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Personal History: Childhood Memories

 

 

Childhood Memories of Nowruz, the Persian New Year 

A Personal History

Keyvan Tabari

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Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2009. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise            distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.

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My most vivid childhood memories of Nowruz, celebrated as the Persian New Year which begins on the first day of spring (usually March 21), go back to when I was about 13. That was a special time. I had not yet come to the United States; and this being the early 1950s, the Iranian society had not yet begun to change as it has so radically since.  When I reflect on these memories now, I am struck by how little I knew about the origins and symbolism of Nowruz. I have attached an explanatory endnote here that shows what I learned about them much later in life.

For me, the first signs of Nowruz always came in mid March in the form of minstrels called Haji Firuz who, for some unknown reasons, blackened their faces. With tambourines in their hands they would sing songs in praise of Nowruz in the streets. I would then begin counting the days to Nowruz. I looked forward to it eagerly as a long holiday (lasting fourteen days), after a long school session that went almost nonstop from the early fall to the beginning of spring.

Another early bonus of Nowruz was getting new clothes as it was a required tradition for the new year. The process was complicated as there were no ready-made suits or even shoes. First we had to choose the material for the one suit I was allowed -no slacks or jackets, always suits. The choices were between the local textiles, most famously kazerooni, named after a textile manufacturer in Isfahan, or the more preferred foreign materials. Among the latter the best was generically called fastooni which, as I learned later, was a mispronunciation of bostoni, meaning “from Boston,” at one time an American textile manufacturing center. We would then take the material to our tailor -a thin, balding man with a measuring tape always hung over his shoulders- to cut it to our measurements. The tailor demanded that we visit him twice more for “prov” (from the French verb to prove) so that he could have us try on his work in progress before he released the suit to us. The suit fit, but not the shoes. They were also measured and made by hand from leather. Nonetheless, they hurt when I wore them for a long time, partly because the leather was not soft enough.

Tehran, where we lived, had a harsh winter, cold and dry with lots of snow. Anyone who could afford the trip, left town for Nowruz after the evening before the last Wednesday of the Persian year. On that evening we jumped over bonfires of dried brush and shouted to the glow “I give my pallid complexion to you and take your ruddy color.” This was the festival of chaharshanbeh suri. Chaharshanbeh was Wednesday in Persian but I did not know what suri meant. Some of us speculated that it was a derivative of the word sur (party) and hence we also took the festival to be a celebration of the last Wednesday of the year. That, however, left another question unanswered: why among all days of the week was Wednesday so important?

We were able to leave Tehran because my family had originally come from the northern province of Mazandaran and still maintained a country home there. We took the train because the road which was not paved was treacherously dangerous as it had to traverse mountains that rose more than ten thousand feet. The railroad was a marvel to my young eyes. It snaked up and down valleys and peaks, over bridges crossing canyons and through tunnels that bore into insurmountable rocks. The train whistled as it approached each tunnel. I would open the window and stick my head out, smelling the soot. As the train gained height on the snow capped mountains I also felt a high. This was the mythical land of Iran’s 1000 year old epic poem, Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, where Fereydoon avenged the death of his father, Persia’s legendary King Jamshid – the founder of the Nowruz festival- by “putting in chains” his murderer Zahhak.

The aura of legends had been reinforced by the pride that Iranians took in this railroad built in the 1930s. This was their most symbolic act of modernization. In our imagination it had been elevated to extreme international importance as the “Bridge of Victory’ in World War Two. By connecting the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea it provided the Allied Powers with the only all year route for sending war materials to the Soviet Union at a crucial time when the German siege was crushing its opponents.

We ate cutlet (a meat and vegetable pie) as the main part of the luncheon meal which we had packed for the train ride. We drank sinalgo, a carbonated lemon soda, as we approached Mazandaran. This land on the narrow littoral of the Caspian Sea was blessed with the abundant moisture that the sea generated. The moisture was trapped by the high walls of the mountains separating Mazandaran from the arid Tehran. The resulting lush green rice paddies and jungles and the fragrant humid air were the great attractions of Mazandaran for me during Nowruz.

Our destination was Sari, the capital of the province, a town with a population of about 30,000. This was my ancestral home where many of my relatives still lived.  Extended family reunion was a big part of my Nowruz experience. One cousin was special because he was almost my age. My memory of spending time with my sisters and cousins their age is also strong. But there were many more relatives.

The night before Nowruz we took a special bath. We had a wood-fired bathhouse in our home. It was huge, complete with a cold water pool (howzcheh) and a warm water pool (khazineh). That size, however, posed a serious problem. It took a full day to heat our bathhouse. Consequently, we seldom used it. Instead, we went to a public bathhouse in the town, in a district called barqh which meant electricity as it was also the location for the town’s newly installed electrical generator.

