Naneh Sarma and Amu Nowruz

Every year it is the same ritual. On the Spring Equinox, when the days and nights are equal in Iran and all the expanses that once belonged to her, I fly down Mount Qâf, carrying Young Man Spring, Amu Noruz, on my back.

I am Mother Simorq and Amu Noruz is one of my eternal co-dwellers high up on Mount Qâf. When my wings fold down over the slopes of the mountain, I drop off this beautiful messenger of spring and watch him walk to a chestnut horse that waits for him. He is wearing a felt cap, blue gorta, aristocratic green shawl, light cotton shoes with thin soles, silk trousers, dark hennaed hair and green beard made of lentil sprouts. He mounts the horse, takes off his cap to me, and rides farther and farther on the path through the vast plain, towards the city gate.

Outside of the gate, there is a small orchard full of leafless fruit trees and seven barren flowerbeds around a little white cottage. The orchard belongs to Old Woman Winter, who has a body of brilliant light and a hopeful, seeking look in her dark liquid eyes. She is wearing a long white robe that is bleached in frozen rivers; it bites off all the warmth from the air. She has snow-white hair and an icy moon on her forehead. Her cheeks are luscious crimson and her lips, the colour of pomegranate. Her garland of intoxicating wintersweet flowers perfumes her. She also smells of frost and roasted nuts from the Yalda festivity of the longest night of the year. Her enigmatic qualities hold tight to her warm, cyclical heart. Her name is Naneh Sarma, sometimes Lady of the Cold Spells, and she is madly in love with Young Man Spring, Amu Noruz.

On the first day of spring, when the cosmic powers of an eternally fighting duo, Mother Earth’s Bull and Lady Sun’s Lion, are equal, Naneh Sarma gets up early, makes her bed and cleans her cottage. She places seven objects in the clean, silver Haft-Seen tray: lentil sprouts growing in a dish for rebirth, sweet wheat-germ pudding for affluence, dried silverberries for love, garlic for medicine, apples for beauty and health, sumac for the colour of sunrise, and vinegar for age and patience. She spreads a smaller, golden tray with seven kinds of dried fruit, nuts and seeds, sugarplums and sugar candies.

No longer snowed in, Naneh Sarma carries out her Persian carpet and spreads it on the veranda, in front of a flowerbed with coming growth and a little blue fountain pool with three floating pomegranates. She goes back inside and takes her bath, puts henna on her hands, feet and fingernails, before putting on the seven kinds of ritual makeup. She then discards her three-month old, white robe and puts on a purple cashmere jacket, red slacks, and a springy little skirt. She perfumes herself with aloeswood, amber and musk on her hair, face and throat. She fires up a deep mass of charcoal that rests on a soft bed of ash in the brazier, and places a little cloth bag of wild rue incense beside it. She changes the water in the earthen jug and prepares the qalyan. She doesn’t place any heated charcoal in the qalyan’s top bowl, but only some thin foil covered tobacco. She sits on the veranda, follows the skies’ breath, and waits for the arrival of Amu Noruz.

Naneh Sarma waits and waits through lengthy seconds, endless minutes and lingering hours. The stove inside the cottage leaks time. Dark thoughts stumble across her mind and break down. As she sits silently on her Persian carpet, leaning on a cushion against the wall, waiting, breathing deeply, desiring her young beloved, the angel of weariness comes to visit her, uninvited. Her eyelids begin to get heavy, and before long, a velvety wave of sleep rushes over her eyes, scatters through her body and carries her soul to the underworld of dreams.

Within a few moments, Amu Noruz arrives at the city gate with blessings in his warm eyes. But before entering the city, he dismounts his horse and picks a field marigold that has just blossomed in his presence; he then rides up into the orchard to visit his beloved. He tethers his horse on the other side of the fountain pool and walks to the veranda where he sees Old Woman Winter sitting in all her glory. But he finds her asleep and snoring softly.

Amu Noruz smiles and thinks that he loves her too much to wake her. Instead, he sits beside her and places the field marigold on her chest. He then throws a pinch of wild rue into the brazier, pours himself a glass of tea and has it with two sugar cubes, places a hot charcoal on the qalyan’s top and takes a drag or two. Afterwards, he cuts an orange into two equal halves, has one half with sugar-sweetened water and leaves the other half for Naneh on a plate. At the end, he grabs a pair of tongs and buries all the glowing pieces of charcoal in the ashes of the brazier to protect them from dying down. He caresses Naneh Sarma’s cheeks, kisses her on the lips very gently, walks to his horse and rides into the city with the gift of spring in his body and soul.

As the golden wings of sunlight slowly spread on the veranda, their warmth call Naneh Sarma out of her sleep. She looks around and sees everything as if peering through a veil. As she smells wild rue’s strong fragrance and rubs her eyes, she is shocked to see that everything around her has been touched. The qalyan’s top has fire on it, tea has been served, half of the orange is gone, hot charcoals are moved under the ashes, her cheeks are caressed and her lips, wet. Oh, she has missed her lover. He has come and gone away, again. Yes, again. Gone away without waking her. Naneh Sarma draws herself all around her and turns her eyes down. Whispers of grief begin speaking in her bones; her sigh becomes a sad poem and lingers in the air of the leaf-budding orchard trees.

She looks up, sees high open blue sky, and calls to me, wordlessly. I fly down to her orchard and visit her in her cottage. I can see from her eyes she has been weeping. Not quite believing all will be reborn, she asks me for advice, wants me to do something for her. “You have no choice,” I tell her, “but to wait for another year until you hear me carrying Amu Noruz down Mount Qâf again. Next year, wait for him without falling asleep.”

Naneh Sarma nods in bitter agreement and her cold flesh begins melting. Steam leaving her body, her spirit rising in a cold disappearing, she speaks to me. She wants me to pick her up and lay the rest of her body on the frosty segment of Mount Qâf where she comes from. As I begin dragging her melting body upward like a white sheet in my beaky mouth, I hear her copper samovar fall, her looking-glass crack, and her stove go out. Her cottage, like a shrine desecrated, crumbles in unfulfilled expectation.

Up on Mount Qâf, at home by the snowy pinewoods, Naneh Sarma’s heartbeat lessens and she turns inward to quietude. I trace circles in the snow with my claws as I watch her dissolving through the fog. While her last molecules are melting into the snow and vanishing from everywhere but memory, I tell her I shall witness her awakening in nine months, but I cry over her karma. Naneh Sarma will never embrace Amu Noruz. For this, the world would have to end. It is written.


Simorq = Mythical Persian bird-woman


Naneh = Nana

Sarma = Coldness

Amu = Uncle

Noruz = Persian New Year

Haft Seen = The Seven “S”s display, which includes seven symbolic objects, all starting with the letter S or Seen in Persian.

Qalyan = Hooka

Samovar = Tea urn

Gorta = Long shirt

Wintersweet flower = Chimonanthus praecox = Gol-e Yakh

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