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Persian New Year Celebrations Unite Afghans

"Before, he could not speak a single word," Haiderboi shouted as he propped up Hamid against the railing to show him off to a gathering crowd. "But last night I sat with him and told him to say the kalima" -- the Muslim holy prayer. "Now he is saying the kalima for everybody."

On the women's side, a middle-aged mother named Jamila looked on sadly as she cradled her sickly looking 4-year-old son.

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)

Yet her frown turned to a pleasant smile as she described the friendship that had sprung up between her and a 20-year-old woman with a mangled hand. "I didn't know anyone when I came here," said Jamila, who like many Afghans uses only one name. "Now she and I have become like mother and sister even though we are from different provinces. When it is time for me to go to the mosque and pray, I even leave my son with her."

Several miles away, on the dusty plain where a buzkashi match was underway, the fans crowding the stands displayed a similar lack of regional prejudice.

A wild and dangerous game in which dozens of galloping horsemen race each other across the Central Asian steppe while fighting to grab hold of a headless goat carcass, buzkashi is said to date from the time of Genghis Khan. With their Asiatic features, high-heeled boots and quilted jackets and sashes, the professional players looked as though they had stepped out of another era. But they had also accessorized their outfits with a few touches from Afghanistan's more recent past -- including olive-green Soviet tanker's helmets from the 1980s and black plastic knee pads that would have fit in with the rollerbladers in Rock Creek Park.

Every few minutes, the scrum of horsemen whooshed by in a blur of clattering hoofs, rearing horses and cracking whips. Then the announcer would call out the name of the player judged to have gained possession of the carcass -- never an obvious choice -- and the winner would ride up to receive a fistful of cash from the sponsor of that round.

In another time, fans might have rooted for players from their ethnic group or province. But the crowd favorite, known as Malang, appeared to be popular mainly because he usually wins the most rounds in a tournament.

Isakhan, a 42-year-old language teacher from the nearby city of Samangan, confided that it didn't hurt that Malang was a fellow ethnic Uzbek. "I do feel happy when an Uzbek wins," he said.

Others in the crowd immediately interjected that Malang was actually a Turkmen. "No, he's a Tajik!" said another man.

"Okay," Isakhan said finally, "we are all Afghans."

Not that the Nowruz tourists were always tolerant of differences.

At the university auditorium, where a multi-day music festival was held in honor of the holiday, the young men in the audience greeted an Iranian troupe with disappointed jeers when it launched into a slow, funereal chant.

Robert Kluyver, a Dutch consultant with the foundation that sponsored the festival, jumped up and asked the emcee to lecture the audience on the importance of appreciating "fine music" from other cultures.

Afterward, the audience listened politely for a few moments, then broke into rowdy cheers as the music picked up a notch.

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