traditions of Nowruz such as royal audiences with the public, cash gifts, and the pardoning of prisoners, were established during the Sassanian era and persisted unchanged until modern times.

Nowruz, along with Sadeh (celebrated in mid-winter), survived in society following the introduction of Islam in 650 AD. Other celebrations such Gahanbar and Mehragan were eventually side-lined or were only followed by the Zoroastrians, who carried them as far as Turkey. Nowruz, however, was most honored even by the early founders of Islam. There are records of the Four Great Caliphs presiding over Nowruz celebrations, and it was adopted as the main royal holiday during the Abbasid period.

Following the demise of the Caliphate and the subsequent re-emergence of Persian dynasties such as the Samanids and Buyids, Nowruz was elevated to an even more important event. The Buyids revived the ancient traditions of Sassanian times and restored many smaller celebrations that had been eliminated by the Caliphate. Even the Turkish and Mongol invaders did not attempt to abolish Nowruz in favor of any other celebration. Thus, Nowruz remained as the main celebration in the Persian lands by both the officials and the people.

Local variations
Today, the festival of Nowruz is celebrated in many countries that were territories of, or influenced by, the Persian Empire: Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, parts of the Middle East, as well as in the former Soviet republics of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan,Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. It is also celebrated by the Zoroastrian Parsis in India and Pakistan as well by certain Iranic inhabitants in Pakistan's Chitral region. It is also celebrated by the Iranian immigrants from Shiraz in Zanzibar.[10] In Turkey, it is called Nevruz in Turkish, Sultan Nevruz in Albanian. In some remote communities located in parts of western Iran, the holiday is referred to as Nuroj, which literally means New Day in the Kurdish language.

In Iran, the greeting that accompanies the festival is Eydetoon Mobārak (mubarak: felicitations) in Persian. In Turkey, the greeting is either Bayramınız Mubarek/kutlu olsun (in Turkish (the same greeting applies for other festivals as well)).

Nowruz in modern Iran
In Iran, preparations for Nowruz begin in Esfand (or Espand), the last month of winter in the Persian solar calendar. Below is information about Nowruz as celebrated in Iran.

Khane Tekani
Persians, Afghans and other groups start preparing for the Nowruz with a major spring-cleaning of their houses, the purchase of new clothes to wear for the new year and the purchase of flowers (in particular the hyacinth and the tulip are popular and conspicuous).

In association with the "rebirth of nature", extensive spring-cleaning is a national tradition observed by almost every household in Persia. This is also extended to personal attire, and it is customary to buy at least one set of new clothes. On the New Year's day, families dress in their new clothes and start the twelve-day celebrations by visiting the elders of their family, then the rest of their family and finally their friends. On the thirteenth day families leave their homes and picnic outdoors.

During the Nowruz holidays people are expected to visit one another (mostly limited to families, friends and neighbours) in the form of short house visits, which are usually reciprocated. Typically, on the first day of Nowruz, family members gather around the table, with the Haft Seen on the table or set next to it, and await the exact moment of the arrival of the spring. At that time gifts are exchanged. Later in the day, the first house visits are paid to the most senior family members. Typically, the youth will visit the elders first, and the elders return their visit later. The visits naturally have to be relatively short, otherwise one will not be able to visit everybody on their list. A typical visit is around 30 minutes, where you often run into other visiting relatives and friends who happen to be paying a visit to the same house at that time. Because of the house visits, you make sure you have a sufficient supply of pastry, cookies, fresh and dried fruits and special nuts on hand, as you typically serve your visitors with these items with tea or sherbet. Many Iranians will throw large Nowruz parties in a central location as a way of dealing with the long distances between groups of friends and family.

Some Nowruz celebrants believe that whatever a person does on Nowruz will affect the rest of the year. So, if a person is warm and kind to their relatives, friends and neighbours on Nowruz, then the new year will be a good one. On the other hand, if there are fights and disagreements, the year will be a bad one.

One tradition that may not be very widespread (that is, it may belong to only a few families) is to place something sweet, such as honey or candy, in a safe place outside overnight. On the first morning of the new year, the first person up brings the sweet stuff into the house as another means of attaining a good new year.

Chaharshanbe Suri

The night before the last Wednesday of the year is celebrated by the Iranian people as Chahârshanbe Sûrî Persian: چهارشنبه سوری, (Azerbaijani: Od çərşənbəsi meaning wednesday of fire, Kurdish: Çarşeme surê, چوارشه‌مه‌ سوورێ meaning red wednesday), the Iranian festival of fire. This festival is the celebration of the light (the good) winning over the darkness (the bad); the symbolism behind the rituals are all rooted back to Zoroastrianism.

