At home amongst the Zoroastrians
By Simin K.
November 25, 2003
I guess a little background info
is necessary here. I grew up in Iran under the Shah, in a secular,
progressive and nationalistic
middle class family that lost everything as a result of the revolution.
I came to the US when I was a teenager in 1979. And I was not
born a Zoroastrian.
I've been living in New York City ever since,
and I live alone and am unmarried at an age that most
Iranians find beyond spinsterhood and then some. Don't get me
wrong, I've had my share of relationships, it's just that I'm
quirky, emotionally unavailable, unable to grow up like so many
friends from my generation, and culturally confused.
to worry, like most New Yorkers I'm in therapy, a workaholic,
and fully capable of "owning my issues", as they say.
I usually attend whatever "Iranian" cultural events
are held annually in New York, from the Ilkhanid Dynasty at the
Art at the Brooklyn Museum, the Art of the Islamic Revolution
at the Grey, to this year's Safavid Dynasty Arts at the Asia
In between the mega museum events, I've made the
rounds with small Rumi & Persian poetry events, whirled with
the whirling Dervishes of Greenwich Village, hung out at the
little Sufi bookstore in Tribecca, and attended private Sufi
meetings in Soho with luminaries of the art world.
Why do I do
all of this? Because I'm looking and searching for an understanding
of my culture of origin, and trying to figure out who I am in
addition to finding "home". So when I heard about this event,
naturally I knew I had to go.
There was Dr. Kaykhosrow Irani
from City University of New York (CUNY) and Dr. Farhang Mehr,
a Zoroastrian fashion show, the UN Ambassador from Tajikistan,
could I miss this one? So, could a single non-Zoroastrian female
walk into a religious/ethnic family-based event without knowing
anyone and survive? Talk about crashing a religious family event.
The New York stop of the 3000th Anniversary of
Zoroastrianism was held at the Metropolitan hotel in Midtown,
on Saturday, November
15th. The Anniversary was launched by the nation of Tajikistan
which surprisingly enough turns out to have a genuine interest
in Zoroastrianism as opposed to Islamism, a rarity amongst Central
Asian countries these days.
A Parsi Indian volunteer in all white
posted at the entrance of the hotel ushered me up the stairs
to the event. Inside there were a couple of hundred people
seated, in a variety of different costumes. Dressed for walking
on a Saturday afternoon, I was totally underdressed in jeans
Most of the attendees were families, combination
of Iranian and Parsi Indian. I had a hard time telling Parsis
apart from the Iranians. I figured out the Iranians mostly
because they were speaking Persian. The younger Parsis looked
like Indian movie stars with fair skin. And that last comment
was probably the single most un-PC thing I could possibly ever
The opening invocations by the priests were translated
into Persian and followed by an introduction in English by the
and translated into Persian by Shirin Kiamanesh, who spoke eloquent
Persian with perfect articulation. The equality of the sexes
was repeatedly emphasized throughout the event, as several women
speakers shared the stage with the male speakers.
Rashid Alimov, the UN ambassador
from Tajikistan, was next. He looked like a burly
Russian guy in a suit. So you can just imagine my surprise when
he walked up to the mike and spoke in perfect Persian: "Salam
be baraadaraan va khaaharaan e azeez..." (Greetings to my dear
brothers and sisters...).
I was deeply touched by that since
one of my great
grandparents was of Russian descent, and I always have a soft
spot for people who look Russian and speak Persian. He spoke
about Zoroastrianism in English, and talked about the unity of
all the Persian-speaking people of the world.
After the speeches
I walked up to Alimov to thank him and the people of Tajikistan
for launching this wonderful event. He bowed and in what I can
only describe as perfect Persian body language and ta'rof, he
said, "khaahesh meekonam khaanoom." He had all
the mannerisms I associate with being Persian.
But the main attractions were Dr.
Kaikhosrov Irani and Dr. Farhang Mehr. Dr. Irani is an intellectual
Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at CUNY, ex-director of the
Academy of Humanities and Sciences, recipient of numerous prestigious
awards and accolades, and a remarkable scholar and respected
New York City personality of Parsi Indian descent. He was a student
of Albert Einstein's, has written extensively on the ethics of
Zoroastrianism as a philosopher, and his father was a famous
translator of the Gathas.
Listening to Dr. Irani is a treat;
and there is a video interview with him for sale on Zoroastrian
web sites. This man is an amazing and witty speaker who lectured
on the morality of Zoroastrianism within the context of social
justice. As he spoke everyone was visibly moved by his discourse
on morality and ethics.
At one point defining Good Thoughts,
Good Words and Good Deeds as fighting for social justice, he
looked straight into the captivated audience and concluded with,
"It is your duty to speak up wherever you see injustice."
you ever get a chance to hear Dr. Irani, make sure to do so,
he reminded me of Joseph Campbell, with the same gentle smile,
wise eyes, simple and resonant truths, and a wealth of fascinating
knowledge on the Iranian and Indian ancient worlds, mythologies
and religions. He is living proof of why we need philosophers
in our world.
