One thing that is unique about Afghanistan is the different festivals, mostly held in spring, in different parts of the country. Of course, the most famous festival is that held over the Persian New Year – Nowrooz – in Mazar-e-Sharif. There are many more, one of them held in Jalalabad at the time of the blossoming of the Naranj Gul – the orange flower.
One point that was stressed in recent reports done for PACT Radio on festivals was the role that these festivals can play for national unity. Festivals give a chance for people from different parts of the country to come together, at a time which is seasonally pleasing, and a place that is scenically also pleasant on the eye.
Gul Ghondai festival:
The festival is also known as Gul-e-Arghawan Mela (festival). Gul Ghondai, where the festival is held, is a prominent hill in the central Afghan province of Parwan. This hill is abundantly covered by the Judas tree. At the time of the festival, the tree is covered in purple flowers. Hence the name of the festival – Gul-e-Arghawan.
It is mostly young people, from far and wide but mainly from the surrounding areas of Kabul, Kapisa and Parwan who come to the festival. Locals say that up to a thousand people visit the area at the time of the Gul Ghondai festival, coming from as far afield as Paktia and Paktika, south of Kabul.
Naranj Gul festival:
Jalalabad is a place famed for cultivation and production of sour oranges, known as naranj. The blossom of the naranj tree does not remain for a long time, but while the trees are in blossom, the sweet fragrance can be detected throughout the vicinity. The fragrance is stimulating for the senses, uplifting for the mind. No doubt, this is one reason why the Naranj Gul festival is famed for its poetry readings. The festival takes place in the first month – Hamal – of the Persian and Afghan New Year, soon after Nowrooz. Not only do people read out their poems, there is also a contest to establish who wrote the best poem.
Even more in keeping with the seasonal nature of the Naranj Gul festival, it used to be known as the Farmers’ Festival. It was only renamed as the Naranj Gul festival during the time of King Zahir Shah. In its old incarnation, farmers used to dress up and beautify their animals – especially oxen – and bring them to the festival, for onlookers to enjoy looking at the beautiful animals and also purchase some – either as pets or for animal husbandry.
With the renaming of the festival as Naranj Gul festival, it also took on more of a cultural form. The festival is now conducted under the auspices of the local Information and Culture Department.
Istalif is a mountainous and scenic district, near Kabul. Many people who live in Kabul city like to visit Istalif during spring and summer at weekends. In summer, the temperature in Istalif is considerably cooler than in Kabul. While visitors are in Istalif, some of them may like to say a prayer at the tomb of Mir Saifuddin Wali, situated in Istalif, and take inspiration from his life of prayer and piety.
As if often the case in Afghanistan, there are legends associated with Istalif. Many of these legends revolve around Hazrat Ali. Even the shrine in Mazar-e-Sharif, where the annual festival is held, is associated with Hazrat Ali, though historically there is no record of Hazrat Ali ever visiting Afghanistan. No doubt, the fact that so many legends revolve around Hazrat Ali is indicative of the level of love that the people of Afghanistan hold for the son-in-law and cousin of the Holy Prophet. So it is with Istalif. A mountain near Istalif has the shape of a dragon. Some local people consider it to be a dragon that caught fire due to the prayers of Hazrat Ali, or maybe some other pious saint.
Many of the people whom our reporters caught up with at the festival were not so interested in such legends, with no historical basis, but still, they liked coming to the festival just for the chance to meet other people, enjoy themselves and laugh with them in a good-humored manner. Surely, Afghans can do with such opportunities, especially in the tough times in which they live.