The tradition includes people going into the streets and alleys to make bonfires, and jump over them while singing the traditional song Zardî-ye man az to, sorkhî-ye to az man; This literally translates to "My yellowness from you, your redness from me," with the figurative message "My paleness (pain, sickness) for you (the fire), your strength (health) for me."

Serving different kinds of pastry and nuts known as Ajīl-e Moshkel-Goshā (lit. The problem-solving nuts) is the Chahārshanbe Sūrī way of giving thanks for the previous year's health and happiness, while exchanging any remaining paleness and evil for the warmth and vibrancy of the fire.

According to tradition, the living are visited by the spirit of their ancestors on the last days of the year, and many children wrap themselves in shrouds, symbolically re-enacting the visits. They also run through the streets banging on pots and pans with spoons and knocking on doors to ask for treats. The ritual is called qashogh-zany (spoon beating) and symbolizes the beating out of the last unlucky Wednesday of the year.

There are several other traditions on this night, including: the rituals of Kūze Shekastan, the breaking of earthen jars which symbolically hold ones bad fortune; the ritual of Fal-Gûsh, or inferring one's future from the conversations of those passing by; and the ritual of Gereh-goshā’ī, making a knot in the corner of a handkerchief or garment and asking the first passerby to unravel it in order to remove ones misfortune.

Haft sin table

Haft Sīn (هفت سین) or the seven 'S's is a major tradition of Nowruz. The haft sin table includes seven specific items starting with the letter 'S' or Sīn (س) in Persian alphabet). The items symbolically correspond to seven creations and holy immortals protecting them. The Haft Sin has evolved over time, but has kept its symbolism. Traditionally, families attempt to set as beautiful a Haft Sīn table as they can, as it is not only of traditional and spiritual value, but also noticed by visitors during Nowruzi visitations and is a reflection of their good taste.

The Haft Sīn items are:

sabzeh - wheat, barley or lentil sprouts growing in a dish - symbolizing rebirth

samanu - a sweet pudding made from wheat germ - symbolizing affluence

senjed - the dried fruit of the oleaster tree - symbolizing love

sīr - garlic - symbolizing medicine

sīb - apples - symbolizing beauty and health

somaq - sumac berries - symbolizing (the color of) sunrise

serkeh - vinegar - symbolizing age and patience

Other items on the table may include:

Sonbol - Hyacinth (flower)

Sekkeh - Coins - representative of wealth

traditional Iranian pastries such as baghlava, toot, naan-nokhodchi

Aajeel - dried nuts, berries and raisins

lit candles (enlightenment and happiness)

a mirror (symbolizing cleanness and honesty)

decorated eggs, sometimes one for each member of the family (fertility)

a bowl of water with goldfish (life within life, and the sign of Pisces which the sun is leaving)

rosewater, believed to have magical cleansing powers

the national colours, for a patriotic touch

a holy book (e.g., the Qur'an, Avesta, Bible, Torah, or Kitáb-i-Aqdas) and/or a poetry book (almost always either the Shahnama or the Divan of Hafez)

New Year dishes
Sabzi Polo Mahi: The New Year's day traditional meal is called Sabzi Polo Mahi, which is rice with green herbs served with fish. The traditional seasoning for Sabzi Polo are parsley, coriander, chives, dill and fenugreek.

Reshteh Polo: rice cooked with noodles which is said to symbolically help one succeed in life.

Dolme Barg : A traditional dish of Azeri people, cooked just before the new year. It includes some vegetables, meat and cotyledon which have been cooked and embedded in vine leaf and cooked again. It is considered useful in reaching to wishes.

Kookoo sabzi : Herbs and vegetable souffle, traditionally served for dinner at New Year. A light and fluffy omelet style made from parsley, dill, coriander, spinach, spring onion ends, and chives, mixed with eggs and walnut.

Sizdah Bedar
The thirteenth day of the new year festival is Sizdah Bedar (literally meaning "thirteen to out", figuratively meaning "hit the outdoors on the thirteenth"). This is a day of festivity in the open, often accompanied by music and dancing, usually at family picnics.

Sizdah bedar celebrations stem from the ancient Persians' belief that the twelve constellations in the Zodiac controlled the months of the year, and each ruled the earth for a thousand years at the end of which the sky and earth collapsed in chaos. Hence Nowruz lasts twelve days and the thirteenth day represents the time of chaos when families put order aside and avoid the bad luck associated with the number thirteen by going outdoors and having picnics and parties.

