On my way in to see you this morning, I came upon a crinkled napkin at the 34th
Street Starbucks. On it, a childish hand had invoked the words of one of the Greats:
"It is held that the first words in English were: 1) No! 2) Mother 3) Apple."
The simplicity of the formula boggles the mind and its accuracy is questionable as,
no doubt, the etymological roots linking mother, apple(-pie) and no! are implanted
in U.S. soil, not the English language, per se.
Nonetheless, a similar formula can be applied to the Persian language as it is spoken
amongst contemporary Iranians. In fact, Friedrich Nietzsche (or "Papa"
as I tend to affectionately refer to him), writes in his Thus Spake Zarathustra
about his dismay over the occlusion of Zoroastrianism by Shiism, by suggesting that
the ur-Persian concepts of "light, joy and green" were displaced by the
concepts of "martyrdom, mourning and blackness" under the Safavids who
established Shiism in Iran. Hence the eclipse of the Zoroastrian celebrations of
the spring equinox as embodied by Naw Ruz (the Persian New Year) by Shiite
mourning rituals; by such rituals as the Rawzeh, the Ta'ziyeh and the
Sinezani. And hence the ironic primacy of martyrdom, mourning and the preference
for black-wear in contemporary Iranian language and culture.
I draw on Papa's dismay this month to invoke another of his stellar formulations,
namely that of the eternal return: that insatiable Da Capo! that lives to affirm
life, wholly; that joy that longs for woe; that gladness that longs for dismay; that
delight that longs for agony; that satisfaction that longs for failure; that rapture
that longs for pain; that exultation that longs for heartbreak... In other words,
that yearning for a joy that shouts at the top of its lungs for the perfect midnight
so that the sun that follows the darkest night appears that much brighter and that
dew-drop at day break, that much sweeter.
Da Capo! then, to a joyous Naw Ruz that is eclipsed by the mourning ceremonies
of Muharram. Da Capo! too, to the North American Spring Break that overbooks every
flight during the Muslim Hajj. Da Capo! to April Fools that turns a trick on the
Shiite Arbaiin and salutations to the Sizdah-be-dar that arrives at the eleventh
hour to fulfill its promise of a most blessed year. May this convergence of sorrow
and celebratory joy return eternally!
The convergence of Muharram and Naw Ruz this year will bring about the miraculous
in your birthday month. Watch the fish on your haft-sinn closely. One of these days
they'll perform a magnificent sine zani as they swim about in their bowl.
This gesture will signal your lucky day in trade. Dare to play the market! You'll
make the big bucks. I promise!
If you stare closely at the Fuji logo this month as I did on the huge banners the
film company had erected all over the city in Tehran, you'll notice a slight shift.
The words Fuji will appear now as "Ya Husayn" and again as "Ya Zahrah".
Go with the flow, regardless of your religious sentiments. Invoke the words as you
make your wishes known to the gods for this year. Then beat the palm of your hand
to your chest once or twice to bring the wishes to life now, and, in the words of
Papa, "for all eternity". Fuji will make a sine-zan of all of us
sooner or later.
No doubt, the greenery on your haft-sinn is starting to die. My guess is you've tied
the traditional red bow around your sabzeh (greens). That, I'd say, was totally
the wrong move this year. So, do as I instruct! Go out and get a black ribbon to
commemorate Imam Husayn. Better yet, inscribe his name in white on the black ribbon
and tie it around your sabzeh. The greenery will come back to life again,
as it too, like all decent creatures, recognizes the appropriateness of the black
ribbon for this period of mourning. It will pop back just in time for you to throw
it out into the river on sizdah-be-dar. As it floats past you, make your wish
for a more prosperous and productive future.