Dr. Farhang Mehr followed. Another intellectual
powerhouse, Dr Mehr is a renowned Iranian Zoroastrian, who grew
up in Tehran at a time
of government sanctioned and societal persecution, yet managed
to fight discrimination and rise through the ranks to become
Finance Minister under the Shah, Governor of OPEC, and Chancellor
of Pahlavi University in Shiraz, where he transformed it into
the "Harvard of the Middle East", and spearheaded efforts to
revolutionize Iran's university education system. He is currently
a Professor Emeritus of International Relations at Boston University.
Dr. Mehr had a cold, yet his booming and resounding
voice still managed to overload the mike on more than one occasion.
perfect enunciation of Persian words and names, deliberating
over every syllable as if it were delightful pastries in his
mouth. He addressed the ambassador of Tajikistan pointing out
that Zarthustra had been born in that area, and most likely buried
in Mazar e Sharif in Afghanistan.
He pronounced the ancient cities
of Samarkhand and Bokhara as if he were reciting poetry, and
spoke of how the people preserved many ancient sacred tombs
and sites by giving them Arabic and Islamic approved names. At
point apparently Pasargad, the tomb of Cyrus the Great, was
called the tomb of "Maadar e Soleyman" (Mother of Solomon) in
to preserve and protect it from destruction.
With his bow tie,
perfect enunciation, and wealth of knowledge on Iran and Iranian
history, listening to Dr. Mehr is truly a treat for any nationalistic
Iranian, or Persianophile. Once again, don't miss an opportunity
to hear Dr. Mehr as well; he is amazing. I certainly hope that
the Iranian satellite media out in L.A. will someday tape Dr.
Mehr for an interview.
What religious event and celebration would be
complete without a fashion show. Now that's what I call a religion
made for people of Iranian origin. What followed next was an
procession of exquisite fabrics in astounding colors, flowers,
candles and grace in motion set to traditional Persian music.
Young Zoroastrian volunteers of Parsi and Iranian
heritage modeled traditional Parsi Saris and Iranian Zoroastrian
wear. A narrator
provided historical background information. The Persian white
Zoroastrian groom outfit was far more ornate with gold brocade
trimming than the simple Parsi version. And the sofreh aroosi
(decorative trays setout for a Persian wedding) have their roots
The crowd cheered the young models, and they
took it all in good stride. The Parsi girls showed a lot more
skin than the modest Iranian Zoroastrian girls in green shawls
covering their hair. I wondered if it was the influence of Islam
or simply the practicalities of geography, the chilly and windy
high peaks of Iran not exactly requiring the same clothing sensibilities
as steamy Bombay during the monsoon season.
Little boys and girls
in all white bearing flowers, a baby in a traditional red satin
dress, red chiffon Saris with silver stars, true cobalt blue
satin with gold, a mother and daughter team in traditional wear,
young men in amazing traditional robes striding confidently and
handsomely down the catwalk to donbak music, and lots and lots
of candles, the whole thing was like a dream.
The show concluded
with a selection of contemporary wear for young Zoroastrians
set to Worldbeat House music featuring shirts made from exotic
fabrics and jeans. The Mobeds (priests) were the last to walk
on stage, proving that these priests are not holier than everyone
else, but rather fully integrated with their communities and
quite comfortable and involved with the younger generations.
So back to my original question, could a single
unaccompanied female who didn't know anyone at this event and
was not related
to anyone, survive this religious, family-based celebration?
Yes, that was the amazing part. The Iranian and Zoroastrian families
welcomed me, and I have to say nobody glared at me the way they
do down at the Arab stores on Atlantic Avenue, where they can
smell that I'm from their part of the world and they definitely
don't approve of the way I look.
Over spicy Parsi finger food
and Golab (rose water) drinks dyed red, I managed to socialize
with different groups. I couldn't find any of the promised Iranian
food, since everything was Parsi and Indian. A Parsi couple explained
to me what the Patel leaves were and how to eat it, I gasped
over how hot it was, and they looked at me smiling and claiming
it was too bland for them.
They inquired about spices in Persian
cooking and for some unknown reason I could only think of Turmeric,
which they approved of, and then I drew a blank. So I offered,
"Well we use mostly herbs in our cooking." Later on, duh, it
came to me: Saffron, Somagh (Sumac), Cinnamon, and the list goes
Dr. Mehr was a pleasure to speak to, and Iranian
and Parsi families embraced me as one of their own. I walked
up to Dr. Irani and
asked him: "How do you recognize injustice without getting angry,
and how do you confront it without anger?" His eyes twinkled
as if he had heard a magic phrase, he sighed "Ahhhh," and threw
up his hands with a smile, "that is the question isn't it."
met another young woman from Iran who like me had wondered in,
in search of home and was also not from a Zoroastrian background.
We laughed and shared samosas while raving about the familiarity
of all the sights and sounds, and the amazing beauty and Persianness
of everything around us.
