Friday, March 02, 2007

No Rooz: A Religious Festival

Once more Iranians are getting ready for their New Year parties. Hotels and restaurants are the most fashionable places for many, although a few organizations use local public libraries or religious institution such as the Zoroastrian Darb-e Mehr. But for many, No Rooz remains a family and personal holiday.

Though Iranians refer to No Rooz as a national holiday, in fact, this holiday is the most religious holidays, more than Yalda or even Mehregan. If it does not appear as a religious holiday or ritual, it is just due to the Cosmological nature of the religion which is based on, Zoroastrianism. Iranian holidays, unlike any other holidays in Western calender, are not related to any events, or the celebration of life, miracles, and deeds of a great personalities, but mainly are based on the position of planets, primarily Sun and Earth.

Among all the holidays there are two which are associated with the "beginning", No Rooz is the beginning of the spring and Mehregan is the beginning of the winter (in the Fasli Calendar*), thought, a greater importance is given to No Rooz. Its greater sanctity, compared to the second holiest holiday, Mehregan, could be attributed not only to the “beginning” nature of it but to the exactitude of its time. While No Rooz starts with the hour and minute and second, Mehregan is just celebrated on the day. Also, the significance of what begins by No Rooz, the birth and growth, could not possibly be ignored.

What is so holy about the beginning? Not much, just a little more than the end and yet a bit more than the middle. It is not only we Iranians who are obsessed with this cornerstone, but humanity in general. We need to have a starting and an ending point in order to be able to select one whole piece and separate it from the others, no matter how artificial or arbitrary they might be. Try to imagine a story with no beginning and no end. Try to imagine an organism without beginning and without end. Try to imagine a human being without birth and without death. How vain and how aimless! This beginning and ending not only separate entities from each other, but it give them a meaning, a purpose, a moral sense. That is why it is holy. Beginning is, also, a bit holier than the end since it is joyful since it comes with an expectation and hope.

Iranian holidays are all representative of these hidden meaning and purposes. By celebrating them, we are supposed to pursue these aims. By each holiday we prepare ourselves to start a meaningful journey, start walking on a new path with a clear goal in mind and a clear resolution, with the hope to carry it to the end successfully.

Those of us who are old enough remember the preparatory events for the New Year. House cleaning was the most memorable in my family. We would take every piece of furniture out of the house for dusting and cleaning. Removing the carpets was my favorite, the newspapers use as mats under them, yellowish, coated with soft dust, was like an antique treasure to me even though they were only one year old; and washing and cleaning and cleaning and cleaning to which there was no end was still carried on with all the rhythm of poetry. Throwing out the broken, rusty, moldy, torn and worn out was a relief too. And the most important was the last day of all these cleaning, the evening we all impatiently awaited, Chahar Shanbeh Suri, with nuts and dried fruits in our pockets, waiting for the sunset so we could set the fire and jump over it. It was our good neighbor Mrs. Kharazi who would never let us to start the fun without grinding and pounding the myrrh and other herbs and minerals in a big brass mortar while reciting the prayer intend to undo all the falsehood, lies, and deceptions, and cast away all the evil eyes and bad wishes from us.

I still very faithfully try to keep the ritual as a grown-up living in New York City, despite the cold weather, not only to keep the tradition going, but because it is a very important part of my well being. What I like the most about these holidays are their therapeutic effects on me, the same religious effect that was intended by them originally. I do not mean to reduce the whole spiritual aspect of the religion to its psychological impact, but besides the linguistic terminology, how else could we explain most of the metaphysical? I impatiently look forward to this holiday to clean up the pains, the sadness, the losses, the regrets, and the hurts; and put them all in a small brass mortar and pound them. I never missed jumping over the fire even if it was only a candle in the kitchen when we were living in an apartment. Now we are fortunate to have a house with a backyard in which we can burn the trimmings of a pair of mulberry trees saved from the spring gardening and enjoy the good perfume of mulberry while cleansing our souls. And later at night, while the flames wane, I would sit with a whole cup of course salt and sprinkle it over the fire. The yellow sparkles vanish in the darkness and take with them the pain of all misdeeds and misfortunes. I give away whatever does not serve any purpose in my life in the protective warmth of the fire. What do I need the grievances over a trivial argument with a friend or partner for? What do I need hard feelings against someone dear who, in a moments of confusion, said or did something that I did not like? What do I need the sadness due to the losses of those dear to me while I can cherish the good memories in my heart? The warmth and the glow of the fire are the best place to “undress” to get “nude” and to “empty” myself from what ever is a burden. I will never miss this chance.

Cleansed inside and outside, we all should go to welcome the “beginning” with light, with a salute, and with purity. We all know all about the haft seen, that I’m not so kosher about, always placing cinnamon in just to honor Michael Ondatjee. My samanou, is not always samanou but something similar, i.e., sweet and brownish like molasses. Gold fishes and their upkeep are my husband’s passion; they stay alive for years; and when they die, it takes us one or two years to bring ourselves to buy another one. Honestly, we do not know if originally they were seven seen or sheen and what they were; and it seems that whatever they were, sheen or seen, the tradition is fairly new. Our Parsee friends from Bombay who left Iran in tenth century have no idea about this custom. But whatever we miss, we should not miss the fire or candles, one never “begins” without it. Also the flowers, pussy willows and forsythias and quince apple blossoms and, best of all, did-o-bazdid and plenty of kisses are a must.

Finally, sizdehbedar, is my husband’s favorites. We take our sabze’s to the lake, if it does not rain heavily or does not snow, with a big loaf of bread to feed the ducks and geese. He is a big believer in knotting the sabzeh. I will never forget the first year I met him, before we married, he invited me to take the sabzeh he had grown to throw in the river. In his apartment, what I found as sabzeh was three grains of wheat grown to ten inches high! We picked them up, all three grains, and went over Brooklyn Bridge, and we knot them with our wishes. His first one was for our dear country Iran (well!). The second knot was for my sister’s health (after twenty-eight years, thank Heaven and those three grains of wheat, she is fine). The third was for us (we got married six months later). With my wishes I cheated a little, I placed the residues of whatever hard feelings and grief and passivity and gloominess into the knots, hoping they would be washed away into the water. Throwing three grains of wheat from the height of the Brooklyn Bridge to the East River was not easy. We placed them in a tissue paper and placed some pebbles next to them to give them heft, then my husband very skillfully launched them into the water. Oh my God, you may not believe it, they landed so nicely over the water and were carried away smoothly. We both took it as a good omen. He is still a big believer in that.

Try it, I promise you won’t regret it.

Happy New Year.

* The division of the Fasli Calendar is different than our calendar. A year is divided into two seasons and every season into six months, every month into four sections, the first two being seven days each and the second two eight days each. The last five days are called panjeh and are not part of the twelve months. As a result, Chaharshanbeh is always the last day of the year. And no matter what, the year always start with Shanbeh (Saturday). (These names were given to them after changing to the Shamsi calander, i.e. while the tradition is old, the names are fairly new.)

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