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Iranians celebrate, for a change

Despite the Supreme Leader's fatwa, Iranians mark the New Year with bonfires, beauty treatments ... and even quiet protest.

A flower shop in Tehran heralds the arrival of spring, and the New Year, by putting their colorful pots out on the sidewalk, while street vendors sell gold fish, green lentil sprouts and colored eggs — all of which are needed for the celebration — to bustling crowds. (Photo courtesy of the author)

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.