Return of Novruz

One year ago the United Nations declared 21 March as International Day of Nowruz with a resolution proposed by number of countries including Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkey and Turkmenistan, later joined also by Albania, India and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Nowruz meaning “new light” in Ancient Persian is a holiday of spring and revival celebrated on the day of vernal equinox and embraces more than 300 million people worldwide, living mainly in the Balkans, the Black Sea Basin, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Middle East.

In Azerbaijan Novruz is celebrated as a public holiday on a state level since regaining its independence in 1991. But it was prohibited to celebrate it openly for a long time during the Soviet rule, so every year people were marking it only within their families… with one exception.

The following rare video of Soviet Azerbaijan news-reel shows public Novruz celebration in 1967. I have heard about this in the 1980s at school from our teacher of drawing, who showed us some precious relics in the class – Novruz post-cards officially printed two decades ago.

The initiator of the official celebrations was Dr. Shykhali Gurbanov, then Secretary on Ideological Issues of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan (one of the three main top communist leaders), philologist by education, writer, poet and playwright. He was already warned by the local Party leadership that this initiative may be dangerous and denunciations were sent to Moscow. Gurbanov was called to the Center to give explanations, but he managed to assure them that Novruz is not a religious holiday as his opponents were claiming.

After a successful celebration many say it was obvious that Shykhali Gurbanov would be appointed as the next First Secretary at the Plenary Session of the Central Committee in June 1967, but he died in a dentist’s chair on 24 May. The doctor, who gave him the mortal injection escaped through the window and never was found. Gurbanov’s family later claimed that it was already the fourth attempt at him. Many remember Gurbanov as a person, thanks to whose personal courage Novruz was back.

Due to Gurbanov’s initiative, traditional Novruz scenes of folk theater with Kosa the thin-bearded and Kechel the bald-headed – figures of the Spring and Winter –, egg cracking competition, jumping over bonfires and others were included later in such popular Azerbaijani films as Deli Kur (Raging Kura, 1969) and Yeddi oghul isterem (Seven Sons I Want, 1970), but publicly it was celebrated again only after 22 years, in 1989.

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