PART I – Since your love became my calling

The Gregorian calendar used in the West and in many other parts of the world means nothing to the Iranians other than a convenient method of communication with the rest of world. The Iranians have their own solar calendar in which the New Year begins not on1 January but on 21 March, the date of the vernal equinox. The origin of the tradition, which is at least 3,000 years old, is attributed to Iran’s mythical King Jamshid. Paradoxically, the inception of the Iranian calendar is determined to be Ad622, the time of Prophet Muhammad’s Hegira or Migration from Mecca to Medina, thus making it a blend of Iranian and Arab traditions. Accordingly, 1980 corresponds to the year 1359 in the Iranian solar calendar. The Iranians also recognize the Islamic lunar calendar, which is the point of reference for important religious dates and ceremonies but no one can deny that the most important day in an Iranian’s year is Norouz.

There are special traditions for celebrating this day of which the Wednesday Feast or Fireworks Wednesday (Chaharshanbe Suri) is the most important. The Wednesday Feast, a prelude to Norouz, is held on the last Tuesday night of the solar year. People are supposed to cleanse their souls by leaping over a fire, chanting, ‘Let your fiery redness be mine and my yellow paleness be yours.’ This passage through fire, the only element that cannot be polluted, is believed to burn away all the evil in them so that they may enter the New Year with their souls purified.

Another part of the ritual involves people, especially children, knocking on their neighbours’ doors with white blankets draped over their heads. Those who open the doors are supposed to hand out a special mixture of nuts traditionally known as ‘problem-solver nuts’. It is believed that eating these nuts will help overcome problems. This tradition is rooted in the Zoroastrian belief that in the last days of the old year, the Farvahars or guardian spirits return to earth to visit their families. The children draped in blankets symbolize these spirits and the giving of the nuts is a sign of both respect and hospitality. Since time immemorial, Iranians have celebrated the Wednesday Feast by lighting fires in the alleys and in the fields and setting off fireworks. For children and young people it is the most joyful day in the year after Norouz itself.

Norouz begins precisely at the time of the vernal equinox, when the sun enters Aries—the beginning of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. Unlike the fixed date of the Christian New Year, the beginning of the Iranian year varies with the date of the equinox. And there are things that must be taken care of before the turn of the year.

All the members of the family sit round a haft-sin table, a crucial part of the Eve. On the table must be seven items, all of which begin with the letter ‘s’ in their original Persian form: sabzeh, sprouting wheat or lentils symbolizing rebirth and greenery; samanu, a traditional sweet pudding symbolizing affluence; senjed, the dried fruit of the oleaster tree symbolizing love; sîr or garlic symbolizing medicine and healing; sîb, an apple symbolizing beauty and health; somaq, berries from the sumac tree symbolizing the redness of sunrise; sonbol or hyacinth symbolizing youth; and serkeh, vinegar, symbolizing age and patience. The other items on the table are candles; a goldfish— a recent addition to the table inspired by the Chinese tradition of releasing a goldfish in water on New Year’s Eve; the Quran— in pre-Islamic times this would be the Avesta, the sacred book of the Zoroastrians; and the collected poems of Hafiz, Iran’s national poet.

After the turn of the year, officially announced by the firing of canons, people greet one another with kisses and the children receive gifts or money. Then everyone sets out to visit friends and family. This visiting ceremony continues for 13 days; and on the thirteenth day of the first month of the year, Farvardin, the New Year ceremonies end in Sizdah Be-dar, the day of ‘Getting Rid of Thirteen’. Since 13 is considered unlucky, on the thirteenth day of Farvardin, which often corresponds to 1 April or April Fools’ day in the Western calendar, the day is spent outdoors, picnicking, telling jokes and playing pranks. Many believe that April Fools’ Day springs from this more ancient custom.

At the end of the day, people leave the green sprouts in running water, release the goldfish into a lake and return home. Norouz is over and they are now ready to begin the year.

I describe these things in such detail because Norouz is the Iranians’ last shred of hope at a time when their own particular identity is under threat of disappearing into a global, undifferentiated homogenized Islamic dogma. Keeping that identity alive is a matter of life and death for them. When the Arabs invaded and occupied Iran, the Muslim Caliphs tried hard to abolish Norouz and replace it with the Islamic Eids or other celebrations. The Iranians absorbed these Eids into their calendar but not at the expense of Norouz; it was never lost and retained its primacy in the calendar as the most important day of the year. This single day symbolizes the coexistence of diverse tendencies embedded at the heart of Iranian society: 3,000 years of a proud history alongside deep-rooted Islamic beliefs. These two elements do not always work well together.

