During the new year holiday, Kurdish locals like to head out into nature to celebrate. (photo: الموسوعة الحرة )
This year in and around the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, the Kurdish new year’s celebrations were different. Usually during the holiday, known locally as Nowruz, locals prepare picnics, dress up in traditional costume and head out into nature to celebrate the new year with their families.
Somehow this year though, things were a little less festive, locals say. “Some of the people of Kirkuk consider the city to be in mourning,” says Sazan Kawa, a resident of the city – this is because of the fact that, after the ill-fated Iraqi Kurdish referendum on independence last year, the city and surrounds came under the control of the Iraqi government. Previously the city, often described as a “flashpoint” because of the various ethnicities that live here side by side, had been under the control of the Kurdish authorities.
Rumours spread that the city’s new governor, an Arab politician, would refuse to light the celebratory new year’s flame.
“We got used to the presence of Kurdish military here during Nowruz, to maintain security in the city,” Kawa continues. “But this year was different because of the Iraqi military being here. Some families insisted on doing what they do every year, but others opted to stay at home and keep celebrations private. To be honest,” Kawa said, “the main thing people are worried about is safety and security and they are happy if it can be provided.”
“There is additional sensitivity this year,” Mahdi al-Bayati, a political activist, told NIQASH. “There is not the same feeling and flavour and there are fewer rallies because locals fear they may become targets.”
Didar Mohammed was celebrating with her family at a riverside near the city and she too said she had noticed the difference. “There is a lack of the spirit we usually see,” Mohammed said. “And there are fewer people. The atmosphere is a bit strained. In other years we would always have to deal with a major traffic jam. And then when we got here, it would always be hard to find an empty spot to sit because there were so many people here.” This was not the case this year, she says.
One of the new year traditions is for locals to dress up in Kurdish costumes and people will often get them specially made before the big day. The owner of one tailor in Kirkuk concedes that business was much slower this year. Usually the peak season starts in January and goes until March as there are two big days, he says: The day everyone dresses up in Kurdish costumes on March 8 and then the new year on March 21.
“The number of customers was far lower,” the tailor told NIQASH; he did not want to speak on the record for fear of damaging his business. “I used to have to turn people away but now things are different. It is because of the situation in the city.”
There was also tension online. On Iraqi social media, rumours spread that the city’s new governor, an Arab politician, Rakan Saeed al-Jibouri, would refuse to light the celebratory new year’s flame or to raise the Kurdish flag, as had happened in previous years. However, this turned out to be false: The flame was lit, and the flag raised, without any problems.
Not everyone felt the annual holiday was odd though. In Kirkuk it is not just the Kurds who celebrate. They are often joined by their Arab, Turkmen and Christian neighbours, who join in the eating and dancing.
“Every year we celebrate Nowruz with our Kurdish brothers and we go to beautiful paces inside or outside Kirkuk,” explains Saja Abdullah, an Arab woman from Kirkuk. “This year, it was clear that everything was secure and there were no incidents,” she says. “In fact, I think the Iraqi soldiers who are here were surprised at how colourful and enchanting this ritual is. Some of them showed how happy they were, and they even joined in.”