The coming weekend marks the Persian New Year. Nowruz, or New Day, heralds the advent of spring and jubilantly injects life into the frozen veins of nature.
Even those who don’t celebrate it agree that this festival is an exceptional opportunity to enshrine the rejuvenation of the Earth after a chilly hibernation and embrace sights in our surroundings that manifest themselves on scarce occasions like the vernal equinox, which coincides with Nowruz this Saturday, March 20.
It is true that Nowruz was originally the New Year festival of Iranians and a cohort of countries in Central Asia and the Middle East, but thanks to recognition by the United Nations and UNESCO, its venerable pedigree has been saved from oblivion and its universal message, which has been one of unity in times of division, perseverance in times of hardship, and cordiality in times of estrangement, is communicated to nations across the globe.
That Nowruz is associated with Zoroastrianism, the world’s longest-standing monotheistic religion, is testament to the reality that it is not simply a national celebration for a small community, but can be cherished by anyone who relates to its spirit regardless of geographical confines.
That it has outlived the passage of time and attempts by religious hardliners after the Muslim conquest of Persia to toss it into the dustbin of history and continues to inspire both young and old means there is something in its essence that makes it profound and admirable.
For Iranians and the peoples of Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, India, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and the diaspora communities in the West who observe Nowruz, the festival resonates with elaborate year-end house-cleaning, eleventh-hour shopping sprees for new clothes and replacing outdated home appliances, profligate spending on sweets, pastries and nuts, affable family gatherings, delectable local cuisines and of course charity and uplifting those who cannot afford a festive New Year.
Time of reflection, and hope
I grew up in a family where Nowruz has usually been held in high esteem, not least because the household viewed it as a microcosm of Iranian culture and wished to honor it, but because they perceived it to be simply a virtuous tradition worthy of adulation for the humanity of its tenor.
I was taught that Nowruz was an opportune moment to reflect on what I had achieved and where I had failed in the past year, contemplate how I could draw on springtime as an inspiration to make myself a better human being and indulge in a renewal just as the hyacinths and daffodils bloom and dispel the frost and stagnation of winter, and set my sights on making life more beautiful for myself and those around me, just as spring warms our hearts and endows us with bountiful beauties to explore.
Two feelings have always molded my mood in the lead-up to and during Nowruz: anxiety and optimism.
The first of these two feelings is not the typical anxiety you undergo when in difficulty or struggling with a challenge. For me, it has habitually been an activation of my passions and being concerned with details such as how to make sure there is no task left on my to-do list from the waning year to be completed, that the house is entirely clean and refreshed, that sweets and nuts are not in short supply, that the crops are grown on time and that the table is spread in the most stylish, majestic fashion.
Throughout all the years I have celebrated Nowruz, this agreeable anxiety has helped cultivate a motivation in my mind to be cognizant of the whirlwind flux of time, reaching a crescendo at the moment Iranians call tahvil-e saal, or transition of the year, when the sun crosses the celestial equator and equalizes day and night, and the New Year officially begins.
It is the time I notice I am growing older, with less time left to accomplish the mission I am made for and leave the imprint I am laboring to establish.
And of course, optimism is the emotion shared by millions of those who observe Nowruz: Life is affording us an opportunity to be joyful, to forgive, to contribute, to overcome, to emerge victorious, to be grateful for what we have and to try to achieve what we are seeking and still have not taken hold of.
Nowruz is believed to have been celebrated for nearly 3,000 years. Its birthplace was ancient Persia, which historians argue was the world’s first genuine empire.
Mythically betokening the victory of light over darkness, Nowruz is an opening for reviving practices that tend to be marginalized throughout the year: paying visits to the elderly, distributing gifts to the children and of the family, reciting classical Persian poetry, singing songs and dancing, facilitating reconciliation between those at odds with one another, and donating to philanthropic initiatives and helping the poor.
This weekend, some 300 million people will celebrate Nowruz, and it is regarded as an “intangible cultural heritage of humanity” by the United Nations’ cultural and educational agency.
Indeed, it is a cultural heritage that epitomizes a time-hallowed invention of the ancient Iranians, and now transcends boundaries to connect peoples who don’t necessarily speak the same language, don’t practice the same faith and may even have conflicting geopolitical interests, but reunite under a massive civilizational umbrella for a springtide truce.
It has become such a potent cultural incubator that even countries that appear to be totally detached from the roots of Nowruz solemnize it, including communities in Kosovo and Albania.
Gift of history
Nowruz owes its survival to many individuals and phenomena.
Abul-Qâsem Ferdowsi, the eminent Persian poet of the 11th century who composed Shahnameh (“Book of Kings”), chronicles the story of Nowruz and its evolution in his masterpiece epic in the finest terms.
Shortly after him, Omar Khayyam, an Iranian polymath, mathematician and astronomer, developed the Jalali Calendar upon the instruction of Jalaluddin Malik-Shah I of Seljuk in AD 1079, which calculated a year to be 365.242 days long, accurate to the sixth decimal place, and ensured that the first day of Nowruz always falls on a fixed date, somewhere between March 19 and 21.
The Jalali Calendar is reputed to be one of the most precise and reliable in the world.
And then there were the Iranians, Afghans, Tajiks, Turkmens, Turks and other peoples in the region who faithfully treasured and preserved rituals associated with Nowruz, galvanizing the delivery of this rich historical, cultural asset to its inheritors: the younger generations.
And let’s not forget the endeavors of artists, authors and public intellectuals to safeguard Nowruz through their creative works and scintillating literary and visual productions.
To add some politics, Nowruz has faced its share of cynicism and grimaces of rage by extremists in Iran who wished to obliterate it because it appeared to be insufficiently Islamic and a celebration that gave the impression of a secular rite.
Also, believe it or not, there are always apostles who find people’s happiness and smiles a thorn in their side, so they oppose Nowruz because it’s a time when people rejoice and have fun, and this is, in their insular worldview, too “debauched” and “corrupt” to be tolerated.
But Nowruz, with the delicate way it has blended with literature, spirituality, human values and even Islam, has outlasted all the machinations aimed at erasing it, and remains a stellar revelation of love and a motivation of creativity for all those who appreciate it and wish to be touched by its delights.
Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist based in Iran. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow.