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A Norouz of improvisations
My haftsyn, especially this year, represents a distillation

March 21, 2004

As this earthen vessel begins yet again its circling of the eternal flame, may the grace of the universe caress your soul and the soil at your feet see to your every need.

This marks the thirty-sixth year that I observe Norouz in the solitude of a land so spatially and temporally distant from my birthland, away from mother's haftsyn. The sounds, smells and textures of the Norouz I observe here are not the same as there, no matter what amount of effort may go into copying the conditions and accoutrements of the occasion -- from the spread of the haftsyn down to the obligatory visits and revisits. Copy one may, re-creation it is not.

Norouz binds its celebrants not because it is a common narrative that we share from northern China to the hamlets of Syria and elsewhere, in every nook and cranny of the Iranian speaking world but because we share in its immutable logic that on this day earth springs into life and therefore it is cause for celebration by the living.

Norouz also divides its celebrants: Some see in it a romantic reaffirmation of an undiluted Persian past unsullied by the influences of religion and blood of the vermin who invaded the cradle of this most high of holidays and compromised its purity, as with all else. However, most see in it the practical synthesis of native and foreign influences, longevity of tradition born out of accommodation and adaptation. Nowhere is this controversy better illustrated than in the practice by some secularists or xenophobes to substitute a Persian book of poems for the holy book. Some even set a spread containing seven elements whose names begin with the letter sh (shyn), as in haftshyn, on the belief that such must have been the practice of the ancient Persians, impliedly equating the setting of a syn spread to a national travesty.

More than anything, the differing approaches to the setting of the spread speaks volumes to the single-mindedness and individuality of the Norouz celebrants. Nobody really knows for sure what the ancient Persians placed on their spread, or if they truly had seven elements, uniformly. One dear acquaintance had insisted for years that her haftshyn was truly authentic Persian: to drive the point home, she would substitute wine (sharab) for vinegar (serkeh) and have sugar (shekar) for another one of the elements. Needless to say, the word sharab is not of Persian origin, nor is the word shekar! An inconvenient technicality of sorts, to be sure, but not of significant vigor to dampen the spirit.

Mother's haftsyn, as I remember it, boasted a copy of the holy word and a bearded likeness of the prince of lions, the prince of the believers. My haftsyn contains neither -- neither the word nor the picture. Instead, I display every Norouz a favorite selection of the greeting cards and notes that I have received in the years past.

One of the items is the colorful depiction of an ornate spread, complete with exaggerated portions of all the elements and more, all reflecting in a mirror to double one's visual feast. Another card shows two maiden (maybe not), in colorful flowing dresses, sitting among a generous bed of flowers and petals, one caressing a submissive bird of paradise, the other viewing two more perched on a branch intruding from the side of the postcard. Another card is the depiction of a lavender-covered path-way in the green woods somewhere in south of this country.

Another card shows two cardinals poised on the branches of a berry-shrub; the inscription in it wishes a very happy new year from my sister to her nephew. There is one showing a story book character sitting in front of an oversized note-pad with a huge pencil, erasing a dying thought. There is also a picture of mother, in her younger days; and a note from my son stating that he had checked out a book from the school's library on my motherland so that I could read up on the old heritage. Lastly, there is a card, showing a single small heart that looks like a tear drop; or could it be a tear in the form of a heart?

Norouz is also about the end -- and my first memory of death and loss, dates to my seventh new year. The haftsyn had been gathered up and the various elements of it were disposed off. The plateful of wheat had been committed to the coursing water of a brook on the thirteenth day of the new year. And -- the tiny gold-fish, who had been circling, rising and sinking in a round glass vase for all the thirteen or so days had been furloughed into the murky waters of the yard-pond (hoz). One morning, the neighborhood tomcat pounced the gold-fish and left it dying unceremoniously in the grass.

To preside over a situation that can spell the end of life, even for a fish, in the midst of a season given to the celebration of life, could not be. Curiously, my ancestor, a sufi and mystic, refused to go on the hajj. When asked about this impertinence, he had replied to the curious that he could not take part in any rite which would require the killing of a creature, the sacrifice of a lamb.

My haftsyn now has a small wooden facsimile of a fish, which sits atop a heap of colorful pebbles in an arid glass bowl. Bright-eyed and happy about his chances of survival, the fish keeps company with the single wooden colored egg that sits in its holder next door.
Norouz is also about childhood memories, a connection which invariably produces in the celebrants regardless of age a gripping return to an earlier year, as if to seek a rationale for its present repetition. My memories, which I elaborate every year to my family, includes the anticipation of the arrival of the new year, no matter what hour of night or day; the spontaneous hugging of the loved ones when it arrived; and the short prayer that followed for the peace of the departed.

There is also the memory of a well-to-do uncle, who was not really an uncle, and his dispensing of crisp bluish one-tuman bills as celebratory tokens (eidy) to the children. None of these memories however was more telling of human nature than the doings of an acquaintance who avoided gifting and spending endless hours in the company of unpleasant people out of a necessity to observe protocol. He would time his arrival at the home of the people whom he had to visit in such a way that it coincided with their absence; conveniently, he would then leave his calling card with an inscription that said he had come to kiss the hand of his master in reverence for the new year and that his steely resolve was overcome alas solely by the Almighty's extreme disfavor upon his lord's most obedient servant!

Being dragged to visit people one hardly knew or saw all year- round was a significant part of the scene. It was in many ways a tribal thing, a ritual designed to take inventory of the denizens of the familial realm who inhabited the remote and peripheral areas of one's emotional map and daily relevance. One among them was an elderly couple, an aunt and uncle to someone in the family; the man was deaf and required repetitive and louder yet utterances in order to get the audible gist of the conversation; his wife produced the most forceful and watery kisses on the unsuspecting children who had come to visit. What would change from year to year during this visit was the answer about the children having moved up a grade in school.

There are no new year's resolutions in the vernacular of Norouz. There is a cultural element to this and it is related entirely to the predestination of man and his faith in the grand scheme of things. As long as all is written by the Almighty and it is his will that is done, no free will exists and therefore resolutions are by definition inconsequential. Instead, there are prayers.

Norouz is also about improvisation, a paradigm that marries the necessity of ritual with the convenience of the possible -- often resulting in absurd but equally meaningful departures from the norm. My haftsyn, especially this year, represents a distillation of this.

I have not been much for buying the prepared spreads, nor do I have the penchant for setting an elaborate spread like mother's. What is there on mine satisfies the basic requisite of having seven elements that begin with syn. There is somaq(sumac), syr (garlic), serkeh (vinegar), syb (apple) and sekkeh (coin). With sonbol (hyacinth), I had rounded up six of my seven syns. Very cleverly, I decided that the sonbol would also substitute for sabzi (wheat shoots) and my haftsyn thus will be complete. To overcome the nagging disquiet of this improvisation which bordered on cheating, in a fit of absolute borderline genius I went to my rock collection and picked out a shapely sang and placed it on the spread. If asked about this novelty, I shall retort that it is an ancient Persian practice, which signifies elemental might, immutability, resolute determination, patience and unmitigated cheek..................... Say goodbye to spam!


Guive Mirfendereski practices law in Massachusetts (JD, Boston College Law School, 1988). His latest book is A Diplomatic History of the Caspian Sea: Treaties, Diaries, and Other Stories (New York and London: Palgrave 2001)

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By Guive Mirfendereski



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