While lavish festivities have not been rare in post-independence Tajikistan, the week-long celebration of Novruz this year, from March 21-25, surpassed most previous events in scale and grandeur. Parades, concerts, sports events, and fairs were held across the country, both in towns and villages, leaving few neighborhoods uninvolved. Tajiks were given a week-long vacation to participate in these events, which culminated in a massive theatrical performance in Dushanbe on March 25. The performance involved some 5,000 students and about 500 professional actors and actresses, and was attended by Afghan, Iranian, and Pakistani leaders. The extensive celebrations were used by the authorities to foster a sense of national pride and cohesion, and to emphasize the Tajiks’ Persian roots.
Novruz – which is also transliterated as Navrouz or Nawruz – is a festival marking the beginning of spring and a new year in Persian tradition. The festival is believed to be rooted in the tradition of Zoroastrianism, a pre-Islamic religion that originated in ancient Persia approximately 3,500 years ago and was its official religion until about 650 CE. Although the Arab conquest put an end to most Zoroastrian cultural practices, Novruz was so deeply rooted in the consciousness of various communities comprising ancient Persia that they continued celebrating it even after embracing Islam. Nowadays, the holiday is celebrated in Iran, most of Central Asia, parts of the Caucasus, Mongolia, and among Kurdish communities in the Middle East.
Following the creation of the Tajik Soviet republic in the 1920s, Bolsheviks sought to “construct” a secular national identity for the new political unit. Although Soviet republics were encouraged to reassert their “national character,” the leadership in Moscow and the indigenous elites carefully selected and reshaped the constituent elements of the new national cultures. The guiding principle of the Soviet nationality policy was to make sure that while union republics became “national in form” they also remained “socialist in content.” Therefore, Novruz – which was mistakenly believed to be an Islamic holiday – was banned in Soviet Tajikistan as an “alien” practice until the late 1960s. Despite the ban, many Tajik families continued celebrating the holiday clandestinely at home.