MAZAR-E SHARIF, Afghanistan -- "Looking at the audience, I see that you are all Kandaharis," the singer said into the microphone as he surveyed a sea of heads sporting the sparkly caps and long-tailed turbans common to that southern city. "But my Pashto is not strong, so I hope you will enjoy our music in Dari."
The tourists crowded into the Ahmadi Supermarket and Restaurant applauded encouragingly.
Buzkashi matches are held during Nowruz, or Persian New Year. Horsemen race each other while fighting for a headless goat carcass.
(Photos N.c. Aizenman -- The Washington Post)
This northern city might seem an odd destination for travelers from Kandahar, which, after all, is the ethnic Pashtun stronghold where the repressive Taliban movement originated. Mazar-e Sharif, a city dominated by ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks, was one of the last holdouts against the Taliban. During the violent struggle for control of the city, which the Taliban held from 1998 to 2001, members of both sides engaged in massacres of the other.
But the Taliban is gone now. And when it comes to ringing in the Persian New Year in Afghanistan, even people from Kandahar will admit that Mazar-e Sharif has no equal.
"This is the place to celebrate, so of course I wanted to come," said Abdul Rezek, 28, an auto parts salesman who had taken the 18-hour bus ride from Kandahar with 12 of his friends several days earlier.
"Definitely people here know where I am from," he added. "But they say, 'You are as a guest here. We welcome you.' "
It has been a recurring theme of this year's festivities in Mazar-e Sharif.
The holiday, known as Nowruz, or new day, began on March 21 with the raising of a religious banner, or janda, in the courtyard of the city's magnificent blue-domed shrine. That is where, according to Afghan tradition, Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad and the fourth caliph of Islam, is buried. For several weeks, until the janda is taken down in a second ceremony on the 13th day of the new year, the city will host tens of thousands of visitors from across Afghanistan.
Their reasons for journeying north are as varied as the provinces from which the pilgrims hail. There are giddy young men, who come to dance in the streets or listen to concerts. There are the devout, who come to pay solemn homage to Ali. And there are parents of disabled children, who come to beg him for a miraculous cure.
Within each group, Afghans from vastly different provinces are mingling with a degree of ease that is notable in a nation still struggling to forge a national identity after years of regional conflict.
That sense of community was one of the few uplifting aspects of the Chila Khana.
A large, fenced-off outdoor nook in the Mazar-e Sharif shrine's western wall, the Chila Khana -- or House of Forty -- is reserved for the most seriously ill and disabled of worshipers. According to tradition, those who sleep here each night until the janda is taken down will be cured of whatever ails them.
A few days into Nowruz, more than 100 pilgrims were huddled there in a tableau of human misery.
On the men's side, an adolescent with wild hair and bloodshot eyes wailed incoherently. Nearby, Qurban Haiderboi, an elderly pilgrim who had traveled from the western Afghan city of Herat to help out in the Chila Khana, was touting the miraculous recovery of Askar Hamid, a 25-year-old with rolling eyes and crumpled limbs from the northern province of Kunduz.