Norouz in Iran amid the COVID-19 pandemic

A contemporary Norouz Haftsin. CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons

Friday 20th March 2020 marks the first day of Norouz, the Iranian and Central Asian New Year which has been celebrated for over 3000 years and marks rebirth and renewal. This will be a very different new year for Iranians, as one of the three countries most affected by the global SARS-Cov-2 pandemic, prior to which there were devastating floods and an uprising in which many hundreds were killed.

 
Lentil sprouts and hyacinths at a roadside stall in Tehran, Iran

Norouz means “New Day” and coincides with the arrival of Spring. It is celebrated on the same day as the pagan festival Ostara, and the roots of Norouz lie in ancient Iranian religions such as Zoroastrianism and Mitraism. The festival is likely to have been arisen in the Achaemenid era (The sixth century BC), and it is a testament to its cultural importance that it has endured such longevity over three millenia. It is a public holiday in thirteen countries, and is also celebrated worldwide by the diaspora from those countries, together with Kurds, Parsis and followers of the Baha’i faith. In Iran, the celebration is largely frowned upon by the ruling clerics. As it predates Islam by over a millennium, Norouz is seen by many in the theocratic regime as a pagan ritual.

Norouz is traditionally a time for family and friendship. In most homes, the beginning of the festival comprises an intense period of spring-cleaning and preparation for feasts and exchange of gifts. People are expected to pay house visits to each other and check on each others’ health, meaning that an endless supply of pastry, cookies, nuts and fruits are required. The spirit of reconciliation also means that this is a time to heal wounds new and old, and the practice of holding grudges during this period is considered a bad omen. This year, these activities are being simulated via phone or computer screen, given the seriousness of the COVID-19 situation in Iran. Pastries, cookies, nuts and fruits are increasingly being replaced by messages of hope and commiseration. A central component of Norouz is the Haft-Seen table spread, with items chosen which each symbolise a particular theme:

 
A simple Norouz Haft-Seen for a family home

The core tenets of the haft-seen are literally seven (haft) S’s (words which begin with S) and are: Sabzeh, a lentil sprouts growing in a dish, representing rebirth. Samanu, a sweet wheatgerm-derived pudding representing wealth and abudance. Senjed, a dried Persian olive which represents love. Seer, garlic which represents good health. Seeb, an apple which represents virality. Sumac, which represents sunrise or the victory of light over dark and Serkeh, vinegar, which represents patients and wisdom.

Alongside these core components, other common items include a mirror with two candles, the poetry book of Hafez or the Shanmaheh, a holy book such as the Quran, Avesta, Bible or Torah, painted eggs, a bowl of water with a goldfish, a hyacinth and various other sweets. In addition, it is not uncommon for each home to introduce their own take, with items that are important for them.

 
Decorated eggs at a roadside shop in Tehran, Iran

In Iran, poetry remains an important and relevant part of cultural life and is a ubiquitous part of the Norouz festival. The patron poet of Norouz is the 14th century mystic “safe-keeper” Hafez, who was described by Ralph Waldo Emerson as “a poet for poets”. Hafez often used wine as a metaphor for love, and during Norouz a book of his poems often has a prominent place on the Haft-seen (the tabletop arrangement of symbolic items). Indeed his words in verse have never seemed more apt. The messages of love and rebirth are ever more important in these current uncertain times. The poet Hafez epitomizes these themes, whether discussing love and devotion:

“The sun never says to the earth ‘you owe me’. Look what happens with a love like that… it lights up the whole sky” Hafez

Or a message of hope

“I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing light of your own being”

His message of renewal will underline the vlue of Norouz, and provide a vestige of primordial harmony which seems increasingly besieged in today’s world. A message which is even more desperate at a time when the world needs to unite to battle a pandemic.

 
Regions of Iran most affected by COVID-19

A country which has suffered so much in a short space of time can only hope that the symbolism of this renewal festival provides some hope of respite, even if the actual celebration itself will be so different than in previous years. Other countries which celebrate Norouz/Nowruz, such as Tajikistan, are likely to have smaller versions of their traditional celebrations. The country is yet to have an official case (as of 19th March 2020) but has been proactively careful.

 
Norouz in Tajikistan. Credit: Artin Bemani, CNN iReport

The celebrations last thirteen days, and on the last day an extra celebration known as Sizdah Bedar (literally thirteenth outdoors) happens whereby families and friends spend all day outdoors in nature, and childrens’ play, music and dancing takes place. Traditionally, the leaves of the greenery are tied with a whisper by young singletons expressing a wish to find a partner, and then they are discarded. This extra celebration of community and friendship in the open will be cancelled almost entirely, as families will spend time with those close to them at home instead.

 
Sprouts and Hyacinths in Bunny Pots

Norouz is a celebration of common humanity. Its themes are universal, and centre on the prospering of love and hope over anger and fear. Now, more than ever, we need this transcendential celebration of rebirth and renewal.

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