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Sal-e No Mobarak!
By Golbarg Bashi and Hamid Dabashi*
March 2009
به فارسی بخوانيم
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­­We celebrated our first Noruz together on 21 March 2006, just a few days after our wedding that year in New York, and just about a week before the next Noruz, in March 2007, our daughter Chelgis was born, and a few weeks after the Sizdah Bedar of the following year in 2008 we were celebrating the birth of our son Golchin. Noruz has assumed a renewed significance in o­ur life -- a colorful season of celebration, of all-embracing love, life-affirming joy, of greenery, growth, birth, and bounty, all in a manner we had never suspected before. Every year as the cherry blossoms bloom in the park by the HUDSON River and hyacinths, tulips, and narcissi fill the supermarket and florists’ aisles, we are immediately taken back to the days of our own childhood in Iran and our children’s birth and hear in the echoes of their laughter, Sal-e No Mobarak!­

All our lives, we have celebrated Noruz, in one way or another. Memories abound.

Golbarg’s childhood Noruzes in post-revolutionary Iran were private cozy gatherings, preceded by a serious month-long spring-cleaning, and then Chahar Shanbeh Suri (though illegal under the Islamic Republic, they still jumped over fire in her maternal grandmother {Simin-Dokht Mojab}’s semi-private street, called Kocheh-ye Kaj in Shiraz’s northern district of Ghasrdasht, filled with old bagh and vineyards -- those vineyards supplied many Shirazis with excellent grapes to make wine at home), followed by spending new years eve/day with the immediate family, new pajamas (sown by her mother), clothes, shoes and crisp 1000-rial bill eydis and the scent of hyacinths and cherry blossoms which her mother {Oranus} would have picked in the baghs of Ghasrdasht. Then 13 sweet days off from school (though burdened by an inordinate amount of homework) would follow with countless visits to older family members where kids could run free and eat as many cucumbers and Kolucheh Nokhodi as possible (still big favorites, and consumed in massive quantities in the form of Californian kerbys, one of the biggest perks in moving to the US from England). Some years, Golbarg, her sisters and family would go camping for a few days with scores of other close friends and family to breathtaking and barren spots in the province of Fars where she and her friends could freely run around without the compulsory hejab, gathering caterpillars and learn the name of every fauna and flora in the Persian dictionary. Through Noruz Golbarg found an eternal love and appreciation for nature and its rebirth in Spring.

Hamid’s memories of Noruz go back to Ahvaz of his childhood during the reign of Pahlavi II, his mother’s meticulous attention to details of the Haft Sin, for over a month in preparations, in particular the Qali Takuni rituals, and then her insistence to wake him and his late younger brother Aziz up in time for the Sal Tahvil no matter what ungodly wee hour of the morning it was, and having them change into their brand new pajamas (what’s the deal with Iranian mothers and these gaudy handmade pajamas)! She would place raw rice in their palms and have them pour it from one hand to the other, in anticipation of the exact moment of Sal Tahvil, as a sign and symbol of hope for prosperity in the year to come. Rashed would come to the national radio moments before the Sal Tahvil and start his sweet and warm benedictions and recite the venerable Ya Moqallib al-Qulub wa al-Absar…. As a student in Tehran in the 1970’s Hamid was too busy being a political activist to care about Noruz, and decidedly shunned it as a “monarchical plot.” We now both laugh at these recollections.

Carrying those early memories, Golbarg has set the Haft Sin table in every corner of the globe from Northern to Southern Europe, from Jordan to Japan, and struggled with finding the right ingredients and reconciling her environmental concerns with the compulsory gold fish in a bowl -- she settled for a picture of a gold fish before ditching the whole idea altogether. Ditched also ought to be the deeply racist figure of Blackface Hajji Firuz, doubtless a nasty remnant of African slaves that were bought and sold and made into an object of ridicule at the same time. We have been horrified to see Iranians celebrate the Noruz here in the US in colorful parades down Fifth Avenue, an otherwise perfectly beautiful thing to do, while parading a figure of Hajji Firuz, much to the horror of African-Americans who cannot believe that in this day and age there are still people that flaunt such racist acts unconsciously.

Over the years Noruz has changed meaning, significance, and symbolism -- and that’s how traditions transcend time and endure.

The Noruz of Golbarg’s adolescence in Sweden were forced events, all from having to pre-order the hyacinth with a florist friend of her parents months in advance (back then hyacinths were only available for Christmas in Sweden) to having to spend new year’s eve at either her local town’s Iranian Society party in a half-empty Red Cross Hall or later with friends at a Tehran-geles concert in Gothenburg where a fight or two would break out or the pop singer would pull out of the event at the very last minute. These events were inevitably anti-climactic, embarrassing (particularly to self-conscious teenagers subject to systematic racism at Swedish school) and oozed of Persian supremacy (where nationalistic songs were sung and badly sown Iranian flags decorated the walls), with an overriding sense of alienation and ghettoization. Non-Iranians weren’t really welcomed, except for a few Swedish women who were either married to or dating Iranian men. The difference between the Noruz of Golbarg’s childhood in Shiraz and those ghastly and mismatched gatherings in Gothenburg are the surest measures of the distance between home and exile, where one learns either to cast aside or to reclaim one’s heritage in newer and more enabling terms.

