By : Prakhya
5 min read
Nowruz is the ancient Zoroastrian New Year consisting of jumping over fire and the symbolic Haft Sin table of mirrors, painted eggs, fishes, sprouting greenery. Over 300 million people around the world celebrate Nowruz even though Zoroastrianism has dwindled to drastically low numbers. After persecution under Islamic colonization, Zoroastrians found refuge in India where most are today. The holiday remains amongst Iranic peoples including Afghans, Persians, Kurds, and many Shi’a in the Indian subcontinent.
I spent time with communities celebrating Nowruz around Boston. I went to a Persian celebration of Nowruz at the MFA where the conversations centered around the idea of Iranians decolonizing and rediscovering their Zoroastrian roots in the midst of a theocratic regime. The largely secular Persian community in Boston is mostly in Watertown and came here after the Islamic revolution in 1979, as well as several more recent migrants with a similar aptitude.
There’s a sizable Kurdish community in Dorchester where they held a women’s film festival at UMass Boston. Kurds spell it as Newroz- rooted in lore that Kurdish brains were sacrificed to snakes under an evil foreign ruler, and their uprising is a symbol of their continued fight to establish an independent Kurdistan. The story was retold to me by women at the film festival.
Kurdistan is occupied by Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, who have aimed to exterminate all traces of Kurdish life. Even the word "Kurd" was outlawed, making any written or spoken acknowledgement of their existence illegal. This includes destroying over 90% of all villages (5000+) in historic Kurdistan, moving in Arab and Turkish settlers, denying citizenship, military occupation that levies surveillance, systemic incarceration, destruction of trees and holy sites, forced assimilation, civilian killings, mass executions- even gassing them to death in the most brutal gas attack since poison gas was outlawed after World War I.
Kurds have a saying “we have no friends other than the mountains” (referring to the mountains that traditionally dot their landscape). It’s ironic to see leftists talking about what’s happened to “Arabs and Muslims in Iraq and Syria”, when it’s the Indigenous groups that have disproportionately been the victims.
Many theorize that the reason for Kurdish discrimination is their committment to secularism and their own Kurdish pre-Islamic spirituality and heritage. Arabs have a saying that “Compared to the non-believer, the Kurd is a Muslim”.
The beauty of Kurdish designs are enriched by high-chroma blues, greens, saffrons as well as terracotta and burnt orange hues made richer still by the lustrous wool used. The traditional carpet uses Kurdish symbols. It is possible to read the dreams, wishes and hopes of the carpet maker from the sequence of symbols used.
Kurdish women are known for being strong. When I talked to older women at the film festival they told me how Arab or Turkish men get scared when you say they’ll be dealing with a Kurdish woman, even soldiers with weapons cower at the sight of a powerful Kurdish woman.
Ethno-religious minorities that live amongst Kurds like Assyrians, Yazidis, Mandaeans are the most discriminated against. Yazidis have faced 73 genocides throughout history. During the last genocide, women and girls were sold into sexual enslavement (kept in ISIS holding cells), boys were mostly killed or had to convert. Most are displaced from their homeland in the mountains of Sinjar. Their ancient religion of Yazidism is rooted in this sacred land- they honor a solar deity and the peacock is one of their central figures. Yazidis don’t celebrate Nowruz and have a plethora of their own festivals and holidays, including their own new year in April, a Yazidi woman I interviewed enthusiastically reiterated.
Yazidis have a special place in my heart. When I started earning, I immediately began setting aside recurring donations to Yazidi aid funds. In the Indian subcontinent where I’m from, forced conversion and sexual violence against Indigenous women is a major feature of the Bangladeshi Hindu genocide and the foundation of Pakistan. What is beautiful about the rehabilitation of freed Yazidi women is that it is led by other Indigenous women in the region, like Copts who face similar threats of violence in Egypt.
Yazidi women, after escaping captivity and experiencing one of the worst mass atrocities, joined rebel groups of Kurdish and Yezidi women. It was not the United States that caused ISIS to surrender the last of their territories. It was these Indigenous women who fought for their land, they removed the ISIS flags and triumphantly screamed cries of freedom.
People often ask me how I stomach all the darkness that comes with learning about Indigenous struggles. I say it’s because I don’t see people as their problems. As I smell the waft of freshly cut flowers on the Haft Sin and see Yazidi women doing a traditional dance amidst war, I know it’s not just that Indigenous people know how to fight, it’s that they have something worth fighting for.
* Originally published in-print in Boston Compass Newspaper April #145 2022
Check out all the art and columns of April's Boston Compass at www.issuu.com/bostoncccompass