NOTE: Nawruz (New Day) is the ancient Persian New Year, celebrated on the Spring Equinox, March 21, in Iran and Afghanistan, as well as in numerous other countries and among numerous other peoples. It is rooted in pre-Islamic, Zoroastrian tradition. Nowruz Mubarak! Happy Nowruz!

by Wahid Omar

In Afghanistan, it is generally believed that Nazr-e Samanak, or Festival of Samanak, is a religious tradition among women, a pretext for socializing with other people, especially with other women. It centers on relatives and friends working together to prepare a delicacy, samanak, which cooks from night to dawn. It is an opportunity to sing, converse, work, share stories, comfort, and socialize. Some believe it is a ritual that comes down from Zoroastrian ancestors. In this festivity, Muslim and ancient pagan traditions exist in perfect harmony and illustrate how women plan and make decisions together.

--Ilyas Barikzai

painting by Ilyas Barikzai, Kabul Afghanistan

The performance of samanak takes place during spring when the last days of winter give way to the first green of spring. This offering is still celebrated throughout Afghanistan, just a few days before Nawruz among Afghans in cities and rural areas. The performance requires planning, so women divide the tasks a few days ahead of time. A woman especially assigned by the community pours one or two kilos of clean, unground wheat into a large receptacle, places it on a roof under the sun, and covers it with a veil to prevent insects and dirt from entering the bowl and to shelter it from evil eyes. The bowl remains on the roof for a week, absorbing spring rain and sun, which starts the germination process. When the wheat has grown to about four inches, a group of women cut the tender green sprouts. If they fall in pairs, it is considered good luck, but if they fall in odd numbers, it is a bad omen, portending wars, economical difficulties, drought, difficult harvest, many deaths, and other misfortunes. In that case, free bread is distributed to the poor so that the bad omen is counteracted.

The women fix the day of the celebration and everyone prepares their best clothing for the occasion. Someone is assigned to invite relatives, friends, and neighbors. Only close male relatives are invited. Another woman is assigned to calculate the festival costs — for bread, tea, biscuits, and sweets — and to collect the money. A meal is prepared during the day and cooked during the night by the women in the open air of the courtyard. The sprouted wheat is pounded by eight- to twelve-year-old girls. It is then poured into pots, until all the juice is extracted. Older women mix the extract with flour in a huge pot and stir the mixture every five minutes on a wood fire.

Samanak-1

These tasks are overseen and led by a kalansal (female elder), the most experienced person within the group. Young women between fifteen and eighteen years old, dressed in colorful attire, do not work. They sing and garner the attention of future mothers-in-law. Carpets are laid around the fire. Close male relatives and sometimes musicians are invited to join. Meanwhile, the wheat-and-flour mixture has turned brown and become sweet. The samanak cooks until the first signs of sunrise. The woman and the guests are entertained the night long by a special song, whose rhythm is accompanied by the movement of a chamcha (large wooden spoon):


(Lyrics below)

It takes a whole night to perform samanak. Every woman in the household participates in the process: the women sing, talk, perform, and tell stories. They share their problems, discuss issues, and make decisions.

I was present at a samanak gathering where women discussed topics ranging from health, children’s education, coping with price increases, wedding plans, and attending a funeral. Throughout these discussions, ideas were exchanged that would influence families and how they behave, plan, and make choices in their lives, arrange marriages, preserve tradition, and maintain social cohesiveness.

At dawn, the meal is ready. After the morning prayer, members of the household and their guests are invited to taste the succulent, dessert-like meal. But before it is served, the women lead prayers around the pot, with verses of the Qur’an quietly murmured and wishes made for peace, prosperity, and good health in the new year. The final ameen is shouted by the entire group, reaffirming social cohesion. This crucial moment of prayer makes the event sacred and untouchable by conservative Muslim religious standards (despite the samanak’s pagan origins) and the whole occasion imparts a unified sense of self and community, the key to evaluating a culture. The ritual culminates after prayers with tasting the long-awaited meal and lavish praise for those who cooked and planned the festival.

Thus, cultural events are planned, budgeted, strategized, and performed in an unofficial council by Afghan women, who use them to discuss issues affecting the whole community. In performing these rituals, women not only are keepers of the religious and cultural events, but also they are real decision makers.

Samanak Song Lyrics:

Samanak is boiling and we are dancing
Others are asleep and we are shining

Samanak is a gift of spring
This is the nightly feast of the living

Happiness occurs only once a year
Next year who knows what will happen

Samanak is boiling and we are dancing
Others are asleep and we are shining

The wish for tonight is happiness
Samanak will boil by itself
Happy hearts are wearing a cloak
Next year who knows what will happen

Samanak is boiling and we are dancing
Others are asleep and we are shining

It is sweet without sugar
It is colorful without color

It tastes as good as firni
Next year who knows what will happen

Samanak is boiling and we are dancing
Others are asleep and we are shining

Happiness comes from its boiling
It is worth looking at its boiling
Its consistency is like a gum
Next year who knows what will happen

Samanak is boiling and we are dancing
Others are asleep and we are shining


Excerpted from “Don’t Say What, Who, and When, Say How,” in Land of the Unconquerable: The Lives of Contemporary Afghan Women, co-edited by Jennifer Heath and Ashraf Zahedi (University of California Press, 2011)

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