The four of us were privileged yesterday evening to be invited to celebrate the Iranian New Year, falling on the Spring equinox, with our several Iranian friends.  With eight of our happily age matched children, we met up in London to eat together, and then to endure the vagaries of our disintegrating rail system as we battled our way back home.  In our small railway carriage we talked and laughed and read and inspected our new toys and sucked our shared sweets and fell silent as the conductor announced yet another delay.  It was early morning before the train arrived back at the station from whence we had departed.  It was freezing cold after the nice warmth we had built up in the carriage, and we all fled to our cars and the long empty drive home.

Where the grass is not greener

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Shah Abbas

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Camilla Batmanghelidjh

During the day we’d all been engaged in our different activities.  Our friends had spent the day at the British Museum where festivities had been laid on to accompany the exhibition honouring Shah Abbas, my family had tried out a different riding stable and different horses and found that the grass was not greener, and I had absorbed the learning of a new world for me – of attachment-based psychotherapy – at a annual conference in memory of  John Bowlby, the institigator of attachment-based therapy, and listening to the huge energy of the Persian founder of the Kid’s Company, Camilla Batmanghelidjh. We all brought our day to the dinner table, swapping books and gifts, and not missing the alcohol at all.

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The tradition at Nowruz is to have a table in the home on which are placed a copy of the Koran, candles, a mirror with an egg on top, goldfish in a bowl, a bowl of water in which are floating a slice of orance and a rosebush leaf, and the Haftsin – usually seven edible items beginning with the letter “s” in Persian. Sib (apple), somaq (sumac), sir (garlic), samanu (a paste made with wheat sprouts), senjed (jujube fruit), sohan (a candy made with honey and nuts), siyahdane (sesame seeds), serke (vinegar), and sangak (bread baked on a bed of rocks) are the usual edible items from among which seven are chosen.  Growing herbs or sabzeh and non-edible items such as sekke (coins), sonbol (hyacinth), spand (the wild rue), sepestan (sebestens), samovar (samovar), or sabzeh (wheat or lentil sprouts) are often found on the Haftsin.  Some say that Haftsin used to be Haftshin, comprising items beginning with the Persian letter for the sound “sh”, including sharab, or wine, but that this was replaced by the seven “s” items when Islam outlawed the drinking of alcohol.

“Just before the change of the year, all members of the family, in their new clothes and holding a new coin in their hand for good luck, gather around the haft-sin display and, quietly and patiently, watch the solitary white egg on the mirror. Each one imagines a huge bullfish in the ocean of time carrying the world on one of its horns. Any moment now, the bullfish will toss the world over to the other horn, resulting in a tremor that will dislodge the egg and send it rolling to the side of the mirror.

As soon as the egg rolls, the members of the family, rejoicing, kiss each other, exchange Nowruz greetings, eid-i shoma mobarak! (May you have an auspicious new year!), and proceed, especially in the case of children, to make the rounds of the elders of the family first and of the neighborhood.”

Everyone wears new clothes from head to foot, and traditional prayers from the Koran are offered for the coming year in Arabic.  The New Year festival predates Islam, just as Christmas continues a pre-Christian festival.  The celebration is neither religious nor ethnic, and so is enjoyed by the many disparate strands of Iranians around the world.  In part it derives from the practices of the Zoroastrians about  thousand years ago. 

All our friends’ children had listened in wonder to the message delivered to them personally by Barack Obama.  They wondered that this great man, the President of the United States, would bother to record a New Year message just for their nation.  Their parents approved of the change of tone that came with the change of President, but expressed disappointment at the official response of the Iranian government.

Elections are coming up in Iran, and a pro-America stance may not be a great vote-winner.  But we hope Obama’s message may have reached the ordinary people celebrating Nowruz in Iran, and found many willing ears, eager to build on our shared experiences, of celebrations and family get-togethers, rather than the differences which, for ordinary people, seem to be less important when we get to know each other than the humanity we enjoy sharing.

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More on Nowruz from Wikipedia here.

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