Clean and wearing our new clothes and shoes for the first time, on the first day of Nowruz we began our visits of relatives and close friends. We visited them and were visited by them in a time-honored ritual. There was a strict protocol in the Nowruz visits. The younger ones called on the elders first; the latter then returned the visit. Fine tuning that hierarchy -whether one was entitled to receive the specific guest rather than be his guest- was not without complications. We had ample time, however, to complete the rounds. The visits were not private; at any given time several visitors could be sitting around in the host’s guest room, all greeting each other by simply bowing. Those lower in social status often put their hands on their heart as a sign of respect for the addressee.

In those visits we were served black tea in small glasses and a variety of sweets specially made for Nowruz. I liked two kinds of these sweets the most. One was a semi-sweet cookie baked especially well by my grandmother. It was called yek dandooni which meant “(eatable) with only one tooth.” The name highlighted its small size. My other favorite sweet was marzipan which came in various shapes. The one I preferred looked like the white mulberry fruit with a narrow section of almond as its stem.

Somewhere prominent in the reception room one would see the haft-seen (seven seens) spread on a beautifully embroidered tablecloth which was usually on a table, but sometimes simply on the floor. This was the ultimate symbol of Nowruz. Literally, the haft-seen meant to display seven objects all with names starting with the Persian letter seen which sounds like S. Beyond this I did not know much about its symbolism. Some of the objects seemed to me reasonably connected to spring, the beginning season of the new solar year. These included sabzi (growing wheatgrass), and sonbol (hyacinth). I could understand the inclusion of sekkeh (gold coins) as a symbol of wished prosperity. But why was there also sib (apple) of all fruits? More puzzling, why were there sekanjebin – a sweet and sour juice- and even serkeh (vinegar)?

Nor could anyone satisfactorily explain to me the inclusion -in the haft seen- of other objects with names that did not begin with the letter seen. In this category were an egg (tokhm-e morq), a mirror (a’eeneh), gold fish in a bowl of water, and a copy of the Qur’an. I was told that the egg was there to represent fertility. I could not quite understand what was meant when they said that “water was for light or enlightenment”. The role of the fish also remained unknown. The Qur’an was, on the other hand, familiar as the holy text of our nominal religion; but it was in Arabic, a language that no one of us understood. This did not, however, prevent my mother from performing a very important task. At dawn on the first day of Nowruz before anyone was allowed to leave the house, my mother took the family Qur’an and walked through the entrance gate while reciting a special prayer of verses in Arabic from the Qur’an -which she did not fully comprehend- but which in general beseeched God for a change for the better in the new year.  The invocation of this prayer, called moqalleb olqolub valabsar (Oh, the transformer of hearts and eyes!), was quite common in Nowruz, although nobody could tell me the origin of this practice. My mother’s passage under the gate inaugurated the new year in our house.

As kids we were given Nowruz gifts. They were always cash. The amount depended on the generosity of the donors and our proximity to them as relatives. We did not receive games because games as toys did not then exist in Iran. That is also why we did not have many ways to spend our cash gifts. I only remember spending them on snacks which we bought on the way to school back in Tehran.

We played two kinds of games. One was like stick ball except that the ball was also a stick -a smaller stick. The other game was with painted hard-boiled eggs. In turn, one of us would hold the wide part of his egg in our fist while the other would hit it with the sharper end of his egg. If you made a crack in the other’s egg, you would win the game and the prize which was his egg.

We passed idle time in Sari walking through its small market, cobbled with rocks from the river which became slippery in the rain. This was not for window shopping. Rather, our destination was the fabric shop which my cousin’s father owned. He stood behind the counter in coat and tie while his assistant handled the usual customers who were peasant women in their colorful garb, sometimes with a baby tied on their back. My uncle himself attended to the occasional city folks. The rest of the time he read two-day old newspapers which had just arrived from Tehran.

Occasionally we would venture toward my parents’ citrus orchard on the outskirts of the town. This was a large property which had been left under utilized since the occupying Russian troops left Iran several years earlier in the 1940s. As occupiers during the Second World War, the Russians “even took the doors of the house,” my father lamented. I still liked what was left.  The upper floor was a wonderful open space with no obstructing columns and windows all around. The oranges on the neglected trees were sour but delicious.

