Monday, March 21, 2005


Iraqi New Years

We have three of them! All three are public holidays.

The "Christian" New Year

First, there's the 'regular' New Year, like in many other countries... though this is mainly a city affair. It goes almost unnoticed in small towns and the countryside, were it not a public holiday. Even then, it only means that people who have business at government departments cannot go there on that day.

In Baghdad and some of the larger cities, the story is different. On New Year's Eve, most restaurants social clubs are solidly booked. Parties are thrown with song and dance. People spend the evening out with family and friends. Many others who do not go out, make an occasion of it by spending the evening with friends.

For a few decades, it has become a tradition for the young to gather in one particular street in Baghdad, Arasat, and spend the evening and the early hours of the New Year generally making an assortment of loud noises to 'express themselves'.

But somehow, the masses of the poor working classes have never been quite a part of the festivities... apart from enjoying the various festivities shown on television and the public holiday.

The Islamic New Year

Second, there is the 'Islamic' New Year. Because the lunar year is about 10 days shorter than the solar year, this date is different every year. This is a more somber occasion, more like a religious ceremony than a joyous event. People go to mosques, listen to or read the Koran, etc.

Indeed Muharram itself, the first month of the Lunar Islamic calendar, was a holy month even before Islam, where fighting and wars were traditionally prohibited.

In Iraq, for large segments of the population, it is a sad occasion marking the first of the ten holy days of Muaharram. Imam Hussein, Prophet Mohammed's grandson had come to Iraq from what is now Saudi Arabia in the hope of enlisting supporters for his cause. On the tenth day he was killed. Religious rituals are observed to a greater degree. In Husseineyyahs, the evenings are spent reciting Imam Hussein's tragic story, hardship and ordeal in quite moving, sad and musical tones with frequent exaggerations thrown in. Those first 10 days of the New Year are regarded as days of grief and remembrance.

This reminds me of an old joke, which is in fact a true story. Drinking alcohol is forbidden in Islam. Even non-religious people are expected to abide during those holy days. On the third of those holy 10 days, an old woman living with her aging brother walks into the living room to find him having a drink with a friend. Being a religious person, she looked aghast. But before she could say anything, her brother cried out: “Hold your horses sister! It's only the third day. The Imam hasn't even crossed the border into Iraq yet!"

The Ancient Iraqi New Year

This one takes place on March 21st and is generally referred to as the Kurdish New Year, called Nawruz. It is an occasion of great joyous festivities in the north of Iraq. It is also celebrated in Iran and Armenia. For the rest of Iraqis, it is called "The Year's Turnaround". There was a time when most people celebrated that day, but over the past three or four decades popular interest has dwindled.

It is also of course "Mother's Day" and the official "Tree's Day".

The celebration is truly old! The ancient Iraqis first used the Lunar Year. The Sumerians had to introduce an intricate system to match the shorter lunar year with the seasons. The Babylonians, with the advances they made in Astronomy, switched to the Solar Year. In fact, there is considerable evidence that the idea of the month is essentially based on Iraq's weather (Perhaps more on this in a future post). There have been many stages in the development of the calendar.

In any case, at one stage in their development, the Babylonians had twelve months for the year. Each month had 30 days (much like their contemporary ancient Egyptians). But they knew that the year was slightly more than 365 days long. The result was that they had 5 extra days. They solved this problem by making those days into a long religious holiday celebrating the end of the year. The New Year begins on March 21st.

This five-day transition is still practiced by the Sabaeans of Iraq to this day. They call it “Panja”.

In ancient Babylon, the New Year’s festival, Akitu, was celebrated at the time of Vernal Equinox (the beginning of Spring). Akitu was a ritual enactment of a battle between the new god Marduk and the old goddess Tiamat. The myth was the story of creation, and the ritual enactment of this battle between the gods was for the purposes of bringing heaven and earth, macrocosm and microcosm, back into proper relationship and synchronization. Putting it more simply, it was a yearly ritual performed for the purposes of starting over fresh with a brand new clean slate.

The traditional celebration of the "year's turnaround" that I remember was quite straightforward: A tray is filled with a number of items:

• Several lighted candles - sometimes seven but usually one for each member of the household
• A few branches of Yas (Myrtle - an evergreen shrub with scented leaves which, for some reason, is used in almost all old Iraqi ceremonies)
• Several small traditional earthenware water jugs (called tungas) filled with water… one for each member of the family; miniatures for the younger ones and regular ones for the older members. Those for males differ in shape from those for females!
• Seven items (preferably seeds) with names starting with "s" such as (simsim - sesame)
• A few coins
• Some colored eggs (very much like Easter eggs) are sometimes added

Children have a lot of fun collecting and arranging those various things. The tray is left untouched overnight.

That is it! No ceremony. No mumble jumble stuff. I barely remember hearing things like “this year, it is turning on an ox’s head” for example! I never knew what all those items signified! I hope to look into it one day.

Again, this is basically a city affair. I have not heard of a similar ceremony in the countryside or the desert. The closest thing there is the slaughtering of one of the earliest and best new lambs... and having a feast with family and neighbors!

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