Both of us agreed, that neither one
of us would ever dare walk into a Muslim event, but this event
with family, grace, joy, love, music, ethics, philosophy, history,
and politics with Iranians, Parsis and Tajiks was an amazing
celebration of everything we both recognized as quintessentially
Iranian and Persian, with Indian influences thrown in.
Later a mobed priest and his wife talked to
us and showed us books and publications on Zoroastrianism. They
were an amazing
and loving couple, with a lot of patience and affection for everyone
who wondered by with questions. Their daughter had gone to Iran
with other young Parsis as part of a documentary, and she spoke
to us about her visit to Takht e Jamshid (Persopolis). A small
group of non-Zoroastrians of all ethnicities had clustered around
their table leafing though pamphlets, asking questions, and listening
The sound of laughter, the Persian music and the
candles finally got to me. The sight of the little boys and girls
white with flowers got to me. The beautiful fabrics with vibrant
colors got to me, the donbak and traditional Persian music got
to me, all the sensory delights got to me and all the speeches,
the wonderful Tajik gentleman, Dr. Mehr's resounding and booming
voice pronouncing the names of ancient cities as if he were reciting
Hafez, and Dr. Irani's discourse on ethics and the twinkle in
his eye all came together for me in an instant moment of clarity
There was beauty, grace, profound ideas, kitsch
and a passion for justice mixed with prayers and a fun family
outing. What was this, and why was it all so familiar to me and
comfortable like a favorite pair of well-worn shoes? This was
a celebration of the ancient religion from my country of origin
3000 years later. I stood there recognizing and understanding
that these 3000 years were as much a part of me and who I was
as anything else. In that moment I understood that there was
knowledge and recognition of Zoroastrianism embedded in my body,
in my genes, in my mind and in my soul.
And was there actually a spiritual moment there?
Yes there were many, but the amazing part of it was the recognition
spirituality didn't have to be packaged like a weekend at a Catskills
ashram, or resplendent with religious pomp and circumstance.
It wasn't a typical white light moment, just the moment in which
I realized that everything that I had grown up understanding
as my culture had a sacred, divine and religious origin. Everything
that I had taken for granted as my culture of origin was totally
intertwined with Zoroastrianism.
Actually, that was the white
light moment. There it was, everything that was so unique to
my culture, including things that I had loved and judged harshly
about my culture, the high and the low, the shallow and the profound,
the sacred and the profane, the kitschy and the classic, all
were resonating with this ancient religion. And that afternoon
in Manhattan, I truly felt at home amongst the Zoroastrians whom
I came to finally see as my true kin, and that is when I realized
I am a Zoroastrian, have been my whole life, and didn't realize
it before until it finally clicked.
After the event I walked down
Lexington Avenue through Little India stopping at a favorite
Indian store for Albaloo Khoshk
(dried sour cherries), Nader the Persian store was already closed
for the evening.
Standing in line in front of me were two Persian
women picking up Basmati rice and arguing about the price in
Farsi. I felt like telling them about my great discovery.
"Bebakhsheed khaanoom man ham Irani hastam, va allaan daarem
as een maraaseme
zartoshti meeyaam," (Excuse me, I am also Iranian, and I'm just
coming from this Zoroastrian event.).
I wanted to blurt out
that I had finally realized who and what I was and share this
discovery with them. But they walked out with their Basmati rice
before I had a chance to. So I paid for my sour cherries and
smiled at the Indian girl behind the register. She smiled back
at me, and I walked home happy in the dark, chilly autumn New
York night, with my sour cherries and amazing discovery. I felt
content and whole. Ashem Vohu.
The 3000th Anniversary of Zoroastrianism is coming to a city
near you. Take the time to visit some of these events, this anniversary
only comes around every 3000 years. For more information on events
planned throughout the US and the world check the Adobe Acrobat
file on: http://www.fezana.org/unngo.htm
more on Dr. Irani and his works see his web site: http://www.kdirani.com
more on Dr. Mehr see:
part of the celebrations there will a first ever Zoroastrian
Film Festival in Chicago:
Women's International Network (ZWIN), is sponsoring an exhibition
of different aspects of Zarthushti culture in celebration
of the Anniversary on its website:
Based and academic Journal of Zoroastrianism:
Web site and organization of Iranian Zoroastrians devoted to
converting people of Iranian decent to Zoroastrianism anywhere
in the world:
The California Zoroastrian Center
in co-operation with other organizations in the area is organizing
a three day festival "Messages of Zarathushtra and Today's
World Affairs", December 20-23, 2003. The Secretary General of
UNESCO Mr. Koichiro Matsuura and his wife have been invited,
and CNN is planning to send a crew.
Dr. Mehr can also be heard
at the Library of Congress's John Kluge Center in Washington
DC on December 11th, 2003, from 2-5pm, to
mark the 3000th Anniversary of Zoroastrianism. Other speakers
scheduled for this event include: Professor Stanley Insler,
Chairman, Iranian Studies, Yale University, and Dr. Jehan Bagli,
of the North American Zoroastrian Mobeds (clergy) Council.
Simin K. is not the author's real name.
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