At the end of the celebrations on this day, the sabzeh grown for the Haft Seen (which has symbolically collected all sickness and bad luck) is thrown into running water to exorcise the demons (divs) from the household. It is also customary for young single women to tie the leaves of the sabzeh before discarding it, so expressing a wish to be married before the next year's Sizdah Bedar. Another tradition associated with this day is Dorugh-e Sizdah, literally meaning "the lie of the thirteenth", which is the process of lying to someone and making them believe it (similar to April Fools Day).

Newroz celebration by Kurds

The word 'Newroz' is Kurdish for 'Nowruz'. The Kurds celebrate this feast between 18th till 21st March. It is one of the few ‘peoples celebrations’ that has survived and predates all the major religious festivals. The holiday is considered by Kurds to be the single most important holiday of every year.

With this festival Kurds gather into the fairgrounds mostly outside the cities to welcome spring. Women wear gaily colored dresses and spangled head scarves and young men wave flags of green, yellow and red, the colors of the Kurdish people. They hold this festival by lighting fire and dancing around it . [11].

The main Kurdish greeting that accompanies the festival is, Newroz pîroz be! literally translating to Holy Newroz, or, simply, Happy Newroz!. Another greeting used is, Bijî Newroz!, simply meaning Long live Newroz!

The festival was illegal until 1995 in Turkey, where the majority of Kurds live [12], and Turkish forces arrested Kurds celebrating Newroz [13]. In Newroz 1992 at least 70 people celebrating the festival were killed in clashes with Turkish security forces [14]. The holiday is now official in Turkey after international pressure on the Turkish government to lift culture bans. Turkish government renamed the holiday Nevruz in 1995, and reclaimed it as a Turkish holiday[15].

Newroz is still largely considered as a potent symbol of Kurdish identity in Turkey. Newroz celebrations are usually organised by Kurdish cultural associations and pro-Kurdish political parties. Thus, the Democratic Society Party was a leading force in the organisation of the 2006 Newroz events throughout Turkey. In recent years the Newroz celebration gathers around 1 million participants in Diyarbakır, the biggest city of the Kurdish dominated Southeastern Turkey. As the Kurdish Newroz celebrations in Turkey often are theater for political messages, the events are frequently criticized for rather being political rallies than cultural celebrations.

In other largely populated Kurdish regions in the Middle East including Iraq and Syria, similar celebrations are carried out with fires, dancing and music. In Iran, it is the most important festival of the whole year.

Nowruz in Afghanistan
In Afghanistan, Nowroz festival is traditionally celebrated for 2 weeks. Preparations for Nowroz start several days beforehand, at least after Chaharshanbe Suri, the last Wednesday before the New Year. Among various traditions and customs, the most important ones are:

Haft Mēwa: In Afghanistan, they prepare Haft Mēwa (Seven Fruits) instead of Haft Sin which is common in Iran. Haft Mewa is like a Fruit salad made from 7 different Dried fruits, served in their own syrup. The 7 dried fruits are: Raisin, Senjed (the dried fruit of the oleaster tree), Pistachio, Hazelnut, Prune (dry fruit of Apricot), Walnut and whether Almond or another species of Plum fruit.

Samanak: It is a special type of sweet dish made from Wheat germ. Women take a special party for it during the night, and cook it from late in the evening till the daylight, singing a special song: Samanak dar Josh o mā Kafcha zanem - Degarān dar Khwāb o mā Dafcha zanem

Mēla-e Gul-e Surkh (Persian: ميله‌ى گل سرخ): The Guli Surkh festival which literally means Red Flower Festival (referring to the red Tulip flowers) is an old festival celebrated only in Mazari Sharif during the first 40 days of the year when the Tulip flowers grow. People travel from different parts of the country to Mazar in order to attend the festival.

The Holy Blue Mosque in Mazar I Sharif. Photo: Bob McKerrow

It is celebrated along with the Jahenda Bālā ceremony which is a specific religious ceremony performed in the holy blue mosque of Mazar that is believed (mostly by Sunnite Afghans) to be the site of the tomb of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the fourth caliph of Islam. The ceremony is performed by raising a special banner (whose color configuration resembles Derafsh Kaviani) in the blue mosque in the first day of year (i.e. Nowroz). The Guli Surkh party continues with other special activities among people in the Tulip fields and around the blue mosque for 40 days.

Buzkashi: Along with other customs and celebrations, normally a Buzkashi tournament is held. The Buzkashi matches take place in northern cities of Afghanistan and in Kabul.

