Afghans greet season’s first snowfall in unique ‘Barfi’ style

In Afghanistan, a strange but fascinating custom called ‘Barfi’ is practiced on the day of season’s first snowfall every year, and quite literally, it defines the country and its people in a beautiful and peculiar way

Masood Ahmedi, 24, woke up this morning to find snowflakes quietly descending from heavens. His dull eyes lit up and he rushed out of house to find a carpet of deep, powdery snow covering the green grass. “The first snowfall is always special, it is about the simplest pleasures of life” says Ahmedi. “It carries the message of joy, peace and hope; and how badly we in Afghanistan crave for that.”

In Afghanistan, mostly in capital city Kabul and northern parts of country, a strange but fascinating custom is practiced on the day of season’s first snowfall every year. Called ‘Barfi’, coined from the word ‘barf’ that means snow, friends send congratulatory paper messages to each other with a Persian couplet: Barf me barad ba farman e elah, barf e naw az maa wa barfi az shoma (Snow is falling by the order of God, the first snowfall is mine and ‘barfi’ is yours).

The person to whom letter is addressed has to be on his or her toes. “If you receive the letter without realizing it is ‘barfi’ letter, you are in for trouble,” says Ahmedi. Every year, on the day of season’s first snowfall, Ahmedi writes the letter and goes to his friend’s place to deliver it. He pulled it off again this year.

Before receiving the letter, the addressee has to ascertain its content and the motivation of sender. “It is a game of wits; the person who gives it has to make sure it is not ‘barfi’ letter,” says Ahmedi. “If he fails to do that and it turns out to be a ‘barfi’ letter, he has to serve food to sender and his friends.” This year, Ahmedi outsmarted his friend Masiaullah Faizi. “He came to my house early morning and said it is a doctor’s prescription letter and he wants me to read what medicines have been prescribed in it,” says Faizi. “I was caught off guard.”

The content of letter is even more interesting. “In the letter, we write the name of various Afghan cuisines and the number of people to be served,” says Ahmedi. “We mention cuisines, number of people to be served, time and venue.” In his letter to Faizi, Ahmedi asked for pulao, kebab, mutton, shorba and phirni to be served to 20 of his friends and cousins. “I obliged because we simply cannot refuse it. It’s an age-old Afghan custom and tradition. I would have done same if I was in his place,” says Faizi.

Friends send congratulatory paper messages to each other with a Persian couplet: Barf me barad ba farman e elah, barf e naw az maa wa barfi az shoma (Snow is falling by the order of God, the first snowfall is mine and ‘barfi’ is yours)

However, it is not a lopsided contest, tilted in favor of the person who writes the letter. Even the addressee can clinch it on his day. “Had I caught him before he handed over the letter to me, he would have been in trouble,” says Faizi. “You have to be on your toes and apply your sharp wit. Once you ascertain it is a ‘barfi’ letter, you have to pounce on the person and win the game,” says Jameel Safi, a self-confessed veteran of this wacky game. But, he lost it this year to his friend and neighbor Aimal Barjasta “It was not my day,” he says with a faint smile.

Safi went to Barjasta’s house to hand over the letter and was trapped off guard. “I was aware it would be ‘barfi’ letter, and I swiftly caught him,” As per the custom, if the person is caught, his hands are tied and his face is painted black with coal. Then, a letter is handed over to him, in which the winner writes the name of foods to be served. “I gave a list of five cuisines for 10 people,” says Barjasta. “Next time, I will give him the list of 20 cuisines for 40 people if I win,” says Safi, with a vow of vengeance.

The unique tradition is widely practiced in Northern provinces of Afghanistan like Parwan, Kapisa, Panjsher, Badakshan, Balkh, besides Kabul city. In some parts of country, instead of letter, they give snow and raisins packed in polythene. “It depends which province you come from, this country is defined by diversity,” says Habib Mangal, a resident of Kabul. For him and many other Kabulians, winter season means abundant joys and tranquility. “There is a famous line in Dari language, kabul bi zar bashad bu barf na, which means Kabul should be without gold but not without snow,” says Habib.

With inputs from Nizamuddin Bahmany and Abdul Samia Amanpoor

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