I was born on the 26th of December, to a family who does not celebrate Christmas. And although I admire the German Christmas markets and the Glühwein and the smell of cinnamon and baked apple, I cannot connect with this holiday. My years in Bristol and all the childhood memories do not help either. Maybe it’s due to my unparalleled devotion to the Persian New Year that nothing can come close, not even my own birthday.
I have spent the last few weeks explaining Nowruz to my non-Persian friends receiving a lot of oohs and aaahs from the audience. My recent research proposal on the Shaahnameh encouraged my motivation to explain as thorough as I could, for I have learned through the study, and the discussions with non-Iranians, not everything is presented in the sheer light that it deserves. During lunch with a friend a few days ago, I explained the customs that are carried out throughout the celebration. After my second reference to poetry, he asked “Is poetry important in your culture?” From there I explained how Iran’s history is rich with poets with the likes of Hafiz, Sa’di, Rumi, Khayyam, Nezami and my personal favourite, Ferdowsi. I explained that it’s impossible to go to a house and not find a book of poetry lying around somewhere, and how we read Hafiz on Yalda night (the eve of Winter Solstice being the longest night of the year is celebrated with poetry, music, pomegranates, nuts and watermelon) and just before the beginning of each year. I saw a look of surprise on his face. “It’s interesting how they portray you in films like Argo and you are the people gathering around reading poetry before the year commences and we are the people getting drunk on New Year’s Eve.” That, I have decided deserves a whole blog entry dedicated to; another post I will be uploading in the future. For now I’ll stick to Nowruz.
Last year I spent the Spring break (if I dare call it that, since there is nothing Spring-y about the Germany’s March weather) in Iran. I flew home to an atmosphere of vitality. That would be the one word I would use to describe early March in Iran. It’s still winter, yet not grey. It’s still cold, yet not dead. And all you see are colours. From blossoms to displays in boutiques and spices and Ajil (a mixture of roasted and salted pumpkin seeds, pistachios, almonds, sugar-coated slivered almonds, dried and salted chickpeas, golden raisins, and dried Mission figs) in giant baskets. The setting of the Haft Sin (literally translated as “Seven S“) has been my duty for as long as I remember, something I adore doing. Eggs are painted and goldfish are bought. A mirror is placed on top of a decorated tablecloth and then the “S” elements are added.
Sir: garlic (medicine)
Sib: apple (health)
Serke: vinegar (age and patience)
Sabzeh: wheat or lentil sprouts grown in a dish (rebirth)
Samanu: a sweet pudding made from wheat germ (affluence)
Saat: clock (time)
Senjed: dried oleaster fruit (love)
But the celebrations start before that. The last Wednesday of the year –Chaharshanbe Suri– is celebrated around bonfires, where we jump over the fire chanting something along the lines of “I give you my yellowness (symbol of illness) and I will take your scarlet red”. It tends to sound more rhythmic in Persian.A poetry book (Hafiz’s Divan, Rumi’s Divan or The Shaahnameh) is set next to the elements to be read just before the commencement of spring.
The year that I was moving to Germany I spent Chaharshanbe Suri at home, alone. I had had a LASIK surgery and smoke would’ve been like injected poison for my eyes. I did nothing, ordered pizza (which they did not deliver because of the hectic streets and fire and explosives everywhere) and watched TV while my family went to a friend’s ranch and jumped over the bonfires and enjoyed warm Aash-e Reshteh and Aash-e Torshi in the chilly winter night. The next year while catching up with my cousins in their apartment in a massive complex, we depicted a recurring trip downstairs made by my aunt in search of the perfect Chaharshanbe Suri gathering. She was dead-set on making sure we had a great time. She surrendered after her fourth trip on the elevator, flung her coat on the sofa and told us we better think of something for ourselves, there wasn’t much happening in their complex mainly occupied by senior citizens. We were happy as we were really, 5 giggling girls sipping on hot coco and biting into freshly-out-of-the-oven raisin biscuits. The sudden blast from the loud speakers downstairs rushing through the open window got us racing to the terrace. Seven floors down, in the back yard of the complex next door, a bonfire burned. A huge table with bowls and napkins and cutlery sat next to another table carrying a set of turntables. And once the DJ saw us leaning down the balcony, he motioned for us to join them in what turned to be a party of music, food and dancing around a raging fire with a group of 70 strangers.