The sine zani on the days leading up to the Ashura in Tehran this year
was spectacular. Spectacular, in part because of the overwhelming participation of
young girls in the procession who took the sine zani as an opportunity to
perform some mourning flagellations of their own. Khamenei publicly congratulated
the girls on claiming their equal rights to mourning in the papers on the 7th day
of the new year. My congratulations are offered in the same spirit, Cancer. Congratulations
for blasting apart the contradictions that chain your life by talking openly about
all of your life's double-dealings in a year that begins in double-dealings. By the
year's end, you'll be guilt free! That'll place you en par with the rest of
us out here.
I heard you complaining that you saw no hajii firuz on the streets this
year. No clown in black face drumming his jamboree to hail in the new year. I suggest
that you look again. This time at the thousands of Hajiis of a different sort who,
dressed in black on black, crowd the streets, drumming their chests and backs with
chains as they chant the choral refrain "Ya Husayn" in commemoration of
the Imam's atrocious murder at the hands of Yazid. A different year is ahead of us,
Leo. A year in which the new is old again and the old takes on new forms. Remember
this as you log in to your favorite web site or walk in to your neighborhood bar,
expecting "the same old, same old." You're being called upon to see the
world with fresh eyes. It's the great vision that makes the great leader.
Two things characterize your sign, Virgo. Your obsession with cleanliness and
your love of children. The stars shined on your sign, it would seem, as children's
entertainment is brimming this month with the daily re-enactment of the tragedy of
Karbala (and of Imam Husayn's slaughter) in ta'ziyeh performances in every
park and every theatre around town. All those severed heads and hands, the raised
swords and the sobbing crowds aim to overshadow the fact that cartoons are off limits
this Naw Ruz because of the Persian New Year's conjunction with Muharram.
All the staged blood-letting gives you something to do, too, of course÷Clue (as if
you needed it): Your other obsession. How fitting!
You may have waited and waited on the first and second days of the new year for
your friends and family to come for the annual new year visit. (The traditional did-o-baz-did).
No doubt you made a thousand cups of tea and the fourteen different sweets that appropriately
deck the Naw Ruz table in celebration of the new year. That would be well
and fine any other year. But this year's convergence breathes a whole new life into
the ceremonial did-o-baz-did. This year's did-o-baz-did , you see,
occurred on the streets: in the squares, the meidans, where everyone, young
and old, gathered, candle in hand, for the Sham-e Ghariban, on the evening
of Ashura. You missed it, apparently, sitting at home, sobbing. And who ate all those
sweets? Well, yes, I guess that was predictable, fatso! It's diet time now!
This month's contradictions are too many to recite, but I will try. This year,
the Naw Ruz sweets made with rice flour and rose water, and with chick pea
flour and pistachio were all replaced with dates and sholeh zard (or saffron
pudding) decorated in ground cinnamon with the severed hand of Abu'l Fazl and the
invocation "Ya Husayn". The gold fish of the haft sinn all came
in black this year and the haft sinn itself contained fourteen, rather than
the usual seven objects beginning with the letter sinn, to signify the fourteen infallibles
(chardah ma'sum), the fourteen greats of Shiite Islam, including Muhammad
and Fatimih and the twelve Imams. Instead of staying by the Caspian for the traditional
sizdah be-dar picnic, all city dwellers returned to the city, preferring to
be cooped up in their apartments. That the year begins with such contradictions need
not be a foreboding, but a notation that you expect what is ahead for you and for
all of your loved ones. As with its beginning, this year will embody a smorgasbord
of contradictions in which you will be forced to see good as evil, pain as pleasure
and woe as the harbinger of happiness. Madame Bayaz has forewarned you!
Chahar shambe suri, which is usually a night celebrating the last Wednesday
before the spring equinox and the Persian New Year, was announced a week early this
year as the actual last Wednesday of the year coincided with Muharram. Respecting
this disjunction, city dwellers in Iran gathered in neighborhood squares to jump
over fires, thus putting an end to the old and hailing in the new year one Wednesday
too early. Little did they know that this year's Muharram would provide ample opportunities
for such festivities without official intervention. On Ashura, the grand bazaar area
of Tehran invited the crowds to a spectacle in which the Imam's tent in effigy was
set aflame. Reeling from the flames the crowd collapsed, one on top of another, shouting
and screaming in baffled terror. Why, the Imam himself was inviting one and all to
jump the most blessed of flames and thus to bring in the new year! Of all the signs,
Sag, you're the one who could see the real invitation in the flames. Having
jumped Husayn's own flames, you'll be the true victor of the new year. Yours will
be the eternal Da Capo!