If all of this sounds rather simple, well it was! This was toward the end of the feudal era in Iran. Those times had their good side for the fortunate landed gentry. My parents had inherited considerable farmlands and every Nowruz they would invite nearly thirty guests to the village where their property was located. In fact, however, we were all guests of the person who served as the Zabet (collector) of our share of the crops -which was mostly rice. To go to this overseer’s house in his village we had to ride horses. Only a few were our own which we boarded with Zabet, the rest were provided by him and other leaders of the village, the headman (kadkhoda) and the “commander of the water (mirab)”. I liked the latter’s horse the best. The spectacle of so many horses crowding the front yard of our house on the day of the journey is still a fond memory. It took us nearly half a day to reach our destination on horseback, meandering through several other small villages. Years later, when a direct paved road was built, I was amazed to discover that the distance was only about one mile.

We stayed in Zabet’s village for a couple of nights. For breakfast we ate the most delicate pastry, komaj and sheer paneer, made from fresh eggs and milk which we saw drawn before our eyes, At lunch and dinner we ate rice and lamb sitting on the carpeted floor of Zabet’s house, an adobe structure partly built on stilts which still seems imposing in my memory. At night, by the light of the kerosene lamp in that house we played card games of pasoor (popular among all Persians), Gin Rummy, belot (a simpler French version of bridge), as well as poker.

We also listened to the more learned members of our group recite Persian poetry from memory. Sometimes we had a more tantalizing conversation. A relative who had received his post-doctorate medical education in France enthralled us with tales from Paris. Even more intriguing was another guest. His friends introduced him as Iran’s expert on existentialism. True or not, this was the first time that I heard people actually talk about the meaning of that word. I remember him most for being fond of reciting a Persian poem with the following lines which I thought he meant to express his existentialist beliefs: “na bar oshtori savaram/na cho khar bezir baram/na arbab-e raeyat/ na qolam-e shariaram (I am not riding a camel/nor am I under a burden like a donkey/I am not the lord of peasants/nor am I the servant of the king). I did not know quite what to make of the reference to peasants in our particular setting.  My father, who was the “lord of the peasants” among us, was also a physician; during our stay he held an ad hoc clinic seeing the multitude of his sick and hypochondriac “peasants”.

The lamb we ate at Zabet’s house came from our own herd kept in another village which we visited next. We rode the horses there, this time having a chance to go fast in the open field of the ranch and feel the invigorating spring breeze. The crusty head herdsman (with a strange name, Abolmajan, which I never encountered elsewhere) gave my father a report on the status of our few horses and cows, and the increase in the number of our sheep from spring births. More colorfully, I remember the branding of the newborns with the initials KT, cleverly chosen by my parents for their five children whose first names all began with the letter K.

For me the Nowruz holiday extended to the 13th day of the new Persian year. On that day we went for a picnic out of town. I loved to lie on the fresh grass and look at the blue sky and fluffy clouds through the white and pink blossoms of real fruit trees. This was when we threw away the overgrown wheat grass of the haft-seen. I considered this as the perfect act of closure for a holiday that marked the end of one year and the beginning of the next.

Notes

 

This explanatory note summarizes what I have learned about Nowruz through some research much later in life.

History

Nowruz, a Persian word which means “new day” is Iran’s most important secular holiday. It is always on the first day of spring (usually March 21) and as such it is the beginning of the Persian solar year.

Nowruz has its historical roots in the ancient Iranians’ observation of the coming of both the spring and autumn. It is believed that the spring festivities of the people in Mesopotamia led the Persians to develop their own spring festival. The minstrel Haji Firuz who heralds the coming of Nowruz in the streets of contemporary Iran with his songs of cheers, accompanied by tambourines and trumpets, is traced to the Domuzi tradition of Mesopotamia.

The ancient Greek historian Xenohpon has given a detailed account of Nowruz celebration taking palace in Persepolis, the palaces of the Achaemenids kings (648-330 BCE). Bas-relief in Persepolis depicts scenes related to Nowruz. One shows the equality in the power of a fighting bull (representing the Earth) and a lion (representing the Sun) on the day of the spring equinox when the sun is directly overhead. Another scene is of the kings from many nations under the Persian Empire bringing gifts to the Persian King of Kings, a major ritual on Nowruz.

After the Achaemenids, the celebration of Nowruz continued during the succeeding Parthian dynasty (248 BCE-224 CE), although it was marked at the Autumn Equinox. The term Nowruz first appeared in Persian records dating to the second century CE. The third Persian dynasty, the Sassanids (224-651 CE) has left the most extensive records abut the Nowruz celebration. Nowruz was now treated as the most important day of the year, and the holiest festival of the Sassanids’ official religion, Zoroastrianism. Perhaps even considered as having been founded by Zoroaster himself, it is one of only two festivals named in the surviving text of Avesta, the collection of the Zoroastrian sacred texts complied under the Sassanids. (The other is the festival of the Sixth “Gahanbar, meaning a proper season” which is when the God Ahura Mazda opens the door of paradise for man.)

