Coronavirus cause for lackluster Middle Eastern Newroz celebrations

Across the Middle East the traditional events have been cancelled but nevertheless people are actively remembering better times in the past and hoping for next year’s celebrations free from the virus

People gather to celebrate Newroz, which marks the arrival of spring and the new year, in Istanbul (photo credit: REUTERS)
People gather to celebrate Newroz, which marks the arrival of spring and the new year, in Istanbul
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In normal times, Nowruz is a festive holiday across Kurdish areas and through Iran into Afghanistan where the New Years is celebrated. However the usually joyful picnics, bonfires and family gatherings are somber this year as many people shelter in their houses amid the coronavirus crisis.

In the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, there have been curfews for days. Kurdish leaders have praised their local autonomous government’s response and toured flood-hit areas.

Across the Middle East the traditional events have been cancelled but nevertheless people are actively remembering better times in the past and hoping for next year’s celebrations free from the pandemic. Kurdistan Regional President Nechirvan Barzani said Nowruz is a “symbol of victory and I hope it gives everyone strength in the face of these difficulties.”

In Iran, the festivities were also downplayed. There are two weeks of holidays in Iran, but the country is suffering some of the worst infection rates for the pandemic and there are more than 1,556 dead at the time of this writing. 

However at home Iranians have set their haftsin table, the traditional seven foods that start with “s” in Farsi, including garlic, vinegar and apples. While the foods may represent health and happiness as well as prosperity, this year the tragedies of COVID-19 have laid waste both health and prosperity.

As people stay at home in Iran they use video calls and other methods to speak to relatives. New television shows are also being broadcast. Iranian media stress how difficult this year has been, with floods and other challenges. 

Diplomats from around the world wished people a happy New Year with messages. In Iraq the UN Special Representative Jeanine Hennis Plasschaert discussed the challenges of this usual happy time “This year we will celebrate at home as COVID-19 can only be fought with the full cooperation of each and every individual.”

For many Kurds, Nowruz has special memories of resisting the regimes in the region who have oppressed them. Turkey has suppressed Nowruz celebrations in the past. 

In 1992 Kurds were massacred in Turkey just for celebrating their holiday. In 2008 Syrian regime forces murdered Kurds in Qamishli during celebrations. 

After Turkey invaded the Kurdish area of Afrin in 2018 it banned the celebrations, part of its ongoing illegal occupation of the Kurdish area. Western governments including the US have often stood by the massacres and suppression of the holiday, whether in Turkey, Syria or Iraq. However things have changed today in the region.

The former Iraqi Prime Minister Heider Abadi put out a Nowruz message in 2018. Turkey began to legalize celebration of the holiday in 2000 but continues to often ban celebrations in some areas.  Nevertheless there are still some controversies. The EU ambassador to Iraq Martin Huth was critiqued for making the holiday appear Iraqi as opposed to Kurdish.

Over the years there have been small gatherings in Israel for those interested in the celebrations. This year, like the rest of the Middle East, such gatherings will be at home.