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An international day of remembrance


January 10, 2006

I am not that vain to think that you have clicked to read more of this essay because of some innate connection between my name and your index or middle finger. That would be nice, though. You really clicked on because you are curious about what I might have to say about 13-Bedar. This is the 13th day of the Iranian New Year on which Iranians regardless of gender, age, marital status, national or ethnic origin or religion or orientation leave their homes and spend it usually outdoors or at any other location except home. You are also curious about how “survival” plays into this rather esoteric observance, which is not duplicated anywhere in the world! If you have been following my recent pieces that touched on the Jewish festival of Purim, you might be ahead of yourself.

I am not a triskaidekaphobe, nor is anyone in my circle of friends and acquaintances. In my experience there are many more who fear the black cat crossing their path or a ladder impeding their way then the number “13.” But I must confess that I have exploited on one occasion the belief of others in the alleged unlucky “13.”

In the year 1977 I was a graduate student in a course called “The Third World and International Relations,” which was taught by, and later one of my Ph.D. readers, the very professor W. Scott Thompson. In his own sadistic manner, Professor Thompson had ordained that the student who had obtained the best average in the course prior to the finals would be exempt from taking the final exam. The day he announced John Edward Herbst as the lucky guy, the rest of the class set out to find reasons why they too should be exempt from taking the final exam.

One fellow, who had a perfect record of no-show until the last three weeks of class argued that since he knew the least he should be exempted! Fat chance, the professor replied. I, however, took a collective approach to the issue and sought to get the whole class exempted. In that, I based my losing argument on the date of the exam -- Friday, May 13. The month of May was already bad luck, Friday was worse still and the 13th was the worst of all. The three lousy ill-omened parts of the date truly portended a catastrophe, I argued in a brief.

The Greek philosophers and mathematicians, I wrote, scorned “13” as an imperfect number. In Norse mythology there were 12 gods dining when a 13th named Loki crashed the party. This personification of evil and dissension killed Balder, a hero and most revered of all the Norse gods. “On the 13th day of the Iranian New Year,” I also wrote, “all Iranians skip town and spend the day in the open country-side.”

I remember learning in my childhood a variety of reasons from various people about the Iranian observance of syzdah bedar on the 13th day of Farvardin -- the first month in the New Year (Norouz). The most common explanation was that the number “13” was nahs (bad luck, unfortunate) and so by leave one’s house on that day one deflected calamity for the rest of the year. I always thought this explanation was lame, because other months had a 13th day also but no one went out for that reason alone on a picnic to Fasham or Darekeh or Ghaziabad in the other months. According to Encyclopaedia Mossaheb, at one point the sixth Shi’ite Imam Jafar Sadeq (d. 765 AD) had decreed as nahs the 13th day in each month of the Moslem lunar calendar. Exactly how one dealt with the teaching of that decree is not clear to me.

The reason that made the most sense to me as a child was that on the 13th Farvardin we left the house so that the ghosts and spirits who once lived there could return and revisit the house freely.

Both Dehkhoda’s Loghat-Nameh and Encyclopaedia Mossaheb seem to indicate that the syzdah bedar ritual among Iranians had something to do with fending the ill fortune that the number 13 engenders. Mossaheb however goes further to note that this observance -- syzdah bedar -- was not a part of the Norouz rituals, which ended in the seventh day of the New Year; the next one after that would have been on the 17th Farvardin, which on the Zoroastrian calendar was the Day of Whispers (zamzameh).

Always looking for some etymological or philological reason, I think what if syzdah bedar had little to do with the number “13” per se and was really a day on which Iranians engage in “sabzeh bedar,” taking out and depositing in a running body of water, river or brook, the wheat germs that they had grown in the weeks prior as part of the new year’s spread (haft syn).

Until I re-read the history of Purim in the Book of Esther I knew of no particular historical event or mythical conjecture that might have made Iranians consider on their own the number “13” as bad luck. Up until recently I considered most if not all the superstition or bad omen attached to number “13” as originating in the West or with Christianity.

