Celebrating Nowruz in Iran – Zoroastrian Legacies and Persian Identities

Celebrating Nowruz in Iran – Zoroastrian Legacies and Persian Identities

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By ZongXian Eugene Ang

A 'haft seen' table displayed in Georgetown University's ICC Galleria, March 19, 2015. Source: Author’s own photo.

Today is Nowruz, at least according to the United Nations. In a 2010 resolution, the UN General Assembly designated the International Day of Nowruz to fall on March 21 every year. More precisely, however, Nowruz marks the day of the vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere, which can occur anytime between March 19-22, depending on the year as well as one’s location. Such technicalities aside, Nowruz is essentially a celebration to usher in the season of spring—a welcome respite from the preceding months of winter. Not surprisingly then, the term “Nowruz” means “New Day” in Farsi.

Nowruz is celebrated by many communities inhabiting the lands spanning from Turkey to India—all of which had some degree of Persian influence historically. In Iran, most consider Nowruz to be the most important national holiday in the country. After all, Nowruz indicates the arrival of the New Year in the Persian calendar. Festivities stretch for 13 days and I have been told that Iranian students get two weeks off from school. During this time, family and friends gather together, sharing food and exchanging conversation. This is apparently also the best time to visit Tehran, when its notable congestion and pollution is greatly ameliorated as the city’s residents seize this once-in-a-year opportunity to escape the city.

Central to the Iranian celebrations of Nowruz is the setting of the haft seen table. In line with the literal meaning of its name—“haft” refers to the number seven, while “seen” refers to the letter “S” in Farsi—thehaft seen table contains seven items, all with Farsi names starting with “S.” In addition, each of them have their own symbolism, as outlined by a teaching resource on Nowruz published by Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies:

  1. Sumac (crushed spice of berries): For the sunrise and the spice of life
  2. Senjed (sweet dry fruit of the lotus tree): For love and affection
  3. Serkeh (vinegar): For patience and age
  4. Seeb (apples): For health and beauty
  5. Sir (garlic): For good health
  6. Samanu (wheat pudding): For fertility and the sweetness of life
  7. Sabzeh (sprouted wheat grass): For rebirth and renewal of nature

Apart from these seven standard items, there are also many other items that Iranians include in their haft seen table, such as painted eggs representing fertility and a mirror to signify reflection on the past year. While the origins of the haft seen table are still not well-documented today, the tradition of placing various symbolic items on a sofra (a piece of cloth spread on the floor or table) during Nowruz has its roots in Zoroastrianism—a Persian monotheistic religion that predated the Abrahamic faiths. The other principal customs associated with Nowruz, i.e. Chaharshanbe Suri (fire-jumping festival) and Sizdah Bedar (the tradition of spending the day outdoors on the thirteenth day of Nowruz), probably had historical links to Zoroastrianism too.

While considering this association between Nowruz and Zoroastrianism, I was reminded of a German-Iranian man I met in Tehran last year. Pointing to the Faravahar (the iconic Zoroastrian symbol of a winged guardian) on the façade of the National Bank of Iran building as we walked in downtown Tehran, he told me that the “real Iran” lay in its Zoroastrian past, rather than the Islam imposed by the theocratic regime.

Despite my reservations about his casual dismissal of Islam, I believed that he was on to something. Although I only spent a week in Iran, I got the sense that the Iranians are extremely proud of their Persian heritage, to the extent that many regard their Persian identity more highly than their religious identity, if any. As Hooman Majd wrote in his book, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran, “Iranians, whether pious Muslims or not, take great pride in their Aryan ancestry and revile the ancient Arabs who invaded their land, bringing them Islam, an Islam that they then molded to their Zoroastrian character.”

Indeed, the most disgruntled of Iranians today against their current regime are probably the most nostalgic towards pre-Islamic Persia—the Persia that has been immortalized in the epic poem, Shahnameh, by the storied Persian poet, Ferdowsi. This was Persia’s age of heroes, when legendary emperors the likes of Cyrus the Great, Xerxes, and Darius presided over Persian civilization. It was also in this period—the Achaemenid Empire—that Zoroastrianism became the state religion and subsequently became deeply entrenched in Persian culture.