The Sassanids established most royal traditions of Nowruz which continued until the modern times. They included royal audiences with the public, cash gifts, and the pardoning of prisoners. Furthermore, from the Sassanids era, the celebration of Nowruz spread worldwide, especially in those areas which belonged to the Greater Iran, including parts of West Asia, Central Asia, South Asia, Northwestern China, the Caucasus, Turkey, the Crimea, Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Republic of Macedonia.

A vivid description of the Nowruz celebration in the courts of the ancient Kings of Persia is provided by the Persian poet and mathematician Omar Khayyam in his book, Nowruznama:

“From the era of Keykhosrow till the days of Yazdegard, last of the pre-Islamic kings of Persia, the royal custom was thus: on the first day of the New Year, Now Ruz, the King’s first visitor was the High Mobad (Priest) of the Zoroastrians, who brought with him as gifts a golden goblet full of wine, a ring, some gold coins, a fistful of green sprigs of wheat, a sword, and a bow. In the language of Persia he would then glorify God and praise the monarch…”

The Islamic conquest of Persia (633-656) ended the Sassanids rule and the dominance of the Zoroastrian religion. It did not, however, eliminate the celebration of Nowruz; it was absorbed in the new Islamic society as was the case with many other aspects of the old Persian civilization. The first four Caliphs (rashidin) presided over Nowruz celebration. More important, the second Caliphate dynasty, the Abbasid which had close ties with Iran, adopted Nowruz as the main government holiday.

As the Caliphs hold on Iran weakened, the emerging Persian dynasties, the Samanids and Buyids, revived much of the old Sassanid tradition by restoring many smaller rituals that had been discarded by the Caliphate. Thereafter, even the Turkish and Mongol invaders of Iran did not attempt to abolish Nowruz. Thus Nowruz has remained as the main festival of the year in Iran for both officials and the people.

Myths

Alongside historical facts, Nowruz has been embellished with myths and legends. Our main source for these myths is Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (which means the “Great Book” as well as the “Book of Kings”). This is the epic work of poetry written around 1000 CE which tells the story of mostly mythical and some historical past of Greater Iran from the creation of the world to the Islamic conquest of Iran. The Shahnameh dates Nowruz back to the reign of the mythical first Persian King Jamshid (the Indo-Iranian Yima or Yama of lore). He is credited with founding Nowruz. As the Shahnameh pictures it, Jamshid made a throne studded with gems and sitting on it, had demons raise him from the earth into the heavens. There Jamshid sat like the sun shining in the sky. All creatures of the world then gathered in wonder around him. Jamshid called this day the New Day (Nowruz). This became the first day of the first month of the Persian calendar.

A Persian scholar of the 10th century, Abu Rayhan Biruni has also noted that it was the belief of the Persians that Nowruz marked the first day when the universe began its motion. This is in his book “Kitab al-Tafhim li Awail Sina‘at al-Tanjim (Instruction in the Elements of the Art of Astrology).

Rituals

Iranians seem to have borrowed the tradition of celebrating Nowruz as a spring festival from the civilizations of Mesopotamia. Unlike them, the Iranian tribes did not have such a tradition before arriving in the neighboring western part of the Iranian Plateau around the first millennium BCE.

1- Haji Firuz

Haji Firuz has been traced to the Sumerian god of sacrifice, Domuzi or Tamumuz, who was killed at the end of each year and was reborn at the beginning of the new year. Haji Firuz literally means “Mr. Victor”; the Haji is simply an honorific tile and does not connote that he is a Muslim having done the Haj pilgrimage.

In Zoroastrian lore which considers fire important, Haji Firuz represents the fire-keepers who wore red and were sent by the priests to herald the arrival of Nowruz. His assignment was to call on the people to burn their old belongings in the fire, and regain their health from the glow of the fire. The black color of his face was said to be caused by the heat of the holy fire. Haji Firuz’s humor brought laughter to the people, and his music and singing brought them joy. Among his songs one line is now most famous: “haji firuz-e/sali yek ruz-e (It is Haji Firuz/ it –Nowruz- is only one day in the year).” Haji Firuz’s merry-making was important because the New Year had to begin with joy, happiness and laughter so that it would continue for the rest of the year. If a family was not happy, according to the old Persian Zoroastrian beliefs, the faravhar (spirits) who are guests in its house would depart and this could cause loss of blessing and abundance for the household. Iranians believed that in the last ten days before Nowruz the spirits of their ancestors came for a visit to their house.