I think I have found in the story of Purim an answer to the unlucky “13” and observance of syzdah bedar. I have written about this in [Ahasuerus]. This Jewish festival celebrates the sparing of Jewish lives by the Persian king Ahasuerus, who one day permitted his minister to kill off the Jews, then rescinded the order at the urging of his Jewish Queen Esther and allowed instead the Jews to kill on the same day (13th Adar) throughout the land whom they considered their enemy.

As celebrated by the Jews, the festival of Purim is all about having fun and games, skits and costumes complete with dunce caps, candy and obnoxious noisemakers. In the re-enactments, the Persian king gets a side-mention (with no reference to Iran as the successor nation) and there is never ever any talk about the blood letting that took place at the hands of the Jews throughout the Persian Empire, which the Book of Esther reported in detail.

According to the Book of Esther, the news spread throughout the realm that on the 13th Adar the Jews in the kingdom were “to destroy, and to slay, and to cause to perish, all the forces of the people and province that would assault them ... .” No criterion was set for identifying who was an enemy of the Jew whom deserved to perish. So any non-Jew and maybe some Jews too were fair game in this royal-sanctioned death match. My guess is that in the face of this impending and arbitrary doom, on the 13th Adar most prudent Iranians packed up and headed for the mountains and prairies, away from home.

One misguided minister named Haman and his manipulating wife wished to bring death and mayhem onto the Jews and almost succeeded were it not for Queen Esther’s influence. Haman’s plot was foiled but then king Ahasuerus presided over the Jewish slaughter of some 75,800 of his subjects. I cannot reconcile this state-sponsored mayhem with the teachings of the Holy Scriptures. First, in the Book of Exodus (21:24-25), was it not the Lord who said onto Moses: “Thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe”?

In no civilized religion or legal system should death or murder be penalty for attempted murder, or conspiracy to commit murder, even by the most primitive measure of the ancients (eye for an eye in the Jewish and Christian faiths and qasas in the Moslem faith). On the greater scheme of things, was it not the Lord who also said “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Romans 12:19)?

Naturally, this interpretation of the 13th Adar and 13-Bedar would have been more persuasive if I could show that the two dates at some time fell on the same day -- that is the 13th Adar, the 13th day of the twelfth month of the then-Hebrew/Jewish calendar, coincided with the 13th day of Farvardin, the present-day first month of the Iranian calendar. People with much greater skills and resources might be able to figure this out. But for now, I only note two things -- First, in the present time Adar is the sixth month on the Jewish calendar.

Because of the lunar nature of the Hebrew calendar, in antiquity often a thirteenth month would be attached to the regular twelve months to account for the missing days and it was called also Adar (II). Second, the date for Purim tends to float around Farvardin, at least in recent memory. For example, in year 2004 of the Gregorian calendar Purim fell on March 6 and Norouz fell on March 20 and 13-Bedar came on April 1. In the year 2005, Purim came on March 24, Norouz happened on March 20 and 13-Bedar occurred on April 1. It is possible that at some point the 13th of Adar in Esther’s time coincided with 13th day of the Persian New Year.

Regardless -- I could call upon the rabbinical councils everywhere to recall and acknowledge at Purim the atrocity committed by the Jews against other Iranian people, even though by royal decree. But I won’t. Instead, on this occasion, I call upon the appropriate organs of the United Nations to declare the 13th and 14th day past the vernal equinox as the International Day of Remembrance.

The day shall celebrate the survivors and honor the memory of the souls perished in episodic cruelty of man upon man, but above all the day shall promote harmony among the races and religions within national boundaries. One need not delude oneself ever again with such hollow refrains as “Never Again” as it is uttered about one particular race or religion when unspeakable horrors have been and continue to be committed throughout the world on a daily basis. Perhaps the mantra should be a more realistic call for “Forever Less Savagery, Please.”

Meanwhile, I would like to hear from readers who know first hand about how is the festival of Purim portrayed in Israeli schools in the context of Irano-Israeli non-relations since 1979.

Guive Mirfendereski is a professorial lecturer in international relations and law and is the principal artisan at Born in Tehran in 1952, he is a graduate of Georgetown University's College of Arts and Sciences (BA), Tufts University's Fletcher School (PhD, MALD, MA) and Boston College Law School (JD). He is the author of A Diplomatic History of the Caspian Sea >>> Features in

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Book of the day

Iranian Nationality and the Persian Language
by Shahrokh Meskoob

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