Community celebrations fulfill multiple roles in Kurdish social life, of which perhaps the most important function is to reinforce community solidarity, since they often encompass the entire village or neighborhood. Festivals also help to establish or consolidate an individual’s status within the community, an essential service, inasmuch as the social hierarchy in the typical Kurdish village is constantly in flux. Such re-evaluations of status do not require elaborate formalities; sometimes it is enough simply to observe the order in which guests are served food and drink (Barth, p. 114). Festivals also give the host, usually the village headman or some other person of standing, the opportunity to strengthen his ties to other members of the community. By enabling him to display his hospitality and generosity, qualities much prized in the Kurdish village, they enhance his moral authority and prestige.
The most important of all Kurdish festivals is New Year (Nowrūz, Newrūz,) which is celebrated in all parts of Kurdistan on the first day of the vernal equinox, i.e. on or about 21st of March. A pre-Islamic Iranian festival celebrated in Persia and then in the Islamic empire in the early centuries following the emergence of Islam, it undoubtedly originated in ceremonies attending the arrival of spring, and in modern times it has become a national Kurdish holiday. Thus predating Islam, it has no necessary connection with Islamic religious beliefs or events, and attempts by Shiʿite Kurdish theologians to transform it into a celebration of the birth of the Prophet Moḥammad or of Imam ʿAlī have failed (Eiiubi and Smirnova, p. 212). Rather, the festival marks the transition from the severity and grayness of winter to the warmth and greenness of summer, a time when the Kurdish shepherd can undertake his annual journey to mountain pastures and the Kurdish farmer can begin cultivation of the soil. It is the occasion for such entertainments as games and dancing and for the preparation of special foods and the reading of poetry.
The celebration varies from region to region. On New Year’s eve in southern and eastern Kurdistan bonfires are lit to symbolize the passing of the dark season, winter, and the advent of spring, the season of light (see ČAHĀRŠANBA-SŪRĪ; Ayyūbīān, pp. 18-27). A carnival mood prevails, as children go from house to house collecting candy and decorated eggs. In western and northern Kurdistan the ceremony is known as Tūldān, which, however, is celebrated before Nowrūz, sometimes a month or longer before . Two lamps are lit in homes and kept burning until dawn with the expectation that a holy man, Ḵeżr Elyās (or Ḵeżr-e Nabī, for in most Islamic legends he is regarded as a prophet without a book), will visit the family and bring its members happiness and long lives (Izady, p. 242). In some areas his nocturnal passage is marked by the hoof print of his horse left in a sweet pastry, poḵin, (poḵīn or poḵen) baked especially for the occasion (Bāyazīdī, pp. 123-26). Yet another variation has ʿĀʾeša or Fāṭema visiting the home and blessing it by leaving the imprint of her hand in the festival cake, samanī (samanū), which is then shared with friends and neighbors (Bois, p. 70; Kayvān, p. 643; Wahby, pp. 155-56).
Characteristic also of the New Year observance is the election of the “false amir,” (Bāyazīdī, 1990, pp. 239-49; Qazvīnī, pp. 13-16, 57-66; Wahby, pp 154-55). In Mahābād the inhabitants choose from among themselves an amir to rule over them for three days. During this time he engages in the most extravagant behavior, making wild promises of long life and wealth to all his “subjects” and, in the general spirit of fun, fining those he judges guilty of “crimes” (de Morgan, pp. 39-40). A similar carnival was held in Solaymā nīya, the Kurdish cultural center in Iraq. In certain parts of Turkey and the Transcaucasus it took the form of electing a “false pasha,” while among the Kurds of Azerbaijan in the 1920s and 1930s it was customary for women to elect a “female shah” for a day as a means of asserting their rights in a society dominated by men (Aristova, p. 176). The Kurds in Mahābād and other places added the game of mīrmīren (amir or amir), which forbade the false amir to laugh, despite all the antics of his court jester, on pain of being driven from his throne (Eiiubi and Smirnova, pp. 219-22). The election of a false amir was not merely an entertainment. It had political implications, too, as a protest against the abusive rule of real amirs.
Other festivals organized by Kurds have to do with shepherding, one of their primary occupations. The most important departure for the summer pastures, barodan, is attended by numerous rituals, among them the decorating of the sheep with tufts of colored wool and the assigning of places in the line of march to all persons young and old, dressed in their finest clothes (Şemo, pp. 62-71). The return journey at the end of the summer is also the occasion for celebration, especially of beran-berdan, the letting of the rams among the ewes, which is accompanied by the preparation of holiday dishes such as gata (sweet pastry) and kaourma (qorma, “cooked meat”), the arrangement of marriages, and, no less important, the payment of the shepherds for their summer work (Şemo, pp. 91-99).
Sunni Kurds regularly observe major Islamic festivals. The last day of Ramażān is celebrated by a religious service, the payment of a tax to the mosque, and a communal meal (Bāyazīdī, 1990, pp. 175-76). During Qorbān-bāyrām, the festival of sacrifice, anyone in the village may in theory offer an animal for the purpose, but social status usually determines who will enjoy the privilege. Kurdish communities also celebrate Mawlūd al-Nabī, the festival of the birth of the Prophet Moḥammad.
Bibliography: T. R. Aristova, Kurdy Zakavkaz’ia, Moscow, 1966. ʿA. Ayyūbīān, “Bahār-e kordī,” Waḥīd 2/3, 1343 Š./1965, pp. 18-27. Mollā Maḥmūd Efendī Bāyazīdī, ʿĀdāt wa rosūmāt-nāma-ye Akrādīya, ed. and Russian tr. by M. Rudenko as Nravy i obichai Kurdov, Moscow, 1963; Pers. tr. and comm. by ʿA. Moḥammadpūr Dāšbandī as Ādāb wa rosūm-e kordān, Tehran, 1369 Š./1990. F. Barth, Principles of Social Organization in Southern Kurdistan, Oslo, 1953. T. Bois, Connaissnace des Kurdes, Beirut, 1965. K. R. Eiiubi and I. A. Smirnova, Kurdskii dialekt Mukri, Leningrad, 1968. M. R. Izady, The Kurds: A Concise Handbook, Washington, D.C., 1992. M. Kayvān, “Now-rūz dar Kordestān, “ Yaḡmā 19/12, 1345 Š./1967, pp. 641-47. J. de Morgan, Mission scientifique en Perse II, Paris, 1895. M. Qazvīnī, “Mīr-e now-rūzī,” Yādegār 1/3, 1323 Š./1944, pp. 13-16; 1/10, 1324 Š./1945, pp. 57-66. E. Şemo, Şivanê kurd, Paris, 1989. T. Wahby, “The Rock-Sculptures in Gunduk Cave,” Sumer 4/2, l948, pp. 144-57.