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 locations.
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