The commencement of spring is at a different hour each year. If it is at an hour that allows for a big feast before it -usually in the afternoon or late evening, or even dawn (we have no problem staying up late)-, Sabzi Polo ba Mahi (rice with greens and fish) is served, leaving everyone heavy and happy from the grease induced fish and rice. Last year it was around 9 am, forcing us to start feasting the previous evening and leaving me no time to stroll down the streets of my hometown and watch hurried shoppers tick off the last items on their shopping list. The excitement is overwhelming. I often find myself smiling the entire trip. During my stroll I pick up the items I have on my list each year that are always kept until the very last opportunity to shop. Flowers are one of them; often purple Hyacinth. Although not an official member of the
Haft Sin and completely optional, I like to have a vase of the violet flowers sitting on my Haft Sin, not only d
ue to the colour but also because the Persian equivalent for the flower is Sonbol, another word starting with “S”. The last few minutes of the year sees the family members gathered around the Haft Sin, and while everyone makes a wish, one person opens Hafiz’s Divan and reads a sonnet. Being the philosophical and spiritual poet that he is, Hafiz talks about anything and everything in those seven verses of his sonnet. His universal stanzas have something for everyone, allowing the audience to relate to them in their own way. Family pictures are of utmost importance during the celebration. All members must sit around the Haft Sin and have shot after shot taken of them, a selection of which will be emailed to relatives living outside of Iran. Once the New Year is announced people start greeting each other with hugs and kisses and the oldest members of each family start giving out money; crispy fresh bank notes from either the Quran or Hafiz’s Divan. This is a recurring event each time you visit a relative or friend in the next twelve days.
This year my Haft Sin was small yet complete, along with the three colours of the Iranian flag which incidentally start with S, Green (Sabz), White (Sefid) and Red (Sorkh). And while my heart was aching to be home surrounded by faces I knew and people I loved, I carried out all the rituals right before I headed off to work; read a couple of sonnets from Hafiz and said the four verses that I knew off by heart now, hoping for better days.Yes, it’s two weeks of being prepared for guests to come unannounced or having to sit through what sometimes turns out to be boring conversations with people you seldom see. I would beg my parents to lie to some guests and say I wasn’t home, and while my dad was easy to convince, my mother would suddenly loudly announce “Yes, she’s in her room on the phone. She’ll join us in a few minutes.” That would be my cue that no amount of grovelling would make my mother bend the rules when it comes to customs. And on the thirteenth day -Sizdah Bedar- we rest. Outdoors. We take the Sabzeh and go “into the heart of nature”. After a full day of picnic-ing and games, the Sabzeh is thrown into water (a river, stream, lake, the Caspian Sea or the Persian Gulf). With that people have to drag themselves to work or school the next day; sometimes literally since fourteen days of resting and eating helps put on a few pounds.
I had been previously suggested to celebrate with other Iranians. “What about that Iranian girl from your building? Or the Persian guy at that bar?” I would hear leaving me irritated for no reason. These suggestions came from a European who was trying hard to understand what Nowruz was about and how everything worked. “I’m just trying to help” he said finally giving up. After all I had repeatedly explained, Nowruz is about family, not strangers who only share your heritage. The year started at 12 01´53´´. I was at work having lunch with some other Iranian colleagues. The new year was announced and our table started greeting each other with kisses on the cheeks and kind wishes, leaving the other colleagues at nearby tables confused. But nothing felt like spring here. Not the weather, not the atmosphere and the exhausting routine of having to constantly explain what our New Year was about and how it was celebrated did not help either. Lesson learned; no matter how busy you are, there should be no excuse for not being in Iran for Nowruz for more reasons than one. You may have noticed a recurring theme in the Persian traditions; food, music and poetry, to satisfy the gustation, the ears and the soul…