In fact, according to S. Frederick Starr, in his book Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane, Zoroastrianism was treated with “unalloyed respect” in the Shahnameh, even though Ferdowsi himself was Muslim. Hence, even though Shia Islam became the dominant religion in Persia after the Arab invasion, Zoroastrian traditions continued to live on, embedded and evolving within broader Persian cultural ideals. The Nowruz customs, with their Zoroastrian legacies, are a case in point.

Today, Zoroastrianism is actually an officially-recognized and constitutionally-protected minority religion in Iran, alongside Christianity and Judaism. Furthermore, although there are estimated to be only around 25,000 Zoroastrians living in Iran at present—out of a population of more than 75 million—they are still viewed positively by other Iranians. More than just having a reputation for honesty, Zoroastrians are also associated with “Iran’s long forgotten glory,” as an answer posted on Quora has put it.

Nevertheless, life is still far from a bed of roses as a Zoroastrian in Iran. Although the Constitution of Iran states that non-Muslims are to be treated with fairness and justice, Iranian Zoroastrians still face discrimination in their daily lives. They are not allowed to take on high-level posts in the government or armed forces, as well as to talk about their faith on radio or television.  Many have also been pressured to convert to Islam—at least indirectly—by inheritance laws favoring Muslims over Zoroastrians.

The extent of Zoroastrian influence in the customs and rituals of modern-day Iranians has undoubtedly been in tension with the theocratic regime too, which envisions an Iran defined primarily by its Shia identity. As such, the Nowruz celebrations have not always sat well  with the religious establishment, especially with regard to the custom of jumping over fire on Chaharshanbe Suri. Many conservative Iranian clerics, including Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have issued fatwas against the celebration of Chaharshanbe Suri, citing it as contrary to Islam and harmful to the public.

Ironically, the more the regime tried to downplay Iran’s pre-Islamic identity, the more ordinary Iranians have turned to it as “a sign of protest and dissent.” In the process, pre-Islamic customs, such as the Nowruz celebrations, have acquired a strengthened role in the Iranian national identity. That said, the Zoroastrian elements of these customs are often glossed over under a Persian idiom. The importance of Nowruz in Iran today is not because of its Zoroastrian origins, which few Iranians know much about, but because it is regarded as quintessentially Persian.

Underlying the celebrations of Nowruz in Iran is a much broader discourse about what it means to be Iranian, or Persian—for those who still prefer to use Iran’s former name. The historical age of pre-Islamic Iran, of which Zoroastrianism was a central aspect, became an alternative source of identity for Iranians dissatisfied with their government’s relatively rigid vision for the country. Difficult economic and social conditions in Iran today have also spurred many to turn to an imagined construction of the past.

Yet, as we celebrate Nowruz today, a tradition with deep historical roots, we should be cautious about reifying and purifying history. Being Persian should involve more than just Islam or a harking back to the supposedly glorious days of the various Persian empires. A Persian identity should not be singular; rather, it is a pluralistic set of identities—forged together by the myriad interactions of various peoples who had once lived on these lands across time and space.

Perhaps, the Iranian journalist Kourosh Zibari articulated the meaning of Nowruz best, especially in today’s modern context:

“The holiday is a remnant of the very first years when the human civilization took shape—it removes the religious, cultural, lingual and national boundaries and connects the hearts of millions of people who want to take part in a unique and unparalleled ceremony marking not only the beginning of the New Year, but the end of a harsh winter and the arrival of the delightful spring. It’s not simply a source of honor for Iranians who observe and celebrate it, but an opportunity for the congregation and solidarity of all the peace-loving nations around the world.”

To all my friends, in Iran or otherwise, nowruz mobarak! Have a happy Nowruz!

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