18 March 2004
Iranians in America Celebrate Nowruz
Celebration strengthens sense of community among Iranian Americans
By Steve Holgate
Berkeley, California -- Celebrants rope off a city block and light a fire in the street. Soon a crowd of more than 1,000 people, aged between five and eighty-five, boys and girls, men and women, grandfathers and grandmothers, are hopping over the blaze, shouting, "Give me your healthy reddish hue and take from me my yellowish winter pallor," a traditional Persian chant.
The fire jumping celebration, a vestige of the ancient Zoroastrian faith, is held Tuesday evening each year before the vernal equinox, which marks the start of the joyous traditional Persian New Year holiday, Nowruz.
In another town, the fire has been lighted on the beach, and thousands attend. In still another city, people are marching in a Nowruz parade. Children dress in costumes and scamper from house to house, ringing doorbells. In one city after another, Iranians lay out the Nowruz cloth with seven objects that begin with sin. Wanting to share in their citizens' festivities, mayors attend Nowruz parties and the President as well as several governors have issued Nowruz proclamations.
But wait! The city block is not in Tehran, but Berkeley, California. The beach fire is not on the shore of the Caspian, but of the Pacific Ocean, in a place called Stimson Beach, near San Francisco. The parade is not in Mashhad, but New York City. The costumed children roam the streets of Los Angeles and Washington, DC. The president in question is the President of the United States, and all the other officials in question are also American.
America's Iranian community this month celebrates Nowruz with others all over the world. Persian and Iranian centers around the country have organized parties, fire jumps, parades. In thousands of American homes, families have laid out the Nowruz cloth with wheat shoots, goldfish, the egg on the mirror and other traditional objects, and prepare for the family dinners that mark the New Year. The holy book in the center of the cloth may, reflecting Iran's diversity as well as that of the United States be the Koran, the Christian bible, or the writings of the Bahai faith. In many of these homes they will count down the moments before the spring equinox with the Persian language television and radio stations that dot the country, especially the West Coast of the United States, which has the largest Iranian-American populations. For some, with satellite dishes, Iranian-Americans can view programs originating from Iran, watching them at the same time as friends and family back in the home country.
Many in the Iranian-American community consider it crucial to maintain their celebration of Nowruz as an important part of the Iranian heritage of which they are fiercely proud. A woman named Mandana, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area and works at the Persian Center in Berkeley, makes clear that the celebrations in the United States has additional meaning for those, like her, born in Iran. In a recent interview she said, "We want our children to be exposed to the culture, to learn and know about that culture. That's one of (the center's) missions." She adds, "It's like with my children. I have to tell them what it is all about. We try hard to celebrate it, to keep the culture alive."
Nowruz represents only one of the highlights of the Persian Center's active yearly calendar. "Our purpose," Mandana says, "Is to create an environment to strengthen the sense of community for Iranians and Iranian-Americans." She adds that many of those attending Nowruz activities will not be of Persian heritage, but other Americans who have come to know of and enjoy this inclusive and happy celebration. This reflects one of the strongest missions of the ten year-old Persian Center. It offers Farsi and other classes not only to Iranians and the children of Iranian-Americans, but to the many other Americans who wish to learn about Iran and its culture -- in many cases, the culture of their friends and neighbors.
Tofan, who works in a business established by her parents, called the Nowruz Bazaar, echoes these sentiments. "Iran is a very diverse country. Nowruz brings us all together," she says. "To me it is beautiful ... a spiritual and joyful experience." Tofan describes how she and her family gather around the Nowruz spread, with its traditional objects. ("We grow our own wheat sprouts," she says.) and watch Persian television. They will repeat Nowruz prayers in unison with the Farsi-speaking television presenter. Tofan says that she knows of families that invite non-Iranian friends to their dinners. Many Iranians have also married non-Iranians and it is important, they feel, for their children to understand and celebrate their Iranian heritage.
Some say that, in part because of maintaining the joyous and welcoming tradition of Nowruz, their American neighbors are far more aware of the Iranian community in their midst and its cultural riches. The list of public officials, from the President on down, congratulating Iranian-Americans on the advent of Nowruz attest to this. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, recognizing the special contribution that Iranian-Americans have made to his state, said that Nowruz represents "a distinctive cultural occasion in California" that "promises a new life and rejuvenation." The Governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, said that Persian-Americans have "made an outstanding contribution to our growth and the development of our diverse and unified state." President Bush, in last year's Nowruz message, recognized that the "Occasions provides am opportunity for Persians to cherish their rich heritage and enjoy the company of family and friends in anticipation of happiness and blessings in the year ahead."
Persian Centers around the country, similar to the one at which Mandana works in Berkeley, will hold special events for Nowruz, inviting many Americans, not only those of Iranian descent, to their festivities. One of the most remarkable of the events will be a major parade, held in the heart of New York City's Manhattan business district, not far from the site of the World Trade Center towers, the parade itself speaking to the wish of New Yorkers to celebrate their unity, despite the efforts of terrorists to drive them apart. Centers in Washington, DC and other major cities have invited prominent members of the community, Iranian and non-Iranian, to celebrate with them. Universities with Persian or Iranian Studies Programs will also hold events.
Finally, though the most important events may be the dinners of family and friends spoken of by Tofan and Mandana, when thousands upon thousands of Iranian-Americans and their non-Iranian friends will quietly celebrate good food, an ancient and happy passage marking the beginning of a new year with its many hopes and possibilities, and honor the ties that bind them together in a new country.
Tofan speaks for many of them when she describes how her family will take a solemn moment in the midst of their celebration to pray. "We pray for friends and family. Pray for a good year for everyone. Pray for Iran and friends there. Pray for peace. It is important to us to remember who we are."