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Spring, rebirth and the Persian New Year: A reason to celebrate despite adversity

I grew up in suburban Massachusetts. My parents intentionally gave me a first name that isn’t tied to any ethnicity. My Farsi was limited to a simple conversational level, so for the most part, I felt decidedly American. Norouz, the Persian New Year (also spelled Norooz, Nowruz), came once every year to bring me back to my heritage. It translates to “new day” and is a secular holiday that marks the beginning of spring on March 20. The holiday predates current geographical borders, going back more than 3,000 years to the days of the Persian Empire, so it’s celebrated in countries like Azerbaijan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan as well.

This Norouz finds Iran to be a particularly distant dream for me and millions of others with connections to the country. Iran has become one countries worst hit by the coronavirus, with more than 14,000 confirmed cases and nearly 900 deaths — a number quickly growing by the day. The pandemic has caused thousands of events across the United States to be canceled, including several local new year celebrations. The Nowruz Festival in McLean, Va., and the Norooz Market in Washington, D.C., would have provided music, dancing and shopping but were canceled at the beginning of the month.

A travel ban already prevents Iranians from traveling to the United States to see their families. Crippling sanctions have made life for everyday Iranians increasingly onerous, and recent anti-government protests left hundreds dead. In January, President Trump’s decision to kill a high-ranking Iranian military official brought the two countries to the brink of war.

And yet I still harbor my reveries of a better, peaceful future, rooted in the Norouz traditions my family brought to their new home in America. As a child, each day leading to Norouz brought something fresh. The kitchen windowsills became lined with plates of lentils that my mother watered every day until they sprouted inches tall. My grandmother gave me a hefty eidi, a cash gift that elders give to the younger generation. Her version consisted of a few hundred-dollar bills — a fortune for a 12-year-old, yet it always came with an apology that she couldn’t give me more — a testament to extreme Persian generosity.

I came home from school to the smell of hyacinths permeating every room, a smell that reminds me of Norouz no matter when and where I smell it. My father got his painting supplies out so my sister and I could color eggs, a Norouz tradition similar to the Easter practice. All these items and more would eventually come together on the haft-seen, the main decoration of the holiday.

Haft-seen (which translates to seven S’s) is a collection of items that varies in presentation from family to family — we set ours up on a table in the home’s entryway. The haft-seen items symbolize a different hope for the new year, each one beginning with the Persian letter for “S.” Sabzeh is the sprout that grows to represent rebirth and renewal. Senjed, a sweet dried fruit, represents love. Seeb, an apple, is for beauty and health. Seer is garlic, medicinal in its properties. Samanu is a rich, sweet pudding, representing fertility and wealth. Serkeh, or vinegar, is for patience and the wisdom that comes with aging. Finally, sumac’s deep red color mirrors that of a sunrise, the start of a new day.

The author and her sister, Tara Zafar, in 1998, standing in front of the haft-seen, one of the central customs of the Norouz holiday. (Courtesy of Nina Zafar)
The author and her sister, Tara Zafar, in 1998, standing in front of the haft-seen, one of the central customs of the Norouz holiday. (Nina Zafar)

“Norouz is watching wheat grains split and releasing their magical green wiggly creatures from within. It is goldfish swimming in a bowl with a frilly rim. It’s the sofreh haft-seen with colorful pottery and candles in the reflection of a mirror,” recalls Pegah Shahghasemi, co-owner of D.C.’s Kuzeh Pottery, which sells handmade pottery inspired by Persian art.

“It’s Maman in her glory, with old upbeat music wafting from the kitchen as she cooks. It’s preparing for the road trip to visit family. It’s the budding trees whizzing by the window of Baba’s car,” Shahghasemi said.

Such traditions always stir nostalgia, says dancer Parastoo Ghodsi of the D.C.-based Nomad dance group. “It reminds me of the Norouz holidays in Iran, my childhood, my late mother growing a beautiful green sabzeh, the smell of herbs with which she cooked her delicious sabzi polo, and the round of visits to our friends and family,” she says. “I desperately try to make those same memories here in our new home in America for my daughter, to connect her to our cultural heritage and preserve our traditions.”

I share that impulse of connection. Norouz was and always has been the one time of year that reminds me that I am undoubtedly Iranian. It’s the new year celebration that makes the most sense to me, with its overarching theme of renewal and the infinite possibilities that come with a blank slate. If the state of the world were different now, I would be home in Massachusetts visiting my family this time of year. I had been looking forward to attending the Norouz events around the city — since coming to Washington for college, it’s been a treat to be surrounded by the large Iranian American community here. I know many others shared the same plans.

The continuous stream of adversity experienced by Iran and the Iranian diaspora adds heaviness to this year’s celebration, but it also serves as a reason to celebrate what Norouz represents with even more fervor. While we may not be able to celebrate as we normally would, the core tenets of Norouz transcend even a global pandemic: cooking a special meal and checking in on loved ones. Most of all, it’s clinging to the hope that what lies beyond this hardship is a renewed sense of unity, because we’re all in this together.

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