4-shanbeh soori in da house
On New York's Williamsburg waterfront
Written and photographed by Ramin Talaie
March 31, 2003
On a mild New York night under a full moon I went to Williamsburg, Brooklyn to
celebrate the last Tuesday of the Persian New Year called chahar-shanbeh soori.
An ancient tradition which dates back to time of Zoroaster in Persia thousands of
years ago. However, this was 21st century Brooklyn, USA, and I were about to experience
something very different. As a kid growing up in Iran, this holiday was always a
favorite among boys.
We got to play with fire and firecrackers and burn things. For all the obvious
reasons and for the fact that making fire on streets of New York City is highly illegal,
I had never had the opportunity to celebrate this tradition in all the years that
I have lived here. But this was my first chance and what a nice thing to do after
just coming back from Iran.
I had heard about this Williamsburg tradition from another Iranian friend of mine
who is in fact one of the originators. It just sounded so odd and bizarre yet very
cool that each time I heard little stories about it I really wanted to be there the
next time. Williamsburg waterfront dates back to the more industrial time of New
York City. From the closed Damino's sugar factory near the Williamsburg Bridge all
the way up to Greenpoint it is mostly industrial and undeveloped. You can find patches
of land sometimes fenced-up with overgrown vegetation, junked cars, and at times
homeless people. This is where the new chahar-shanbeh soori tradition has
been going on for some years now.
I went to a friend of a friend's house. An Australian whom I had only chatted over
the phone about Iranian film and my recent trip to Iran. As we got aquatinted we
waited for a few more people to show up. A guy who was in charge of the "fire"
had purchased Duraflame logs. Somewhat like myself, this was his first time. The
logs are great they start with one try and burn for hours without any problem. Thus,
a new tradition has been added to this thousand-year-old ritual.... The Duraflame
factor! I mean where one purchase "botteh" (Farsi for dried branches) in
New York anyway? We talked about this new part of tradition and how easily one can
purchase these logs from local bodegas >>> See
With the exception of me there was only one other Iranian, well half Iranian. I was
amazed and encouraged of these non-Iranian's enthusiasm about this custom. I answered
question about the meaning and translation of what to say when we jump the flames.
On small pieces of paper someone wrote down the fanatic way of saying "zardie
man az to sorkhie ..." for everyone to read and practice. She used green
and red markers which was an added feature. After rehearsing and refining how to
say the phrase, we were ready to go and celebrate. With seven logs of Duraflame and
a bag full of old newspapers we headed out.
The festivities were to take place near the water. To get there we had to go to edge
of the East River at the end of a dead-end street. The street was paved with cobblestones
and lit only with the full moon above. On one side a chin-linked fence and on the
other side eight foot tall steel sheeting covered with gratifies discouraging prowlers.
We had to find a hole to get to the empty lot or go around the chain-linked fence.
Right across from Williamsburg is one of Manhattan's utility sub-stations, which
has been marked a possible terrorist target. It was less than 24 hours before the
start of the Iraq war, therefore, New York was in high state of alert. I could easily
see New York Police Department (NYPD) harbor patrol floating on the other side of
the river. We made sure to move away from the very edge so not to be very visible.
There was also this helicopter that kept circling above for a good 20 minutes. At
this point a few more people, some Iranians, joined us jumping the fence at different
We joked about the number of charges the police could arrests us on. And the fact
that the flames could make a nice landing site for the chopper. Making fires across
from a utility facility by bunch of Iranians amidst of a high state of alert, imagine
us trying to explain chahar-shanbeh soori at the police station!? As we joked
about the number things we could get charged on, one of the girls who was practicing
"zardie man az to sorkhie ..." said that she was more concerned
about her pronunciation than getting arrested.
Once we lit up the Duraflames with their clean industrial controlled burn we were
ready to jump. Seven properly spaced fires for jumping and burning just as equally
as each other. On one side New York City skyline and on the other side, the rest
of the dark and dirty empty lot. The moon shined and the wind was just right as we
started jumping and having fun. I corrected a few more pronunciations as I took photographs
at the same time.
It was a great night of cultural exchange, meeting new friends and talking about
Iranian arts. I take it this year's chahar-shanbeh soori in Brooklyn, was
just even more bizarre as we were about to go to war. A ghetto style chahar-shanbeh
soori of a sort very much unique to this city. Let's just say we had chahar-shanbeh
soori in da house. >>> See photos