The annual Nowruz Buskashi tournament is an important event in Mazar I Sharif and Kabul . Photo: Bob McKerrow

Special cuisines: People cook special types of dishes for Nowroz, especially on the eve of Nowroz. Normally they cook Sabzi Chalaw, a dish made from rice and spinach, separately. Moreover, the bakeries prepare a special type of cookie, called Kulcha-e Nowrozī, which is only baked for Nowroz. Another dish which is prepared mostly for the Nowroz days is Māhī wa Jelabī (Fried Fish and Jelabi) and it is the most often meal in picnics. In Afghanistan, it is a common custom among the affianced families that the fiancé's family give presents to or prepare special dishes for the fiancée's family on special occasions such as in the two Eids, Barā'at and in Nowroz. Hence, the special dish for Nowroz is Māhī wa Jelabī.

Sightseeing to Cercis fields: The citizens of Kabul go to Istalif, Charikar or other green places around where the Cercis flowers grow. They go for picnic with their families during the first 2 weeks of New Year.

Jashni Dehqān: Jashni Dehqan means The Festival of Farmers. It is celebrated in the first day of year, in which the farmers walk in the cities as a sign of encouragement for the agricultural productions. In recent years, this activity is being performed only in Kabul and other major cities, in which the mayor and other high governmental personalities participate for watching and observing.

Zoroastrian Faith
Zoroastrians worldwide celebrate Nowruz as the first day of the New Year. Parsi Zoroastrians of South Asian origin celebrate it as "Nowroj", "Navroz", or "Navroj" on the fixed day of March 21, while Zoroastrians of Iranian background generally celebrate, like other Iranians, on the actual Spring Equinox date. Because different Zoroastrian communities in India/Pakistan and Iran have evolved slightly different calendar systems, there is some variance. Adherents of the Fasli variant of the Zoroastrian calendar celebrate Nowruz in March, but today, most other Zoroastrians also celebrate on this day.

Other variants of the Zoroastrian calendar celebrate the Nowruz twice: once as Jamshedi Nowruz on March 21st as the start of spring, and a second Nowruz, in July/August (see Variations of the Zoroastrian calendar), as either new year's eve or new year's day. That the second Nowruz is celebrated after the last day of the year, known as Pateti, which comes after a Muktad period of days remembering the dead. Many Parsis are confused by this, and mistakenly celebrate Pateti as if it were Nowruz, when in fact Nowruz is the day after. Some attribute this confusion by some as celebrating the last day of the year (contrary to what might be expected from a term that means "new day"), may be due to the fact that in ancient Persia the day began at sunset, while in later Persian belief the day began at sunrise.

Zoroastrians of Iranian origin generally put up a Haft Sin table as do other Iranians. Zoroastrians of Parsi (South Asian) origin do not traditionally use a Haft Sin. They set up a standard "sesh" tray- generally a silver tray, with a container of rose water, a container with betel nut, raw rice, raw sugar, flowers, a picture of Zarathustra the prophet, and either a floating wick in a glass filled with water topped with oil for fuel, or an "afargania", a silver urn with a small fire nourished by sandalwood and other fragrant resins.

Bahá'í Faith
Naw-Rúz in the Bahá'í Faith is one of nine holy days for adherents of the Bahá'í Faith worldwide and the first day of the Bahá'í calendar occurring on the vernal equinox, around March 21.[16] The Bahá'í calendar is composed of 19 months, each of 19 days,[17] and each of the months is named after an attribute of God; similarly each of the nineteen days in the month also are named after an attribute of God.[17] The first day and the first month were given the attribute of Bahá, an Arabic word meaning splendour or glory, and thus the first day of the year was the day of Bahá in the month of Bahá.[16][18] Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, explained that Naw-Rúz was associated with the Most Great Name of God,[16][18] and was instituted as a festival for those who observed the Nineteen day fast.[19][20]

The day is also used to symbolize the renewal of time in each religious dispensation.[21] `Abdu'l-Bahá, Bahá'u'lláh's son and successor, explained that significance of Naw-Rúz in terms of spring and the new life it brings.[16] He explained that the equinox is a symbol of the messengers of God and the message that they proclaim is like a spiritual springtime, and that Naw-Rúz is used to commemorate it.[22]

As with all Bahá'í holy days, there are few fixed rules for observing Naw-Rúz, and Bahá'ís all over the world celebrate it as a festive day, according to local custom.[16] Persian Bahá'ís still observe many of the Iranian customs associated with Nowruz such as the Haft Sîn, but American Bahá'í communities, for example, may have a potluck dinner, along with prayers and readings from Bahá'í scripture.

Nowruz around the world
Nowruz is celebrated in Greater Iran, Caucasus, Central Asia and by Iranians worldwide. It is a public holiday in: Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan [23], Tajikistan [24], Uzbekistan [25], Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kashmir [26], and Kyrgyzstan [27].

