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IRAQ: Celebrating Nowruz, the Persian New Year, in the Kurdish hills

March 21, 2008 |  9:37 am

Celebrating Nowruz the Persian New Year in the Kurdish hills

Armed with picnic baskets and dressed in their brightest holiday finery, Iraqi Kurds headed into the hills Friday to celebrate a cherished holiday that coincides with the first day of spring.

There was barely an inch to spare around Lake Dukan, north of the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniya, where families gathered by the thousands to grill meat, sing folk songs and dance a traditional line dance called the dabka.

"This year is different," said Osman Ahmed, who was walking around the lake with his new wife. "Iraq in general has become more secure recently and this adds to our joy."

The holiday known as Nowruz, the Persian New Year, is celebrated by Iraqi Kurds as well as Iranians, Tajiks and Afghans. Under Saddam Hussein, whose Sunni Arab-dominated regime killed thousands of minority Kurds in chemical attacks, celebrating Nowruz was an act of defiance. But after Hussein was toppled in 2003, Iraq’s new Shiite Muslim leaders and their Kurdish allies declared the day a public holiday.

"The situation is getting better by the year, ever since his removal," said Ahmed’s wife, Tarza Khalid. "Living standards are going up and thus more people are encouraged" to celebrate.

On the eve of the holiday Thursday, the Kurdish hills were alight with bonfires and the glow of hundreds of candles. On Friday, families headed out of the cities in parades of honking cars, waving colorful flags through the windows. The secular and the devout picnicked side-by-side, some openly drinking alcohol while others knelt in prayer.

Despite Hussein’s former prohibition, Arab Iraqis also enjoy celebrating the holiday. Among those picnicking by the lake Friday, was Hadi Azzawi, a Sunni Arab blacksmith, who fled north three years ago to escape the sectarian killing that was beginning to take over Baghdad. He now works in a shop in Sulaymaniya owned by a former customer, who used to drive to Baghdad to place his orders with Azzawi.

"We feel like we are part of this place. There isn’t any harassment or anything," he said, sitting in a group of five Arab families. "I do intend to return to Baghdad eventually, but only if I am sure that it is 100% safe."

Encouraged by the ebb in violence, Iraqis in the capital were also out in numbers celebrating the holiday. Thousands lined up for a quick pat-down at the entrance to Zawra Park. Inside, families spread their picnic blankets on the scruffy lawn and danced to the sound of beating drums.

A group of teenaged boys stood nonchalantly on a bridge, trying to catch the eye of pretty girls as they walked by and sneak them their phone numbers.

"This is the first time I have seen a walking moon," Wisan Qahtan called out as two girls crossed the bridge.

The girls kept walking. Qahtan, 17, shrugged and grinned.

"The girls are cleverer than us," he said.

— Asso Ahmed at Lake Dukan and Usama Redha in Baghdad.

Photo: A family celebrates Nowruz with a picnic at Zawra park in Baghdad on March 21. Credit: Usama Redha/Los Angeles Times.