The 3,000 year old Zoroastrian festival of Nowruz is the Iranian New Year and though it is celebrated worldwide, it is relatively unknown in Malaysia. Hence, we learned a lot when museum volunteer Jaleh Chegini gave a presentation on this festival on March 26; just a few days after this year’s Nowruz.
Nowruz, which is steeped in tradition, is celebrated at the time of the vernal equinox or the first day of spring which falls around 21 March. This is the time when sunlight is evenly divided between the northern and southern hemispheres. The start of the New Year is very precisely timed and Iranians celebrate Nowruz at the precise time of the arrival of spring, regardless if this is at midnight, 10am or 4am!
Preparations start a few weeks before the festival. Iranians start by ‘shaking the house’ during which they literally clean every spot in their homes. The phrase ‘spring cleaning’ is believed to have originated in this Iranian tradition. During this time, Iranians would also buy new clothes and furniture as well as make donations to charity.
Fire Jumping, is celebrated on the night of the last Wednesday of the old year. Small bonfires are lit in the streets and people jump over the flames while shouting “May my sickly pallor be yours and your red glow be mine.” The flames symbolically take away all the unpleasantness of the previous year.
Before the arrival of Nowruz, a man dressed in red with face covered in soot takes to the streets dancing and singing and proclaiming that Nowruz is approaching. This is Haji Firuz, the herald of Nowruz. Haji Firuz has a side-kick, Uncle Nowruz, who is the Iranian version of Santa Claus. Similar to Santa, Uncle Nowruz is also an old man with a white beard who brings gifts and good luck to people.
Another interesting tradition carried out before the arrival of Nowruz is similar to Halloween. Kids in the neighbourhood would drop by in disguise and announce their presence by hitting a metal pot with a metal spoon. This is called ‘pot hitting‘ and would earn them a treat from the house owner.
Preparing the Haft-Seen table is, perhaps, the most important tradition of Nowruz. Iranians will sit around the table with friends and family while waiting for Nowruz to arrive. Jaleh prepared a table for us which is shown on the right. Nowruz has its traditions in Zoroastrianism, a religion that was prevalent in present day Iran around 3,000 years ago. The table was called Haft-Chin and it had seven items on it symbolising seven elements in the universe. Since the advent of Islam, the table is now known as Haft-Seen, or the seven ‘S’s and there are seven key items on it each starting with the letter ‘S’. One of the items, sabzeh (wheat, barley or lentil sprouts growing in a dish), is perhaps the only item that is common to both tables.
Nowruz is celebrated for 12 days during which time, schools and many offices are closed. Visiting friends and family is the main activity. The 13th day of Nowruz is considered to be bad luck as it is associated with the number 13. To avoid the bad luck, people go outdoors on picnics and this day is called Sizdah Bedar meaning ‘getting rid of the 13‘. On this day, some girls would tie the leaves of their sabzeh dish before throwing it away. While doing so, they express their wish to get married before the next Sizdah Bedar.
Jaleh had also arranged for us to try out some Iranian food which she had ordered from an Iranian restaurant.
From far, this dish looks familiar and Malaysians may be forgiven for dismissing it as ice-kacang. But this dessert, called faloodeh, is not made from shaved ice but from frozen vermicelli topped with rose syrup. A tinge of lime juice is added giving it a zesty taste. Apart from faloodeh, we also tried out an aubergine dish which was served with flat bread. Only one word, ‘yummy’. Wish all focus events would end with a treat!