In Albania Sultan Nevruz is celebrated as a manily mystical day by the Bektashi sect, there are special ceremonies in the Tekke led by the clergy and large meals are served there. It is considered the historical Albanian New Year by the Bektashis, who refer to old Illyrian evidence.

Nowruz is also celebrated by Kurds in [28]Iraq and Turkey [29] as well as by Parsis in India and Pakistan.

Other notable celebrations take place by Iranians around the world, such as Los Angeles, Toronto, Cologne and in United Kingdom, mainly in London [30].

But because Los Angeles is prone to devastating fires, there are very strict fire codes in the city. No fires are allowed even on one's own property. Usually, Iranians and Azerbaijanis living in Southern California go to the beaches to celebrate the event where it is permissible to build fires. [31]

In Afghanistan during the reign of the Taliban, Nowruz was banned until 2001 where it came back as popular as it was before the Taliban.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Commuting across the equator to work

As a boy I learned from a teacher that the equator was an imaginary lion running round the earth.
I often wondered if the imaginary lion got tired. It wasn't until I was 12 or so when I held a globe of the world in my hand and I saw the equator, and realised it was a line, not a Lion.

Twice in the past week I have commuted across the equator to work in Medan, North Sumatra, and this week to Aceh.

It's 6.30 a.m. on Wednesday 18 March. I look out the window of my Hotel across the tops of palm trees to spiky mountains. It is so tranquil. It is hard to believe over 200,000 people were killed by the tsunami in Aceh on 24 December 2004.

Having spent over one billion dollars rebuilding the lives of over 1 million people, the Red Cross still has more work to do to ensure that all communities are better off than before the Tsunami.

A woman showing a small crop she has grown through a Red Cross livelihood programme.

My role as Head of delegation of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is to coordinate the huge humanitarian efforts of 28 of our member, national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Through strong coordination we are able to reduce overhead costs and ensure that the majority of funding goes into rebuilding the lives of Tsunami affected people at community level. Today I have a series of meetings to review our progress this year and to examine the plans for the remainder of the year.

Many of the coastal communities rely on fishing for their livelihoods. Here, is a fishing boat provided by the Red Cross.

I usually stay in a small, clean and cheap hotel called the Green Paradise but it was booked out. I am staying in an aptly named hotel 'The Oasis.' The influx of thousands of foreigners and over 7 billion US dollars of Aid money has injected a huge amount of money into the local economy, creating a lot of employment and a vibrant economy. The Tsunami brought a cessation to 25 years of conflict in Aceh and the province is quite peaceful now, The capital Banda Aceh is now a modern city with broad streets, new buildings everywhere: a new bus station, port, Mosques, high schools, polytechnic, an international airport with three overseas flights a day, quality restaurants, KFC, traffic jams and traffic lights. What makes Banda Aceh a beautiful destination is its long sandy beaches and lush green hillsides coated in jungle.

A small ferry plies the route from Banda Aceh to the off shore island of Sabang. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Last night I went our for dinner with colleagues to celebrate St. Patrick’s night and I met Roger Palmer a volunteer with the American Red Cross (ARC) Disaster Services group for domestic disaster response.

Roger Palmer getting a haircut in Aceh.

Here is Roger’s story : " My home is in Wisconsin. I'm also a roster member of the ARC IT & Telecom Emergency Response Unit (ERU) for international disaster response. One of our challenges as a member of the ERU is to keep our skills honed. I'm a retired IT professional and I'm blessed to have the time and the health to donate my efforts to a very worthy cause. "

"When the International Disaster Response team in Washington asked if anyone was interested in applying for a three month telecom delegate position to rehabilitate the Early Warning System (EWS) and disaster communication radio system in the Aceh province of Indonesia I took them up on the offer. And here I am - eight weeks down and four to go. It's been a wonderful opportunity to make a lasting contribution to the Indonesia Red Cross (PMI) and to improve the skills that I will need in the field in an emergency. It's also a golden opportunity to see a part of the world that normally I would never get to visit and meet the people. My view of people who practice Islam is forever changed by the many great people I have met and worked with here in Aceh, a 95% Muslim population."

"Even though this is not an emergency (the tsunami struck over 4 years ago) I believe the ARC IT/Telecom ERU has an important role to play in Red Cross national society capacity building to provide the infrastructure and training needed to respond to the next disaster. We would like to hope it won't happen but know it will. "

Roger's blog is an interesting one on his travels and work in Indonesia.
So tonight I will be thinking of that imaginary lion as I commute back across the equator to Jakarta where I will be working with my colleagues on developing the concept of a national Red Cross water and sanitation centre in Bandung. I will also return inspired by getting to know Roger, an American Red Cross volunteer.