Capricorn In current usage, the terms susul and ashkol suggest a breed
of young Iranians who dress in the latest fashions, go for the newest in technology,
and use the greasiest of hair gels to pat down the too-long hair on either side of
a too-stringent part. (Yes, quite like the Fonz from Happy Days). This breed
inhabits the upper parts of the city, somewhere in the Mir Damad environs of Tehran.
This year, as luck has it, the latest in fashion and technology, from the new portable
iMac, to the new Nokia, comes in the freshest of pastels. Muharram dictates that
all be black, in observance of the month of mourning. Thus, Mir Damad is made devoid
of the latest by virtue of fashion's appeal to color. Breathe freely, Capricorn,
for another month at least. For now, your favorite, black on black, is the vogue.
Their time will come soon enough.
Two signs, only two, would find the flagellation, the impassioned cries to Imam Husayn,
and Zahra and the close contact between stinky, sweaty, beaten bodies sexy, in fact,
sexual this Muharram. One of them is yours, Aquarius, the other, Aries'. And since
all Aries are otherwise mesmerized by the chest beating of the fish in the haft-sinn
bowl, you and your cohorts are left to your own devices. See if you can make something
more of the Muharram sexiness. Rather than just dwell in the senses and, that, only
in the realm of abstractions, kiss a sine-zan in action. You'll either get
beaten up with the sine-zan's chain, or wake one up from his/her prolonged
trance. Either way, you'll get lucky. And that's a promise!
On the night of Ashura, the rawzeh chanter, Kuwaiti,
pocketed something like 7 million tomans for a two-hour gig at a neighborhood gathering
in Tehran. That morning he took in an additional four in the city of Abadan before
he boarded his personal jet. That's 11 million tomans more than the folk-singer Sima
Bina made for her fabulous appearance as Ghogha Bayat's singing voice in the film
by Mazyar Miri, Ghateh-ye Natamam (The Unfinished Piece). All this to say,
that under the present rule, you'd be wise to rethink your dreams of becoming a rock
star. In Tehran, you'll make more than Madonna and Ringo Starr put together if you
develop a certain sob to your speaking voice and tattoo a slight crimson line around
the heavy dark eyes. Teach yourself an Arabic phrase to insert amidst a garbled "Husayn"
and the appeal to the plains of Karbala on a scratchy mike and you'll surely be a
hit about town. Spin again, honey, spin again!
To contact Madame Bayaz write to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Some useful terms
-- Arbaiin: the 40th day of mourning following the anniversary of the martyrdom
of Imam Husayn
-- Ashura: 10th day of Muharram. The day of Imam Husayn's martyrdom.
-- Da Capo: A musical direction meaning "From the beginning"
-- Haft-sinn: The traditional Naw Ruz or Persian New Year table of seven dishes,
each one beginning with the Persian letter sinn.
-- Hajj: The Muslim pilgrimage.
-- Muharram: The Muslim month of mourning for the death of the 12th Imam,
-- Naw Ruz: The Persian New Year Rawzeh: a Muslim mourning ceremony Safavid:
a ruling dynasty who are believed to have established Shiism in Iran.
-- Sine-zani: Self flagellation ceremony during Muharram. A sine-zan
is someone show participates in the ceremony.
-- Sizdah-be-dar: 13th day after Naw Ruz, a day of outings and hope-filled
-- Ta'ziyeh: A popular passion play based on Muslim history.
-- Ya Husayn: Oh Husayn! Ya Zahrah: Oh Zahrah!