If the Taliban tried to lock culture in a closet, Afghanistan is about to have its coming-out party.
Nawruz, the Afghan New Year which began last night with feasts and all-night parties, is a popular holiday that the fundamentalist Taliban banned because it follows the pre-Islamic Persian calendar not the Koran.
But even as Afghans prepare to celebrate a return to normalcy by reclaiming Nawruz and everything the Taliban deprived them of from planning a massive outdoor concert on Thursday to sending their sons and daughters back to school this Saturday questions about peace and stability loomed large over the festivities.
Early yesterday, Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters attacked allied forces at an airfield near Khost in eastern Afghanistan, wounding one US soldier. Three Afghan fighters allied with US forces were killed in the attack, Afghan officials said. According to Afghan commanders interviewed there earlier this week, the Khost area remains chock-full of Al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives who fled from the Shah-e Kot Valley before and during "Operation Anaconda," which began on Mar. 2 and was declared complete two days ago.
At a press conference at the start of Nawruz, the United Nations' top official in Afghanistan tried not to let ongoing fighting spoil the party, rejecting suggestions that the security situation here is deteriorating.
"The impression we have is that there is a growing sense of security, not a diminishing sense of security," said Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special coordinator on Afghanistan. Mr. Brahimi, who had called the meeting to mark Afghanistan's progress on the eve of the new year, instead came under fire for the panoply of problems that have not been solved in the three months since the interim government was installed with a half-year mandate.
Progress on the formation of a loya jirga, a traditional national council, has been delayed, and many Afghans say that the security situation outside Kabul is still so precarious that it will be difficult to ensure a safe, peaceful forum for delegates from around the country.
Asked about the US-led war on Al Qaeda and Taliban militants, Mr. Brahimi said it was necessary but not helpful in getting Afghanistan on the road to peaceful reconstruction in the new year.
"That campaign is totally separate from what we are trying to do," Brahimi said. "We recognize the legitimacy of why it started and why it's taking place, and we share everyone's anguish and concern over some of the negative effects and collateral damage that has to happen from time to time."
However, fighting in Khost and drizzle in Kabul didn't seem likely to block what feels like a long-hidden sun coming out again: Nawruz means "new day," and comes from neighboring Iran, where it's also frowned upon by Islamic conservatives. In Kabul, more women can be seen showing their faces around town, still wearing the burqa but flipping the fronts of them to expose faces that were hidden from view for five years.
Last night kicked off with an all-night, tickets-only party at the city's decrepit Intercontinental Hotel. On Thursday, the residents of Kabul will be treated to a stadium concert by famed Afghan singer Farhad Daria, whose combination of local and Western pop sounds earned him the ire of the Taliban, which forbade all music and spurred his flight to Germany. Young admirers may send cards to one another, a la Valentine's Day. And over the course of the holiday, families will likely head up to the mountains for picnics that were not just banned under the Taliban, but which have been out of fashion during years of conflict.
That, however, has de-mining experts worried about whether holiday revelers could end up on hillsides with deadly booby traps left over from 23 years of war. "The people of Kabul were not allowed to celebrate Nawruz, and people are just dying to go up to the hills to celebrate," says Abdul Ladif Latin, a de-mining expert with the UN.
"But there were some places that we were not able or not allowed to clear." Kabul Television will be broadcasting information about which parts of the city are safe and which are not.
One of the favorite spots for those in search of the real Nawruz will be Karte Sachi, a Kabul neighborhood that contains the city's most famous Shiite shrine. Since the roots of Nawruz are Persian, it follows that the holiday is most dear to the country's Shiite minority, the Hazara sect.
It is here, outside a Grecian-blue mosque dedicated to Ali, the prophet Muhammad's son-in-law, that a ceremonial New Year's flag is to be raised a job they had hoped to bestow upon the exiled king, Zahir Shah, who will not return until next week. On the eve of the holiday, a colorful, carnival-like atmosphere began to roll through the courtyard and even among the graves that surround the shrine, where families were putting down sheets and slabs of cardboard they would camp out on in the days ahead.
"I'm an old woman, and the Taliban wouldn't even let me come down here on our holiday," says Bibi Qandi, surveying the scores of people preparing for the holiday. "We tried to celebrate it at home, but that was very difficult. It's just not the same if you can't come here."
Nearby, an elderly salesman kept watch over his table of children's toys: fake Matchbox cars and trucks for boys, knock-off blonde Barbies in miniskirts for girls. "On Nawruz, every parent has to give gifts to their children," explains Hussein Ali. "For years, [the government] didn't allow us to celebrate Nawruz, and now they're helping us."