It is Navruz: literally ‘a new day’, and the biggest festival in Tajikistan. It’s a spring festival, a celebration of the new year (equinox) starting. One of the symbols for it is sprouting wheat. I know this because the children in the hospital have been drawing pictures of decorated bowls of wheat grass all week.
Today I see women dressed in ‘kurtans’ patterned with the design known as Atlas (it was originally a woven design for silk, now mostly polyester print), and some have these bowls of wheat grass with them.
There is a traditional dish made with it where they grind the spouting wheat (before it becomes grass) in a large cauldron, add water and simmer it slowly over a wood fire, stirring with long large paddles for a full day or night (10-12 hrs). Then a lid is put on and it sits another 6 hours or so. The result is ‘sumelak’, a brown pudding-like mixture that is sweet and nutritious and reminds me of caramel. They also bake or fry the mixture in flat rounds that look like thick pancakes or bread rounds.
Tajikistan has six days of holiday for Navruz this year: four working days plus the weekend. We too are free! The whole city seemed to be outside today, women and girls resplendent in their geometrically patterned Atlas garb, the men and boys in their usual jeans and jackets. Everyone was going to the parks and squares, with the whole family.
I rounded up some of our MSF family and we started walking, intending to go to an area the drivers had pointed out to us as the place where it would all be happening. But on the way there we discovered everyone walking in a different direction, so just followed the crowd. We ended up in a children’s fairground, complete with rides, candy apples and cotton candy. Not exactly what we had in mind, but it was fun to see - the same scene as you would see at home, just Tajik flavored. And very fitting that the MSF pediatric project ended up there!
The weather cooperated by being so sunny and warm that people sat near the water and ordered ice-cream for their kids after all the excitement of bumper cars and mini roller-coasters (hottest place in town!). We ate shashlik and drank beer and took a lot of pictures, which made the dressed-up girls very happy. I guess spring is here!