Afghans clamp down on Nowruz, the Persian new year holiday, fearing virus spread

In a 2013 photo, Afghan linguists perform a dance for distinguished guests, Afghan cultural advisors, and coalition force members while celebrating Nowruz, the Afghan New Year, at Camp Leatherneck, Helmand province.


By PAMELA CONSTABLE AND ERIN CUNNINGHAM | The Washington Post | Published: March 20, 2020

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KABUL — Every spring, on the first day of the Persian new year, thousands of Afghans flock to the blue-domed Karte Sakhi shrine to pray, picnic and honor the dead. Families wander among graves on the surrounding hillside. Girls show off sparkling new dresses. Boys fly kites.

The celebration of Nowruz, once banned by the Taliban regime in the 1990s, has since become a festive annual rite of rebirth and freedom — observed most zealously by the country's Shiite minority but enjoyed by Afghans of all backgrounds.

On Friday, though, the arrival of Nowruz was overshadowed by the coronavirus. Government officials, acting to contain its spread, had ordered the day's rituals canceled and asked the public to avoid crowded gatherings. The hillside was all but deserted and the shrine surrounded by armed police wearing masks.

In the past week, 22 cases of the virus have been confirmed nationwide, all linked to Afghan refugees flooding back from next-door Iran, where covid-19 has killed more than 1,400 people. No cases have been reported in Kabul, 400 miles from the border, but officials fear that the virus could soon reach the crowded capital of 4 million.

"They did the right thing. This disease spreads fast and we have to stop it. It is not coming here from China, it's coming from Iran," said Aladi Hassan, 44, a construction manager who brought his three sons to view the shrine from a distance. He noted that the site has been targeted by both Taliban and Islamic State attackers. In 2019, a suicide bomber killed 30 people there during Nowruz,

"The terrorists tried to snatch the joy of Nowruz from us," Hassan said. "Now we have a double problem of insecurity and disease."

In Iran, a much larger country, the celebration of Nowruz this year poses a far greater danger of widening the disease's transmission. It is the most important holiday for this Shiite Muslim country of 83 million, and the celebration lasts two full weeks.

Many Iranians travel during the holiday to visit relatives, sometimes in distant cities. They also spend time with elderly relatives, who may be especially vulnerable to the coronavirus. Health officials have discouraged people from leaving home, and some residents of Tehran, the capital, said they planned to refrain from visiting.

"My mother has asthma and my father has heart problems. My husband and I won't visit them this Nowruz," said 33-year-old Maserat, owner of a bakery there. Reached by telephone, she declined to give her full name so she could speak freely about the situation in Iran. "Nobody I know is traveling either," she said.

Tehran, a city of 6.5 million, is normally full of shoppers during Nowruz. People buy pastries and cookies, as well as preparing springtime tables with lentils, sprouts and berries. But this year, store owners reported plunging sales. Maserat said she had a massive surplus of baked goods and other food supplies.

According to Iran's Health Ministry, 1,433 people have died of coronavirus and an additional 19,000 have fallen ill. The World Health Organization has said that the actual number of dead and infected is probably five times higher.

The outbreak has sickened senior officials, military commanders and members of parliament. The government, however, has so far resisted calls to quarantine areas impacted by the virus. And despite warnings against travel, state television showed bumper-to-bumper traffic on the road between Tehran and Qom, the holy city where Iran's first coronavirus cases were confirmed.

"We only have these 10 or 12 days for vacation in a year," one driver said. "What else could we do?"

In Kabul, where information about coronavirus has spread more slowly and no cases have been reported, some residents expressed similar contradictory feelings Friday, saying they wanted to observe the holiday and take health precautions, too.

"I know this disease can spread very fast, but this is our culture. We have to go and pray," said a woman who gave her name as Mariah, 44. She was on her way to Karte Sakhi with her sister and their four daughters — all wearing new holiday dresses and protective face masks.

Some residents said they were worried that not enough Afghans are taking the virus threat seriously. Ahmad Fayaz Afshar, a grocer in the Shiite community, said some customers laughed at him for wearing gloves and disinfecting his shop.

"They said we are Muslims and the virus won't harm us," Afshar said. "They don't know that hundreds who lost their lives in Iran were Muslims like us."

He noted that his community is full of drug addicts — often returnees from Iran — who live on the streets and are susceptible to spreading disease. He said he was equally concerned about the new mass influx of returnees, which has topped 150,000 since January.

"These migrants who fled years ago are the main source of the virus here," Afshar said. "They should not come, because there are far better health facilities in Iran. They are escaping death, but unknowingly bringing it to us."

The chief cleric at a Shiite mosque, Ghulam Sakhi Jaffari, said he had avoided shaking hands with worshipers and advised them to do the same with others. He said that the coronavirus was a punishment from God but also "a threat to all humankind. We will suffer badly if it spreads out of control here because of our poverty and illiteracy."

At the Sakhi shrine, the senior custodian, Sayed Yusuf Husseini, said religious leaders decided to close it for Nowruz because a dense crowd of visitors would create a high risk of contamination. "We do not know if the virus is man-made or a scourge from God," Husseini said, but he added that with 130 countries affected, Afghans should "understand the need" for extreme measures.

On Friday, the atmosphere outside the shrine was subdued. Balloon and cotton candy sellers sat idly on sidewalks. A few men and boys flew kites above the graves. People seemed worried, but also defiant.

"The virus infections are all on the border far away, they have nothing to do with Kabul. People want to celebrate the New Year and we should let them," said Hamid Najib, 37, a taxi driver. He glanced at a masked policeman, then gestured to the sky. "We have God to protect us."

Cunningham reported from Istanbul. The Washington Post's Sayed Salahuddin and Sharif Hassan in Kabul contributed to this report.

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