By Mitra Norowzi
The year is 1397. Hundreds gather in the Great Hall to feast and be merry. Lively music reverberates throughout the vast room, ringing out into the hallways.
Guests embrace one another, celebrating spring’s long-anticipated arrival. Just days before, they had chanted before fires, coaxing it out of winter’s darkness.
As they stop to admire the decorations, they reach for their smartphones to snap a few quick photos.
While 1397 has just begun in Iran and Afghanistan because they follow a solar calendar, the majority of the world following the Gregorian calendar is already well into 2018.
The new year was marked by the spring vernal equinox on March 20, and was celebrated by about 300 million people around the world, including the Triangle’s Persian community at the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Persian New Year party hosted by UNC-CH’s Persian Cultural Society.
The Persian New Year, or Nowruz, is the biggest holiday of the year for Iranians. Translating to “new day” in Farsi, the Persian language, Nowruz is a celebration of the rebirth of spring and the new possibilities it brings.
Reflecting on Nowruz
Fatemeh Sadeghifar, a student at North Carolina State University, moved to North Carolina from Tehran, Iran, about eight years ago. As a child in Iran, the anticipation of Nowruz buzzed weeks before the actual day as families prepared for the holiday, much like the frenzy felt here in America the entire month of December before Christmas.
She remembers the excitement she felt waiting for the exact moment of the equinox. It changes every year, and the different timings were fun for her, especially the years where the equinox was in the night, and she’d be allowed to stay up late.
In Iran, she recalls, this moment would erupt in outpourings of joy and celebration felt and heard by everyone, whether they were at home, out in the street or at school or work.
“The first day of Nowruz [here], I just went to school,” Sadeghifar said. “No one else knew what it was.”
As a kid, she would receive eidi, which are gifts and often money. And her family would set the Haft-Seen table, which is central to the celebration of Nowruz.
The Haft-Seen setting includes seven objects beginning with “seen,” the Persian character for “S,” with each representing a hope or aspiration for the coming year. Many Haft-Seen tables, like the one attendees of UNC’s Nowruz celebration were greeted with, also include books of Persian poetry, live or fake goldfish and a mirror.
Guests flood into the Great Hall
Entering guests were welcomed by tables serving hot, black tea and baklava, a sweet and flaky Mediterranean pastry. The baklava line remained unclogged and in motion, but the line for tea quickly grew until it snaked along two adjacent walls of the Student Union’s massive Great Hall. For people from a tea-obsessed culture, this line might have represented the only axis of evil that Iranian-Americans will recognize.
While the rest of the night’s guests arrived, those already seated at their tables enjoyed conversation with friends new and old over Persian sweets served family-style such as tiny rice flour cookies topped with small, black poppy seeds, sweet and chunky walnut cookies and delicate paisley-shaped coconut cookies.
Iranian guests, particularly the adults, served their seatmates by passing around the platter of treats, practicing the tradition of ta’arof, a practice of courtesy that involves excessive offering and deference. To non-Iranians, this looks a lot like arguing, but ta’arof is considered the proper conduct to demonstrate respect.
Tables also had fresh fruit and dried nuts, typical pre-meal refreshments at Iranian events or dinner parties for snacking before the performances and dinner.
Students were present, but the majority of seated guests appeared to be local families. UNC-CH junior Rose Jackson, a member of the school’s Persian Cultural Society and an organizer of the night’s festivities, said although the annual celebration is a student-led event, the larger Iranian community is active and is eager to be involved.
“So what was initially a student event had a lot of community support, so it became this kind of intergenerational setup,” Jackson said.
Throughout the night, Jackson and her peers scuttled about like worker ants to make sure everything ran smoothly. Jackson served double-duty as a master of ceremonies and a food runner. She even had to step in last minute as a backup DJ. But the hard work had a high payoff, she said.
“I’m Iranian, so it’s important for me to celebrate my culture myself, but also it’s important for me to create a place where other people can celebrate my culture whether it’s other Iranians or people who aren’t familiar with the culture but want to be,” Jackson said.
The celebration begins
The night’s program began with an introduction by Jackson and her fellow UNC-CH students explaining the history of Nowruz for those unfamiliar with the holiday.
The performances honored Iran’s past traditions, but also honored the contemporary culture of Iran’s present, where youth outnumber the old.
A haunting rendition of the contemporary Persian love song, “Soltane Ghalbha,” was performed on piano, violin and guitar. The music began softly at first, but soon became sweeping as the vocals entered the mix.
But those looking for a more authentic musical performance were not disappointed with the lively tanbur solo of the traditional song, “Ey Sareban,” performed by Mohsen Bahrami. The traditional long-necked string instrument crooned and trilled, thumping at the heart of the audience. Many of the audience’s older members waved their arms slowly, quietly singing along.
Jackson said many older Iranians were either expelled from the country or made the difficult choice to leave due to unrest.
“It’s an important event when you aren’t allowed to go back to your own country to be allowed to celebrate this still,” she said.
Sara Hosseini, a student at Campbell University, traveled all the way from Buies Creek, North Carolina, to Chapel Hill to perform a traditional poetry reading alongside Duke University professor Amir Rezvani.
The pair demonstrated Iran’s rich history of poetry and literature with their recitation of “Spring is Here,” a classical poem by 13th-century poet Rumi. Each verse was read first in Farsi by Rezvani, and then in English by Hosseini.
“The Persian Cultural Society president asked me if I could do it, and I gladly said yes because Dr. Rezvani is a wonderful man, and the poem was very beautiful, too, about two flowers speaking,” Hosseini said. “I jumped at the moment to do anything to help. Every year, I always come. UNC’s Persian Cultural Society does an excellent job — by far the best in North Carolina — and I wouldn’t miss it ever.”
Hosseini, who is half-Persian and half-Polish, said Nowruz is the time she feels most connected to her Persian roots. Celebrating the holiday and contributing to it by performing was also important to Hosseini to foster more understanding among Americans.
“There’s so many stereotypes and misconceptions about Persian culture and Iran,” Hosseini said. “And if people could just take a second to try and connect and understand and learn about the culture, they’d be pleasantly surprised, and I think they’d really enjoy Persian culture as well.”
The welcoming dance floor
Following the performances was a dinner of aromatic parsley and eggplant stews, searing lamb kabobs and fragrant rice flavored with saffron catered by Flame Kabob, a Persian restaurant in Raleigh.
Then, the lights were turned off in favor of a disco ball, and Persian pop music boomed out from speakers. Everyone took off for the dance floor.
Non-Iranian student Joshua Pontillo came to the celebration with some Iranian friends to learn more about their culture. He felt awkward being dragged out onto the floor and dancing to unfamiliar music in an unfamiliar style, but he found the dance floor full of Iranians to be welcoming.
“One older gentlemen told me I was a natural,” he said.
For Pontillo, observing the Persian New Year as an American was a rewarding experience, and he hopes other Americans will engage with Persian cultural traditions, too.
“I think people can come out and learn a lot, especially when modern politics is so critical of Iran,” he said.
His one disappointment?
“I was upset that I couldn’t try the Persian baklava, which I’ve heard is better — apparently they served more Greek-style baklava,” Pontillo said.
Edited by Adam Phan