When I was studying Dari in Badakhshan, Afghanistan a few years ago, my language teacher taught me a game. It is a game played only once a year on the day of the first snowfall. In this game, you try to trick your friends into receiving a letter from you with a little poem written on it. The poem goes like this:
برف می بارد به فرمان خدا
برف نو از ما، مهمانی از شما
A rough translation is:
Snow is falling at God’s command
the new snow is ours, the party-hosting yours.
If you can trick someone into receiving the letter, they owe you a meal. However, if they catch on and don’t take the letter, you owe them a meal. And even if they do receive the letter, they can still win the game by catching you and rubbing soot on your face, in which case then you have to host the meal.
Some people say that along with the letter you also need to give some snow. Once my neighbor tried to hand me a letter, and along with it, a tiny bit of melted snow in a piece of a plastic bag. But for more casual game-players, the actual giving of snow seems to be optional. Some try to play the game when the snow is only visible on the mountains. I have even received the snow poem via text message.
One year on the day of the first snowfall, I decided to try to trick my work colleagues in the office. I typed up some formal-looking letters that included the snow poem. When I got to work, I handed them individually to three different people, asking for help in understanding the writing. Only one person caught on and refused to take the piece of paper. The others took them, and while reading their faces broke into huge grins, followed by laughter and cries of regret. Thankfully, they didn’t try to rub soot in my face. Shortly afterward, one of them bought mantu (steamed dumplings) for lunch for everyone who worked in the office. Since I had lost the game to one person, I also brought aush (noodle soup) to the office one day. The first snow had brought us together and given us something to laugh about during the long, cold winter.
The other night I watched the classic musical White Christmas, and it made me think about the value of snow. For most who sing about white Christmases, this value is mostly about the sentimental memories attached to it. This is the case for my relatives in California who like to drive up to the mountains now and then just to play in the snow. (They certainly don’t want snow all the time though; my great-grandfather actually moved from Norway to California because he hated snow!) Of course, farmers in the northern hemisphere know that snow is crucial to the economy. And for people who live most of their lives in the snow, its value is all-encompassing, even reflected in their language. Linguists are fascinated by the languages of people such as the Inuit of Canada and the Sami of Scandanavia that have many, many more words for snow than English does.
The value of snow to Afghans is reflected by this proverb: “May Kabul be without gold rather than without snow.” I think this proverb is more than a pragmatic recognition that snow makes crops grow. Snow brings joy, covers the barren ground, creates memories, and brings people together. It’s a parable, maybe even causing people to hope. It hasn’t snowed yet this year here in Badakhshan’s capital. But when it does, I will be ready with my snow-poem letters…and will watch the snow turn to gold.