There is only one night on which dancing to loud music in the streets of Tehran would not land you in jail, and that’s Chahar Shanbeh Suri night.
On the last Tuesday of the Persian year, Iranians young and old gather around bonfires set up in the streets to celebrate an ancient tradition. This year, despite a Fatwa (religious decree) issued by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei denouncing the event, many went out and celebrated.
“We gathered around with all neighbors and set up a bonfire in the street,” says 21-year-old Sanam Dehghani, a student in Tehran. “We stayed out until late at night and celebrated what’s rooted in our long tradition. We have many days commemorating the death of religious figures during the year, we deserve at least one night of fun.”
Chahar Shanbeh Suri leads up to the Persian New Year, called Nowruz (New Day in Farsi) which falls on March 21. Nowruz is a 3,000-year-old tradition celebrated by 300 million people worldwide, according to a statement by the U.N., which recognized it as an international day last February. People as far afield as Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey and Kazakhstan also celebrate the day.
In the U.S., the house of representatives voted on Monday to wish a happy Nowruz, stating that: “The United States is a melting pot of ethnicity and religions and Nowruz contributes to the richness of American culture and is consistent with our founding principles of peace and prosperity for all,” according to reports.
Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the more conservative leaders in Iran have tried to undermine the historic celebration of Nowruz because they see it un-Islamic.
“The roots of Nowruz are certainly pre-Islamic, probably even pre-Zoroastrian [a monotheistic religion dating back to ancient times in Iran], and even go back to agrarian societies [societies based on agricultural means] in the Iranian plateau,” wrote Hamid Dabashi, professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York in an email.
At the end of a year highlighted by violence, discontent and disappointment following the June elections, for many people in Iran, Nowruz is a moment to pause and reflect. A number of opposition members will spend Nowruz in jail rather than be with their families. For them, this is yet another reminder of the dark side of a regime they denounce.
Mir-Hussein Mousavi, one of leading opposition figures in Iran issued a statement on Monday calling 1389 (the upcoming year), a year of “defiance and patience for the opposition movement until victory.”
“I think in a lot of family gatherings this year politics will dominate the conversation,” said Hedyeh, the stay-at-home mother in Tehran.
In Iran, a month prior to Nowruz, the arrival of spring is palpable. Flower shops arrange their colorful flower pots on the sidewalk. Street vendors sell gold fish, green lentil sprouts and colored eggs — all of which are needed for the celebration — to bustling crowds. Shopping centers become packed with shoppers and many businesses work over-time to meet the overwhelming demand.
Traditionally everyone has to buy new clothes for the New Year, and in a metropolis such as Tehran with its 7 million residents, that means extended hours of trading for shop owners.
“It’s a really busy time for us,” said Alireza Heidari, owner of a boutique that sells children clothing at Tajrish Square in northern Tehran. “In the past month, most nights we’ve stayed open until midnight.”
Even beauty salons stay open after hours, due to demand.
“I called for an appointment three weeks ago, and the only open time they had was 10 p.m. on Monday,” said Hedyeh Alizadeh, a stay-at-home mother of two in Tehran. “One of my friends told me I was lucky to get an appointment at all, she had to choose between 1:30 or 2 a.m. They are super busy.”
Sanam, the student in Tehran, said she enjoys the mood that springtime brings to her hometown. For her, even the customary intense spring cleaning adds to the festivity.
“It’s quite a scene these days in the streets,” she said , “everyone is cleaning, you see people hanging out of windows just to get that one last spot left, and colorful Persian rugs left to dry in the open air, dangle from roof tops. It gives a sense of energy and happiness.”
For the new year, every household sets a table conprised of seven items beginning with the letter “s” in Farsi, each symbolically representing life, health, rejuvenation and prosperity. Red apples, lentil sprouts and vinegar are some examples.
"In the aftermath of the Muslim conquest of Iran, the celebration of Nowruz becomes imbued with Islamic artifacts,” said Dabashi, the Columbia professor of Iranian studies, listing a copy of the Quran and a picture of Ali, the prophet Mohammad’s son-in-law. For him, the clash between the pre-Islamic tradition and more rigid Islamic influence is more apparent today than ever.
“This year Nowruz is slightly different because Iranians are using it as an added reason to express their opposition to the militant over-Islamization of their homeland and culture by the theocratic violence embedded in an Islamic Republic,” Dabashi added.
Holding the fire festival on Tuesday despite Supreme Leader Ayotallah Khamenei’s orders was a clear example of Iranians determined to safeguard their ancient tradition.