for iranians, the vernal equinox signals the coming of the new year and the beginning of a long holiday period that starts on the last tuesday night of the old year (that was this past tuesday). they call the night chaharshambeh soori and it is replete with traditional events, both exciting and bizarre. probably the most prominent of all the rituals is bonfire jumping, which dates back to zoroastrian times and signifies the cleansing of the body and mind. as a child growing up in the states, our small band of iranian expats would gather together, light some sticks on fire, and leap over the sad little flames a few times before the fire department would show up and threaten fines. I’ve now seen the way real iranians do it in the homeland and i only WISH the fire department would come.
instead of setting a small pile of wood aflame here and there, EVERY SINGLE PERSON in the whole city spills out into the streets lighting everything and anything on fire (ex: my aunt torched an old armchair while her neighbors burned some old cabinets, pieces of a downed telephone pole, and a flat truck tire). as if four-alarm bonfires weren’t enough, people set the night ablaze with a torrent of firecrackers and homemade grenades (made with a special blend of tnt, gunpowder, and shrapnel, and usually tossed into the fire). and instead of following the carefully calculated safety directions on the firecracker box they toss the explosives directly at one another. it’s a sight to be seen. of course, for me, it is a sight seen mostly from behind my aunt, where i cower for most of the night. my cousins poke fun and exclaim that america has turned me into a sissy, but i say the threat of permanent bodily damage is something only someone born and raised here can appreciate. amidst the explosions the youth blast their favorite persian pop songs and dance in the streets, some being even so bold as to thrust their hejab aside. my family says this is the first year such daring has been displayed and my younger cousins hope it is a sign of more to come.
when the we run out of firecrackers and the ruckus subsides, everyone heads back up to my aunt’s apartment where we carry on with the remainder of the night’s customs:
we eat rice pudding followed by reshteh poloh (rice with noodles) with white fish, we mark the palms of our hands with a dot of hennah, we read fortunes from ferdowsi’s hafez (the book of iran’s best-known poet) and we consume a special blend of nuts and dried fruits from a try with a burning candle and mirror in it.
when I ask what the meaning of these rituals are, few have the complete answer. it all relates to good fortune for the new year they say, but to me it speaks of something far greater than that. this is the one time of year when everyone in the country, regardless of faith, class, and education comes together to celebrate traditions thousands of years old. the new year celebration is the ultimate expression of one’s “iranianness” and despite the regime’s attempts to dampen these “pagan” rituals by threatening arrest and issuing official mourning periods, the party rages on.