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Navruz celebration

Below Christopher Aslan Alexander describes Navruz celebration in his book "A Carpet Ride to Khiva"

The workshop atmosphere rapidly improved with Ulugbibi's departure, and we focused on the more enjoyable task of celebrating Navruz. The spring festival - literally 'new day' in Persian - was celebrated on 21 March and the workshop had decided to make sumalek.

Early that morning we drove out to an uncle of one of the weavers and bought huge amounts of wheat sprouts, mincing them into pulp. This was mixed with water and then the pulp squeezed and set aside for Davlatnaza's sheep. The remaining liquid was mixed with a little flour and was now ready for cooking. A wizened sumalek usta - brought out of retirement for the occasion - barked orders as a fire was lit beneath each cauldron. She gave a prayer of blessing and then poured in oil and beaten eggs, which spluttered and sizzled. These were removed and kept for lunch. The buckets of raw sumalek mixture - the colour and, consistency of single cream - were then emptied into the cauldrons, followed by a tossed handful of walnuts still in their shells.

Now began the eighteen-hour job of stirring, ensuring that the sumalek didn't stick to the bottom, burn or become lumpy. Over time this process transformed the starch in the flour and wheat-shoots into sugar. For the first few hours stirring was easy but later, as the mixture boiled to a paste, it would require a lot more muscle. There were two stirring paddles for each cauldron and we took turns at the pot. I would lose myself in the swirling, mesmerising currents until a billow of wood - smoke left me choking and brought me back to my senses. Our sumalek usta periodically worked her knife around the rim of each cauldron, scraping off the dried paste and popping it back in the bubbling mixture. We hoped to produce a thick malty paste, sweet and rich in vitamins.

Sumalek, I was told, was first created by Fatima - daughter of the Prophet Mohammed. One early spring day, she searched her kitchen in vain for something to cook for her two young sons. The cupboards were bare, and her small vegetable patch outside seemed devoid of anything green after a long cold winter. On closer inspection she discovered shoots of wheat beginning to sprout, which she collected and minced, throwing them into a pot with her last handful of flour. She stirred the mixture but, weak with hunger, soon dozed off beside it.

The next day she woke up, remonstrating with herself for not feeding her sons. And yet a rich, sweet aroma pervaded the air; the wheat-shoots had transformed into a thick, nutritious paste. On top of the thickening mixture she saw the imprint of her own hand. Trembling, she offered up a prayer to God, for who else could have performed such a miracle? Our sumalek usta explained that, God willing, our caldrons of sumalek would also be imprinted by the hand of Fatima as they cooled.

As some stirred and others went for their first watery icecream of the year, we prepared for an open-air lunch, laying down plastic tablecloths and corpuches. Friends and casual passers-by dropped by to observe our progress and to take a turn stirring.

After lunch most of us were free to enjoy the festivities going on outside the workshop. In the Ichan Kala, streets teemed, everyone in their best clothes, and gaggles of teenagers preened and flirted. Photographers equipped with large stuffed toys and plastic thrones offered their services, and there was a sense of spring in the air, everyone determined to enjoy the most impor-tant festival of the year.

I headed for the stadium - the roaring crowd audible from far off. It was crammed with men watching wrestling. A few strapping youths in bright red spandex outfits flexed before sparring, but all eyes were on an older, bare-chested and burly challenger wearing a traditional tunic and heckling the crowd for a worthy opponent. A teenage boy pushed forward by his mates scrabbled back to the safety of the crowd, and groups of friends challenged the strongest among them to compete. Wrestling, along with football, was the most popular sport in Uzbekistan, with some excellent champions. Bizarrely, the President had decreed tennis - a game little known before independence - as the official sport of Uzbekistan. Tennis courts were duly built and instructors trained.

The wrestler remained unchallenged and was given a prize. The field was then cleared of all but two men, each tugging a rope with an enormous ram attached. I'd always been against blood sports, but ram-butting, more concussive than bloody, proved extremely entertaining. The two rams, with huge overhanging bottoms, were lined up by their owners; one was shorn, making recognition easy. With a slap on their wobbling rumps, the two rams charged each other, colliding in mid-air and rebounding with a loud 'tock'. Dazed, they went back to chewing grass until lined up for a second charge, their fat bottoms rippling as they clashed, accompanied by a lusty cheer from the crowd. On the third charge the shorn ram veered away to the derisive yells of his owner and the crowd. He was led away in disgrace, and the woolly ram - still a little unsure on his feet - pronounced the winner.

I left after the ram-butting with no intention of watching dog- or cock-fighting, and took a short cut through the park, where the sap had risen in the trees and the first new buds were bursting open. Back at the workshop, the sumalek had darkened in colour and had steamed down considerably. Shadows lengthened and a nip in the air drove the weavers inside to fetch extra layers. The workshop had arranged for a traditional singer, known as a halpa, to entertain us. She arrived sporting an entire set of gold teeth, her mono-brow painted with kohl. Two other musicians came with her, one playing the doyra - a round drum held at the heart - the other a small six-stringed instrument known as a tar.

As the sun set, the older, married weavers busied themselves with food preparations, leaving the dancing to the younger girls. At first shy, pushing each other into the circle and squealing before returning to clap at the rim, it didn't take long before inhibitions were shed and they wove between each other, wriggling their shoulders suggestively. A gaggle of drunk youths wandered in and made a nuisance of themselves until accosted by our knife-waving sumalek usta. Three local policemen, enjoying a break from bribe-taking, came to stir the cauldrons for a while - the mixture thickening nicely. A few curious tourists drifted by and were beckoned in and invited to dance. The older weavers had brought their children, and I rolled out a large plastic 'Snakes and Ladders' board which kept them entertained.

In the dark, songs of love, loss and passion mingled with woodsmoke and the fragrant steam of sumalek, the hypnotic beat of the doyra and the crackle of logs burning. Older women circled the cauldrons stirring, while the younger women danced in two large circles. The evening took on a dreamlike quality: a meeting of Macbeth and A Midsummer Night's Dream. I struggled to keep my eyes open and eventually left quietly, hoping no one would notice and that someone would save a jar of thick brown sumalek for me.