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Central Asia

Nowruz with many spellings and pronouncements is celebrated in various forms in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as well as in Afghanistan. Central Asia is a core region of the Asian continent from the Caspian Sea in the west, China in the east, Afghanistan in the south, and Russia in the north. It is also sometimes referred to as Middle Asia and is within the scope of the wider Eurasian continent.

Various definitions of its exact composition exist, and no one definition is universally accepted. Despite this uncertainty in defining borders, it does have some important overall characteristics. For one, Central Asia has historically been closely tied to its nomadic peoples and the Silk Road. As a result, it has acted as a crossroads for the movement of people, goods, and ideas between Europe, West Asia, South Asia, and East Asia.

In modern contexts, all definitions of Central Asia consensually include these five republics of the former Soviet Union: Kazakhstan (pop. 16.0 million), Kyrgyzstan (5.5 million), Tajikistan (7.3 million), Turkmenistan (5.1 million), and Uzbekistan (27.6 million), for a total population of 61.5 million as of 2009. Other areas often included are Mongolia, Afghanistan, northern and western Pakistan, northeastern Iran, Kashmir, and sometimes Xinjiang in western China and southern Siberia in Russia.

During pre-Islamic and early Islamic times, Central Asia was a predominantly Iranian region that included sedentary Sogdians, Chorasmians and semi-nomadic Scythians, Alans. The ancient sedentary population played an important role in the history of Central Asia. After expansion by Turkic peoples, Central Asia also became the homeland for many Turkic peoples, including the Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Uyghurs, and Central Asia is sometimes referred to as Turkestan. The borders of Central Asia are subject to multiple definitions.

Central Asia is an extremely large region of varied geography, including high passes and mountains (Tian Shan), vast deserts (Kara Kum, Kyzyl Kum, Taklamakan), and especially treeless, grassy steppes.

Ninety-three percent of Tajikistan is covered by stones.

High up in the mountainous North, in the Ayny district of Sugd, the ancient Sogdiana, is the mountain Navrouzgah, that is, a mountain designated the Navrous place. Since ancient times, as one of the locals told me, every year the local people knew the exact date of the spring equinox: on the day when the sun at dawn comes up between the two peaks of the mountain Navrouzgah, which has two humps like a camel.

The people of the village of Darg in the Ayny district consider themselves the descendants of Zoroastrians, worshippers of natural forces. Islam couldn’t eradicate the celebration of the rebirth of nature by a majority of mountain Tajiks on the arrival of spring. On March 21, villagers start plowing and sowing a small patch of land, to start the season's work, and the days in which to celebrate, wearing their multicolored new clothes.

By the day of Navrous, the aqsakal, or "white beards", respected village elders, get together to decide the distribution of duties among villagers for a proper celebration of Navrous. Normally several families, about 20 at least, are chosen to cook the sumalaq, a symbolic, festive Navrous meal. The Sumalaq is cooked for about 24 hours. Its ingredients are flour, water and germinated seeds.

The aqsakal also decide the amount of yarma needed for the entire population. Yarma is a hot food of meat, oil, crushed grain and onions; to feed the whole village and its guests, seven or eight kozon (big iron cauldrons holding about 200 liters) have to filled.

The elders also get the women to bring cookies and sweets for a communal dastarkhan ("tablecloth", literally). They work all day kneading and baking breads, kul’cha (small bread loaves with oil and milk), non-i-tandury (bread baked in a tandur oven), chaboty (round thin unleavened bread), then the different sweets with oil and nuts and seeds, like khalvo-i qandin, khalvo-i pashmin, khalvo-i safedaq. Other items are present too, like peshord (roasted pastry with drawn butter), non-i bakhalvo (a pie with halva), hudurky (bread baked on a stone), changoly (hudurky with drawn butter). The dry fruit is also a must, including apricots (guling), mulberry (tout) and raisins (kishmish). Fresh fruit, mostly apples and grapes, is also brought to the common meal.

The men play different games during the Navrous celebrations. These include mainly wrestling (gushting) and collective games like kila zané, a team game where sharpened javelins are thrown, Zou-zou yak, a peculiar race run while making a humming sound, or buzkashi, in which horsemen fight for a goat's carcass. Competition is not limited to men, though; girls will select a big tree to hang a cord on for a swing called "argunchak", and she who can swing higher wins.

As soon as the games end, all villagers are called to gather at a field to attend a symbolic plowing, marking the start of the peasant's work season. The communal meal follows, opening with yarma, the symbolic dish for Navrous.

Even though the Zoroastrian roots of the celebration are older than anything and the villagers are conscious of it, the more recent Muslim tradition has enforced the separation of public space for women and men. Men, allowed by their station in society, sit at the dastarkhan and eat, after the games' winners have been praised and thanks are given to God for allowing the people to survive. Women and children, on the other side, have their portion of Yarma delivered at home. Several families, though, will celebrate eating together at home rather than sending the men to the dastarkhan and music will be heard coming from their house.

The games go on for several days after the communal meal, moving from one neighborhood to the other. Agreements to have a game held in a given neighborhood are, by the same token, an invitation to the Navrous meal for the men of that neighborhood.

Occasionally a wedding will take place during the Navrous celebrations, and that means more fun and more dining for the villagers. This also holds for births. The child born on Navrous day will be called "Navrous" for a boy and "Navrousmo" for a girl. Those born on the eve, or soon after Navrous, will receive names that are different combinations of "Gul": Gulmahmad, Gulbek (boys); Gul'ru, Gulnoza, Gulyafshon (girls.)

In fact, each new day is also quite literally Navrous, "new day" for Tajiks. Every day they hope for a better future; they also hope to be better known and understood by the rest of the world, to share the beauties of their handicrafts, their colorful embroideries, their music and dances, and their easygoing tolerance.

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