2- Khaneh-takani (Shaking the House)

From a month before the New Year Iranians undertake a thorough house cleaning which also includes repair, painting and getting rid of items no longer of use.

3- Chaharshanbeh suri (Red Wednesday)

Chaharshanbeh suri is the most important ritual before the Nowruz. It takes place on the evening before the last Wednesday of the year. The main event is just after sunset. Bonfires, at least three, are made with dry bushes, and people jump over them while shouting “sorkhi-ye to az man, zardi-e man az to (Your redness be mine, my yellowness be yours)”. In Isfahan’s Palace of Chehel Sotoun wall paintings include scenes of chaharshanbeh suri celebrations dating to the Safavid period in the 16th century. The word suri (red) indicates the symbolism of fire. This ritual is rooted in the Zoroastrian festival of fire and its expectation of the triumph of light (goodness) over darkness (badness).

Wednesday was considered unlucky in the Arab culture, unlike the Iranian culture. Therefore, it has been suggested that the choice of (or change to) the evening before Wednesday for this ritual was made after the Arab invasion of Iran, in the 7th century CE. Accordingly, the ritual was to ward off the bad luck of Wednesday. A ritual of the night of Chaharshanbeh suri is “kuze shekani (breaking the earthen jar)” The jar symbolically holds one’s bad fortunes. The food special to Chaharshanbeh suri is ajil-e moshkelgosha (problem solving nuts). It is offered to the guests by the host who has made a nazr which requires that such an offering be made toward the fulfillment of a hoped-for expectation.

On the evening of Chaharshanbeh suri there is also the ritual of gashoq-zany (spoon beating), which consist of children running through the streets banging on pots and pants with spoons and knocking on doors for treats. Another ritual on this night is “falgoosh istadan (standing to hear fortunes)”. Girls in groups of two or three stand on street corners and eavesdrop on the conversations of passersby from which they try to foretell their prospects for marriage in the coming year.

4- Haft seen (Seven seens)

The items on the haft-seen table are said to have represented the seven creations and holy immortals protecting them in the ancient Persian beliefs. They all have names beginning with the letter seen in the Persian alphabet. Each is said to symbolize an important concept. Sabzeh (green) which is wheat, barley or lentil sprouts growing in a bowl, symbolizes rebirth; sir (garlic) symbolizes medicine; sib (apple) symbolizes health; somaq (sumac berries) symbolizes the color of sunrise; senjed (the dried fruit of the oleaster tree) symbolizes love; samanu (a sweet pudding made from wheat germ) symbolizes affluence; serkeh (vinegar) symbolizes age and patience; sekkeh (coins) symbolizes wealth; sonbol (hyacinth) is the fragrant spring flower.

The haft sin table also usually displays some items with names which do not begin with sin, but have special significance. They are a mirror which symbolizes cleanness and honesty, lighted candles which symbolize enlightenment and happiness, decorated eggs which symbolize fertility, a bowl of water with goldfish which symbolize life within life, and the astrological sign of Pisces which the sun is leaving on Nowruz, rosewater which is believed to have magical cleansing powers, the holy book of the family depending on their religion: the Qur’an, the Zoroastrian Avesta, Bible, Torah, or the Bahai Kitáb-i-Aqdas, and a book of poetry  which is usually either Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh or Hafez’s Divan.

5- New Year dish

The traditional meal of the evening before Nowruz is sabzi polo mahi, which is rice with green herbs served with fish. The green herbs are parsley, coriander, chives, dill and fenugreek.

6- Sizdah bedar (Outdoors on the Thirteenth)

On the thirteenth day of the New Year, the rite of sizdah bedar takes place. This is a day of celebration in the outdoors, with music, dancing and food.

The sizdah bedar ritual is rooted in the ancient Persians’ belief that each month of the year was controlled by one of the twelve constellations in the Zodiac. They dominated the earth for a thousand years at the end of which the earth and sky collapsed causing chaos. Accordingly, Nowruz lasted twelve days, and the thirteenth day was the time of chaos when order was put aside and people avoided bad luck by going outdoors and partying. At the end of the celebrations on this day, the sabzeh grown for the haft-seen which collected all the bad luck is thrown into running water as an act of exorcism.

It is also customary for young single women to tie the leaves of the sabzeh before discarding it or, alternatively, the leaves of other grass. By this the woman expresses a wish to be married before the sizdah bedar of next year.

Another tradition associated with this day is dorugh-e sizdah, (the lie of the thirteenth), which is lying to someone as a practical joke and making them believe it.

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