Nowruz, The Kurdish New Year Festival
The only place where true Kurds celebrate Nowruz, the New Year festival, is in the town of Akre, in the mountains seventy miles north of Erbil. Though the most spectacular part of the ceremony will not take place until dusk, we’ve been advised to make our way there early, as the town and its roads will be packed and parking places non-existent.
In the flatlands, before one of the checkpoints, is a huddle of huts with blue plastic roof coverings. I ask our driver what this is. Military? It turns out to be Darashakran, a camp for Syrian refugees, some of the three million in Iraq displaced by war and conflict. There are almost a thousand people in this camp alone, with no heat and little food. How long will they be here, in the middle of nowhere? My driver shrugs and shakes his head.
The range of fractured, boulder-strewn mountains which tower over Akre spring quite suddenly from the plains below. Once you are amongst them you sense how important they are to the town and what a spectacular natural theatre they provide for the Nowruz celebrations. Already a column of people is winding its way up to one of the summits, from which they have unfurled a sixty-foot long Kurdish flag which spills down over the rocks.
On a lower hill opposite, the media are gathering. This is the biggest public event of the Kurdish year and mike-clutching reporters are already at work setting the scene. Sharing the same hilltop are the creators of what I’ve been told will be the biggest firework display in the history of Nowruz.
As the day progresses, fever mounts. More and more cars arrive. When the town streets are full, newcomers park precariously up the various mountain roads. In the main square increasingly harassed police, in tight navy-blue uniforms, are trying to keep the way clear for arriving VIPs. Children are haggling with dodgy-looking men selling firecrackers. Women are parading in full, sparkling brocaded dresses, coatless despite the cold. An old lady carrying her shopping up the hill pauses to watch an army SWAT security team being briefed.
The main celebrations are due to take place at dusk and climax with a firework display and procession with flaming torches up to the top of the mountain, but there are plenty of people jumping the gun. Firecrackers are going off all over the place; thunderous explosions shake the streets, and more and more people are clambering up the paths to join the crowds jostling for a place at the top of the mountain. Another huge flag has been unfurled and beside it the word ‘PESHMERGA’ is picked out in huge letters. Meaning ‘those who face death’, it was originally coined by those fighting for an independent Kurdistan. Now they’re the official Kurdish military forces.
It’s impossible not to be carried along by the fervour, and as the afternoon draws on we start to squeeze our way through the crowds in the square and up to a good vantage point on the mountainside. On the way we pass people watching from balconies that the locals have generously opened up for the day. We end up amongst an expectant crowd squashed into an area of hillside very close to the area where the torches will be lit and handed out. These torches, long poles each with a bundle of petrol-sodden rags tied at the top, stand against a rock. As the time for the procession nears there are increasingly loud and acrimonious arguments about who is eligible to carry them. Would-be bearers have to have applied for the role and been given a ticket, but this bureaucratic process falls by the wayside as the hysteria mounts. Jaimie, camera on shoulder like Long John Silver’s parrot, stands heroically in the midst of all this, waiting for what looks increasingly like impending mayhem.
And mayhem it proves to be. As the sun sinks the signal is given, torches are seized with furious enthusiasm and carried en masse to a fire to be lit. This takes place in a confined space on a slippery mountainside with noise all around. Deafening shouts, explosions, even the sound of tracer fire from somewhere (apparently a number of people were determined to shoot down the TV companies’ drones – including ours).
As people stumble past I’m aware of a torch brushing close enough to singe my hair, as well as a man in Kurdish dress perilously balanced on a rock, holding two blazing torches and waving a flag. A cry of alarm goes up as a boulder dislodged by those higher up the mountain comes tumbling down, just missing a group of us. Music blares out, searchlights stab the sky, and everyone gets in everyone else’s way. But somehow the procession materialises, and its zigzag progress as it snakes its way up to the summit is wonderful to watch.
Then the fireworks begin and sound and colour echo and flash all around. One can only hang on for dear life and watch with breathless admiration at what is being wrought here, as the mountains of Akre become a cauldron of noise and light and joyous celebration.
At the end of it all, as we walk back into town to pack up our gear, past firemen extinguishing firecracker-ignited piles of rubbish, I ponder that nothing like this could pass even the most elementary Health and Safety restrictions back home. But then what makes it a whole lot safer than any similar event in the UK is that no one here is drinking alcohol.