22 Mar, 2022
With so much global despair and uncertainty, Nowruz celebrations should be seen as a period of rejuvenation. Instead, the Iranian state has attempted to wash away its 3,000 year-old history, but the people won’t let them, writes Kourosh Ziabari.
Our world is engulfed by chaos and grief. Two years after the deadly pandemic hit, at least 34 percent of the world’s population haven’t even been vaccinated yet. The Russian war on Ukraine, begetting a full-scale humanitarian disaster and flattening cities at the doorstep of the European Union, has upended the global order and portends the worst to come.
Amid the avalanche of ailments that have made it irrelevant to feel upbeat, the celebrations of Persian new year, Nowruz, heralded a respite from the many preoccupations that have submerged us in inertia and desolation.
Anchored in antiquity, Nowruz is documented to have been celebrated for at least 3,000 years. Its provenance is the Achaemenid Empire that ruled Persia, the modern-day Iran, and whose borders stretched from India to Egypt.
Today, a population of at least 300 million people worldwide join to rejoice at the advent of spring and the vernal equinox. Iranians not only enshrine Nowruz for the exquisiteness of its rituals, but also associate it with the grandeur of their ancestors, who once presided over one the world’s mightiest empires – a grandeur that has been supplanted in the 21st century by unsavoury geopolitical realities of vulnerability and fragility.
”Religious fundamentalists, for nearly four decades, have smeared Nowruz as a secular tradition that is a deviation from divine connections and resonates with Iran’s pre-Islamic, imperial past, thereby insisting that it should be expunged.”
Nowruz is observed in a number of countries where Persian-speaking populations maintain a presence: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, India, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. But the list doesn’t end here. There are communities in as far places as Albania, Georgia, Kosovo and North Macedonia that also mark it.
Celebrating Nowruz is an imperative, particularly among the diaspora in Europe and North America. Families make sure they don’t miss the moment of the “transition of the year” while huddling around their elegantly-decorated Haft Seen tables, featuring at least seven blessed items whose names in Persian start with the letter sounding “s,” a gesture of welcoming the new year.
Each item on the symbolic table setting, broadly inspired by nature, epitomises a certain concept, derived from Persian mythology, including red apples for beauty, coins for wealth, wheat or lentil sprouts for rebirth, garlic for health, vinegar for patience, oleaster fruit for love, and the hyacinth flower – springtime. And let’s not forget the goldfish, candles and mirror, which are more recent additions to the arrangement.
Nowruz is preceded by a set of customs that attest to its graceful nature. Families usually embark on a thorough spring cleaning a few weeks ahead of the new year, in a practice called “Khaneh-Tekani,” literally translated as “house-shaking,” which means they clean and tidy up every nook and cranny of their homes, wash carpets, replace old appliances and add some new furniture.
During Nowruz, it is traditional for households to throw parties with the members of the extended family, feasting upon delicious local meals, home-made pastries and sweets, and children and youngsters are expected to receive monetary gifts from parents and grandparents.
Philanthropic activities, ranging from donating to charities, raising funds for orphanages, distributing food among the underprivileged and donating blood go into high gear during what Iranians and others celebrating Nowruz consider as a ripe time for showing compassion and embracing the new year with good vibes.
But, however captivating and delightful Nowruz sounds to be, it has detractors that wish to wipe it off and dislodge it from the collective memory of Iranians. Religious fundamentalists, for nearly four decades, have smeared Nowruz as a secular tradition that is a deviation from divine connections and resonates with Iran’s pre-Islamic, imperial past, thereby insisting that it should be expunged.
It might appear hyperbolic, but in the eyes of an influential clique of radical clerics in Iran, Nowruz qualifies for obliteration because it is a festive occasion, and people shouldn’t be left to themselves to celebrate too much lest they consign their religious duties and the remembrance of God to oblivion.
For years, Nowruz has been treated as an alien creature in its birthplace. The state TV dedicated little airtime to special Nowruz shows, and even refused to screen Haft Seen tables. People were constantly reminded that every day in which no sin is committed can be a day of Eid, so there’s no point in singling out Nowruz as a unique occasion. Government officials, despite issuing new year messages, downplayed the cultural and civilisational aspects and infused inordinate religious talking points.
”Whether they are religious or secular, pro-government or dissident, affluent or disadvantaged, Iranians try to have a memorable celebration, awaiting better times.”
Those attitudes have been moderated as of late, and despite malignant intrigues to stamp out an ancient festival that has been intertwined with the Iranian identity, the voices of intolerance haven’t prevailed. Excluding their contorted readings of the religion recycled as sharia law and the tenets of Shia faith, there is nothing in Islamic teachings that has denigrated or outlawed Nowruz, or other cultural assets of the nations.
Nowruz continues to be a healing force and a sound connection between Iranians of all stripes. At a time the Iranian society is divided along ideological lines, people are frustrated at the nation’s chronic economic woes and ballooning isolation, the establishment is clueless on how to mitigate the crises induced by the sanctions, and such social vices as suicide and depression are spiralling due to endemic corruption, Nowruz interrupts the desolations that afflict the Iranians.
This year, Nowruz celebrations have been lively in the Iranian diaspora, particularly in the US, where a number of prominent Iranian-American TV personalities, academicians and entrepreneurs have acquainted their non-Iranian friends with the spirit of the ancient fiesta through their ornate “Haft Seen” tables and cordial get-togethers. In departure from the tense years of Trump’s presidency, the White House, instructed by President Biden, hosted a Nowruz ceremony with a Haft Seen. Google’s ‘doodle’ on March 20 was an observance of Nowruz featuring a bouquet of spring flowers.
Dana Taib Menmy
In Iran, municipalities and local authorities have just opted to look the other way without bothering to take the most rudimentary measures embellishing the cities for the arrival of the new year after the arduous months of pandemic-induced suffering.
But the everyday Iranians resist foreswearing the legacy of this centuries-long, intergenerational treasure. Whether they are religious or secular, pro-government or dissident, affluent or disadvantaged, Iranians try to have a memorable celebration, awaiting better times. In observing this cultural tradition, Iranians throw out their differences. It is safeguarding a nation’s cultural heritage that elevates its standing in the world. Political brinkmanship and vapid sloganeering cannot do the job.