Iran’s new Islamic regime, believing in a certain Islamic internationalism, was against any national tradition that could jeopardize the unity of Muslims worldwide and hence did not support Norouz. One of the first things that happened before the first Norouz after the establishment of the Islamic Republic was a series of long speeches by several mullahs and close friends of Khomeini condemning Norouz as ‘pagan superstition’; the Wednesday fireworks were also banned a little later. When we heard from our teachers that there would be no fireworks that year, we were furious for the first time since the Revolution. The Wednesday meant a lot to us; it was a night when we got together, had fun, pursued our own little adventures, enjoyed the fireworks, jumped over the fire and celebrated all night. Our decision to ignore this order was almost unanimous and, surprisingly, also backed by our parents’ support.

On the last Tuesday of the year, people ignored the ban and went out into the streets to carry on with their ceremonies as usual. However, everyone felt the renewed tension in the air, a tension we had thought was over with the Revolution. Revolutionary Committee vehicles moved through the streets trying to extinguish the fires but as soon as they had moved on we set off new ones. There was no violence but Committee members tried to convince people that this was a pagan tradition and that good Muslims should not follow the ceremonies of the ‘fire worshippers’, a name commonly given to the Zoroastrians. These were semi-independent bodies established in the chaotic early months of the Revolution. They were not answerable to the central government and they were armed and dangerous.

No one wanted trouble.

Everyone knew that Chaharshanbe-Suri could never be abandoned. What no one realized was that, for many years to come, this last Tuesday of the year would mark a symbolic opportunity for the Iranians to prove to the fundamentalist regime that they would never forsake their Iranian identity and traditions. They would venerate Chaharshanbe-Suri and Norouz as much as they did Ashura and Ramadan—they had to coexist. Each year, police brutality against the Chaharshanbe-Suri ceremonies increased. The following year the police attacked the boys and girls who were celebrating, thereby inciting the crowds to react violently. Soon the ban on fireworks was flouted through the use of home-made ones that often exploded with disastrous results. Chaharshanbe-Suri, the day of soul-cleansing and joy and charity, turned into a violent and dangerous day when young people were beaten and persecuted by the police on the one hand and endangered by their home-made fireworks on the other. But Chaharshanbe-Suri was never abandoned. In the suffocating fundamentalist atmosphere that was soon to be established, it became the one day in the year when people could shout out how much they missed their joyful celebrations.

The climax of this confrontation occurred in March 2010, when Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei declared that Fireworks Wednesday was against the Sharia; it amounted to ‘fire worship’ and he forbade people from going out and celebrating on the streets. Furious with the way he had authorized the use of violence against the Green Movement after the presidential election of 2009, millions of people around the country challenged his authority by lighting fires in the streets.

The government attack on Norouz itself was milder because it had succeeded in locating a quote from Imam Jafar Sadeq in praise of Norouz. But Khomeini tried to downplay its importance in his speech on the first day of the New Year by declaring, ‘As long as there is oppression in the world, we have no celebrations.’ He failed to make a similar pronouncement on Islamic celebrations, though. They tried to cancel the holiday on the Thirteenth of Farvardin but the people simply ignored their efforts and refused to show up for work. Instead, they went out to the countryside and celebrated their ‘Getting Rid of Thirteen’, thus forcing the regime to recognize this day; it did so but changed its name to ‘day of Nature’ in an attempt to deny its pre-Islamic origins.

The 13 days of Norouz was my only opportunity to meet almost every member of our large family. In the first week, it is the duty of the younger generation to visit its elders; the following week the elders reciprocate. In the spring of 1980 we did everything that the traditions demanded in order to guarantee a fabulous year ahead: we cleansed our souls by fire, we summoned the support of our guardian spirits, we did charitable deeds, we showed our respect to our elders, we sat beside the haft-sin table, we killed the Unholy Thirteenth and we released the goldfish and put the green sprouts in water. Nothing could go wrong in the year that had just begun.

We could not have been more wrong.