Hamid all but lost his sense of Noruz during the late 1970’s and 1980’s in the US, celebrating it forcibly for the sake of his two elder children Kaveh and Pardis, but with no sense of connectedness, meaning, or import. Noruz was anticlimactic in the US of the Carter and Reagan years—the years of the American Hostage Crisis and the long and bloody Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). As young Iranians in their tens of thousands were being slaughtered on the battlefield for eight long and troubling years there was very little to celebrate. Meanwhile, Iranians had stopped calling themselves Iranian altogether, and were now “Persians,” and suddenly Persian language became a bizarre chimerical construct they called “Farsi.” I am from Persia, people would say if asked. Where is that, Americans with their legendary knowledge of geography would wonder—oh somewhere near Transylvania, Hamid recalls one exasperated friend respond in Philadelphia of his graduate student years.

In meetings Iranians from all corners of the land, as well as Kurds and Afghans in Sweden and partaking in their Noruz celebrations, Golbarg came to appreciate the plight of provincial “minorities” and refugees in Iran, especially Afghans who were blamed for all sorts of crimes and who were/are racially stigmatized and abused in the labor force but with whom as an immigrant herself and a target of racism in Europe, she came to have so much in common. In the UK, Golbarg discovered many similarities—culturally, linguistically and spiritually—with her fellow Pakistani, Indian, Arab, Afghan and Kurdish classmates and roommates at college. In the UK, she learnt that being a Pakistani Muslim in Britain didn’t mean the same thing as Khomeini’s version of Islam, or that the Kurdish Noruz celebrations are equally if not even more festive than her own Shirazi-version and that putting a Qur’an on the Haft Sin table didn’t mean rooting for an Islamic government. All of this didn’t feel as having found out about a hidden step-sister who was now competing with you over your mother’s attention; it felt more like sharing a beautiful event with a newly found friend who in every sense resembles you and your loved ones. It was liberating.

Hamid’s rediscovery of Noruz, too, paradoxically perhaps and perhaps not, occurred in the late 1990’s, early 2000’s, during his frequent trips to the Arab and Muslim world, where he saw the shared celebrations of Noruz by Kurds, Tajiks, and Afghans. He heard and saw the echoes of his innermost sanctities recited and shared in alternative, and melodiously beautiful, accents. Hendian ra ham zaban e Hend madh, Sendian ra ham zaban Send madh—he kept murmuring Rumi to himself from Morocco to Turkey.

In an enduring sense, we have learned to celebrate Noruz as a festive Iranian new year by learning the humility of how to share it with other people in our geographical neighborhood, and to whom we also belong by the fact of our historical whereabouts. Nothing is more unbecoming than a jingoistic claim on Noruz as an exclusively Iranian festival. It is not. Kurds, Tajiks, and Afghans have an equally legitimate claim on it. And it is only by learning the ennobling humility of sharing it with them that we can celebrate and offer it as a seasonal reminder of the sisterhood and brotherhood of humankind and perhaps help cure our culture of its deeply rooted racism and prejudices against its neighbors.

Much strife, violence, and ugliness today separates people along ethnic and sectarian, class and gender, political and ideological lines. At its heart, Noruz is a pagan pause puncturing all our learned or belated pieties. We have grown up putting a copy of the Qur’an or a Divan of Hafez, a picture of Ali ibn abi Taleb or a few gold coins in the midst of our Haft Sin. Others may do other things. We have started cooking Zershk Polo with our Thanksgiving Turkey (best recipe by our good friend Sima Shakhsari), and the Sabzi Polo Mahi of our Shab e Eid may sit politely next to a Pacific Salmon and not know quite what to do with itself. But all traditions are living organisms. They live and thrive in and through change.

Traditions remain meaningful and enduring only when hanged on rugged realities, and not made contingent on delusional fantasies. In many ways, how we have celebrated Noruz abroad depends on how we have felt about events inside Iran. Khomeini’s years were bitter, bold, and bloody. For Iranians inside Iran and Golbarg’s family who had fled warn-torn Khuzestan to seek refuge in her mother’s native Shiraz in 1980, Noruz during those terrorizing years was a rare occasion to feel hopeful about the future. For Iranians abroad, like Hamid, those years made Noruz the shadow of a shy shade of happiness awaiting recognition. That was pretty much the state of affairs until the Khatami era, when the pictures of young and hopeful faces splashed across the Internet gave a new meaning to Noruz. It was perhaps in Iranian cinema, particularly in Jafar Panahi’s “White Balloon” (1995), with Sal Tahvil at the center of its narrative, that Noruz as a singularly positive sign was brought back to Iranians around the globe.

There are so many instances of misery in the world that a moment of joy can bless just about any old and venerable tradition around which we bring together those near and dear to us, to tell them how much we love them, and with what ever accent we hear it, we welcome the rhapsodic sound of Sal-e No Mobarak.

* Golbarg Bashi is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of History at Pace University in New York.
* Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.