It’s the morning after the Afghan New Year, and I’m recovering in my guest house with a cup of Nescafé, the strongest thing I can lay hands on at this hour. At 7:30 a.m. yesterday, my friend and co-worker Noori, who manages the Institute for War and Peace Reporting office here, showed up to escort me to the festivities. We joked that Noori would be my mahram—the male relative required under the Taliban to accompany women in public. The Taliban is gone, but it’s still not pleasant for a woman, especially a foreign woman, to be out alone in Afghanistan. So, with characteristic grace, Noori volunteered to spend the holiday as a tourist in his own city.
During the Afghan New Year, called Now Roz, the Muslim shrine in the center of Mazar-i-Sharif becomes this country’s Times Square. The surrounding streets are closed to cars, so we walked—Noori and I, along with Peter, a co-worker from our Kabul office, and Dudley Brooks, a Washington Post photographer. For days, the city has been swelling with people. Minibuses overflowing with game young men and nauseated-looking kids choke the streets, and every Afghan I know has at least a half-dozen people sleeping on his floor.
At the outer boundary of the shrine we flashed our press cards and the guards waved us on with their guns. But at the inner gates we found a fevered riot under way. In a vain attempt to ensure security, the local authorities had issued invitations only to special guests, and now the uninvited were furious. People shoved and grinned as soldiers whacked them ineffectually with nightsticks and tree branches. Men had climbed every tree in sight and hung from the branches like animals. Every once in a while a branch snapped and a man or two came clattering down. We made our way to the front of the crowd. The beleaguered guards on the other side of the gates agreed that we should be let in, but said it would be impossible without hundreds forcing their way through. We eventually convinced them and managed to squeeze past, but a half-hour later their fears were realized and a cascade of men crashed through the gates into the marble courtyard of the shrine. The gate-crashers and others who jumped the high barbed walls were limping and bleeding. But they didn’t care and neither did we—we were inside. It was only later that we learned at least two people had been killed in the crush.
I like the shrine best on quiet afternoons, when men sit around singing old Sufi songs. Today, the masses had come with their blankets, arguments, food, children, ailments—Now Roz is a time of miraculous cures—and the shrine engulfed them, stilled and cooled them. This is a pagan holiday—it marks the spring solstice—but the shrine lends it a kind of holiness. Its blue-tiled domed buildings, walls, and minarets give it the feeling of a lavish Eastern bathhouse. Hazrat Ali, the fourth caliph of Islam, is thought to be buried here (or in Najaf, Bukhara, or Saudi Arabia, depending who you ask). Men moved through the crowd handing out pictures of Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a local warlord with political ambitions; photos of his rival, Gen. Atta, decorated the walls. The defense minister gave a speech and men in the audience stood with their backs to the podium and held up pocket mirrors, watching reflections of the action. (By standing with their backs to the podium and holding the mirrors up above their heads and angled downward, they could get a good view of the speakers.) I stood with the women and children in hopes of escaping the idlers who gathered to stare. Noori tried to shoo them away, but they retreated only after a woman with wrinkled brown hands, her face and body hidden beneath a blue burqa, began scolding them in a high-pitched voice: “I am not a foreigner! If you come any closer I will beat you!” At the end of the speaking, a silver bulb festooned with colored cloth was hoisted high above the crowd. Cannons roared, a cloud of doves rose into the sky and a little girl next to me jumped up, straining to see.
It would have been perfect if we hadn’t been caught on our way out in a throng of men, all of whom somehow found a way to grab and grope me when Noori was swept ahead with the crowd. I reached the other side relieved to find my wallet and clothes intact. Noori was sick with fury. “I apologize on behalf of my countrymen,” he said sadly. We went to lunch at the home of one of IWPR’s Afghan reporters, Hasina, a medical student-cum-journalist and the closest thing this country has to a radical feminist, who had dyed her hair burgundy for the holiday. After a banquet of stewed fruit and nuts, meatballs, rice with raisins, boiled spinach, and flat bread we drove to the outskirts of the city to watch a buzkashigame.
It felt like the ends of the earth. On an open plain, about 60 men on horseback, dressed in purple and green robes, turbans, and aviator caps, fought over the headless carcass of a calf. The object of the game is to drag a calf’s carcass into a circle chalked on the ground without being “tackled” by other riders. Buzkashi is the most brutal thing I’ve ever seen. Horses rear and land on each other, men fall and are crushed, riders beat their animals’ rumps with short leather whips until there is no hair left. An old man in a Chicago Bulls windbreaker wandered around the field offering the horsemen water from a yellow gas can. Up in a gazebo, commanders handed victorious players fistfuls of dollars and guards passed around green tea and plates of sweet yellow apples, pistachios, and almonds. It was the beginning of spring, but the air was too cold and the sky too white for that.
Tomorrow I’ll be back in the office, editing and coaching trainee reporters. But yesterday it felt good to be out looking around.