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War Anxiety's Not Enough to Stop Persian New Year, Celebrants Say

March 20, 2003|Patricia Ward Biederman | Times Staff Writer

Alexander the Great couldn't stop Persian New Year, and neither will war in the Middle East.

At precisely 15 seconds before 5 o'clock tonight, a million Southern Californians of Persian descent will mark the beginning of their new year.

Thanks to the Internet, the ancient story is recounted on a handful of Persian Web sites. The two-week celebration is the most important in Persian culture. Because invaders hate the old traditions, whenever Persia -- modern-day Iran -- was conquered through the millennia, the new leaders tried to erase the celebration from the calendar.

But Norooz, or Persian New Year, is as inevitable as spring, the annual miracle it celebrates.

Like Easter and Passover and a dozen other ancient holidays, Norooz is about the end of a dark time and regeneration and rebirth.

In Calabasas, educator and journalist Shirin Nooravi has been preparing for Norooz for weeks. She had the rugs in her home cleaned and rearranged the furniture (some people repaint their houses). And she set up an elegant display of the seven traditional items that say Norooz as surely as holly and eggnog say Christmas.

In Farsi, each item begins with the letter seen and stands for happiness or some other good thing: wheat grass or sprouted lentils, sweet porridge, gold coins, garlic, hyacinths, sumac berries and vinegar. Candles, colored eggs, apples and a bowl of goldfish are also part of the array.

Nooravi came to the United States from Iran almost 30 years ago and remembers the New Year's traditions that never made it across the sea. In Iran, people make New Year's wishes and then hide behind a wall and eavesdrop on the conversations of passersby. They discover whether their wish will come true by what the passing strangers say.

Nooravi's 21-year-old son, Sherwin, remembers the Persian New Years of his American childhood with great affection. On Tuesday night, people of Persian descent gathered on Southland beaches to jump over small bonfires.

"I used to love that," said Sherwin, a student at Moorpark College. As they jump, people ask the fire to take their pain, or winter paleness, and give them health, symbolized by the fire's redness. The tradition has religious significance for those who still practice the ancient Zoroastrian religion, but Muslims and Jews of Persian heritage continue the tradition as well.

On Tuesday night, Iranian radio carried feeds as celebrants jumped over bonfires in El Segundo and Corona del Mar.

Other New Year's traditions: "We have a clown," Sherwin said. "His name is Haji Firooz. He's like our Santa Claus, except he's a lot more animated."

That herald of the New Year is dressed in red, with a big red hat.

"He dances around with a tambourine, just like John Lennon had," Sherwin said.

Nuts and sweets are served, and there are gifts of money for children. Like the year, the money is brand new.

Explained Sherwin: "My mom would never just give me a $50 bill. It was always a crisp one, right from the bank."

Like so many others in the Iranian American community, the Nooravis have relatives in Iran. Both in the United States and in Iran, Shirin Nooravi said: "People are scared" of war.

The New Year festivities will go on, she said, "but it's not like last year."

Hossein Hedjazi is program director and host of a show on Iranian radio, KIRN-AM (670). For Norooz, the station programs traditional New Year's music, jokes and satire. "It's a playful time of year," Hedjazi said.

This year, the news programming at the top of the hour has been all about the probability of an invasion of Iraq. "Still the people are upbeat," he said. "So far, they're just waiting to see what happens."

People typically make resolutions this time of year, said Shirin Nooravi, who runs three Iranian culture and language schools in the San Fernando Valley. The New Year is a time to remember the sweetness of life and its infinite possibilities, even under the cloud of war.

As Nooravi watches the goldfish and smells the sweet, fresh wheat grass, she is reminded, she said: "Life is wonderful, and we make it so, with God's help."

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