It started with an online conversation with a friend last year, around this time.
We are both Parsis — Zoroastrians from the Indian subcontinent — and were celebrating Navroze, or New Year, on March 21, 2003. We were talking about the proper gestures to make when receiving and giving blessings during a Navroze ritual, and were both equally hesitant to identify any definite gestures.
I have run into this particular issue regularly — I was raised in New York City around a small moderate Zoroastrian community and never received any formal training or intense guidance regarding ceremonial practice and ritual. In fact, many times I am left feeling like a child, attempting to cross the street alone for the first time, looking to those around me to provide clues as to when I should move and what I should do. After much speculation and laughter between the two of us, it was concluded that neither of us were much help.
She then happened to mention the Mayor's proclamation, made last year in New York, which formally recognized the diverse religions and cultures that celebrate New Year during the vernal equinox.
I was momentarily taken aback by her revelation — strangely saddened that my small, somewhat obscure, yet special day, may be investigated and pried into by those in the public who might take an interest. I soon got over the passing cloud of romantic exclusivity, and entered into the warm realization that this unique day was not exclusive at all — but rather, totally inclusive and supremely mixed.
Before she read me the proclamation, I was aware that Iranians, (Zoroastrians and those of different religions), celebrated Navroze — but I had no idea that Afghans, Kurds (of many nationalities), and others in the Middle East as well as in Central Asia celebrated Navroze (spelled and pronounced differently depending on culture).
That's when it hit me: every year when my family gathers to celebrate the coming of spring and to share our love, so many others are gathering for the very same reason. It is no matter that we are all culturally diverse and even have different religions — it is the fact that we, all of us, as a collective are taking the same time to be united and peaceful and joyous. The importance is not what gestures we make or how our rituals differ, but that we all do a united SOMETHING.
Growing up I had a somewhat blended Navroze celebration. My parents were born and raised in India but moved to Iran after their marriage — returning to the country which my father's parents actually emigrated from — and from which my mother's ancestors came from hundreds of years ago.
Within the Parsi community in India, there are different categories: one includes families who have been in India for generations, (like my mother's). Another category is recent immigrants from Iran, such as my father's parents. Actually it is a tradition now, for these newer Zoroastrian immigrants from Iran, to change their last name to Irani (literally meaning from Iran) when they come to India.
The Parsis of India developed a unique culture of their own, and it is this culture that laid the basis for our family's Navroze celebration; however their time in Iran influenced our celebration as well. They adopted and integrated some Iranian customs. For example, most Parsis include a “Ses,” which is a tray holding a container of rosewater, a pot to hold the red paste with which one does a tili, (the red dot adorning the forehead on an auspicious occasion) and a cone filled with sugar lumps.
Most Iranians set a table with seven symbolic items in their celebrations. My mother had both; so I was somewhat different from other Parsis I knew, in that my personal celebration spanned two different countries and cultures. Usually my family also participated in our temple's larger celebration, which brought the religious community together on one evening for prayer and feasting. Up until recently it was separate from the Iranian Zoroastrians; however we do now have joint celebrations.
So all my life I have been aware of two cultures that recognized Navroze — but definitely thought it was sacred only to Zoroastrians. I've never thought much about Navroze otherwise. Mostly I thought about my family and the Parsi community around me, and perhaps of my relatives in India.
Along with thoughts of family and friends, while ringing in the New Year, one is supposed to give thanks for the blessings they have received in the past year and to also think about those who may not have been blessed with as much. To be honest, when I reflected, I had in me the abstract notion of those who have less, and those whose lives may be harder than mine; but never could I isolate specifics about whom I had in mind.
But the news in last year's mayoral proclamation allowed me to identify with many more people, worldwide — not just my family and friends — and allowed me to tap into the special vein that was uniting all of “us,” which is the belief in the sacredness of the day.
It was quite mind expanding for me to think about the countless people whose thoughts and prayers were traveling to the heavens along with mine on the same day. All those around the globe may celebrate Navroze in a similar or different manner; however the sentiment behind the ritual and pomp is the same: showing gratitude for all we have and creating blessings for the coming year.
But last year's celebration became more poignant than ever. With the knowledge of the proclamation being made, I was educated to the fact that those other cultures and people celebrating the day with me this year may also have been fighting for their lives, their sovereignty, their voice. The abstract notion of those who have less became all too clear, and it is still as poignant this year.
The Afghans may be remembering this day perhaps under fire or direct occupation of their towns and villages, but were finally able to celebrate the holiday, as of last year, since the Taliban's restrictions are no longer in place. The Iraqi Kurds rang in last New Year under fire, bombed by Saddam Hussein's forces and perhaps by the USA as well; and are most definitely bringing in this New Year under much hardship from intolerance and violence.
I am aware that the Kurds, the Afghans, and many other cultures celebrating New Year have been oppressed for many more years than just the past two but it was the definite knowledge that the country in which I live, the very country that I lift up and give thanks to for all my opportunity and blessings, this very same country has been the source of much grief and turmoil for others who would like to be able to simply gather and give thanks quietly and peacefully.
My new understanding that last year's proclamation brought, not only of the diversity in the expression of New Year but in the actual hopes, fears, dreams and wishes swirling around on this complicated day, led me to think along even broader lines. Especially since this year, on the 20th of March, one day after the official start of Navroze, thousands would be marching in New York in peace and unity to commemorate the one year anniversary of the war waged against Iraq and demand peace.
I wonder where the New Year's thoughts are of those who have recently experienced war and trauma. Perhaps they are thinking of what they have just lived through and asking for the strength to endure some more, just a bit more. Perhaps they are asking to be blessed with a future, with a new day where they may once again plan and have hopes. Who knows?
I know that my own internal ritual has changed forever. I can no longer celebrate Navroze thinking only of my immediate community and family. No, my mind will be traveling the globe seeking out those other little beams of light energy sent towards the Heavens. My prayers will link on to that chain of prayers making its way across time and space and I will be united with many others I have never, and may never meet.
It is wonderful to know that so many peoples that may not usually stand together as “we” are now aware that we are a WE, an US, united in giving reverence to a higher power, united in sending out energy of peace and love together that no ritual can trump.
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