25-Day Briefing (Part 1)
Happy New Year! (Farvardin 1-13, a.k.a. March 21-April 2)
The year 1385 officially began on March 20th, 9:55 p.m., Iran time. Iranians all over the country spent 13 days celebrating the new year, which falls on the first day of spring. (More on the Iranian Calendar). This festive holiday involves a variety of rituals, the first being khooneh tekooni, or "house shaking." In the weeks leading up to the new year, most—I assure you, this is no exaggeration—Iranian households embark on an almost obsessive spring cleaning binge. Aside from dusting every nook and cranny, people clean their walls, ceilings, and worst of all, their Persian rugs.
Do you know how arduous a task it is to clean a Persian rug?
I'm not referring to the 'ole vacuuming in the direction of the grain. I'm talking about water and soap deep-clean treatments carried out in driveways of (mainly) apartment buildings, followed by a labor-intensive combing of the carpet to extract excess water, and ending with a drip-dry process, where, depending on the rug's size, the heavy mass hangs from the side of your building for multiple days. In Tehran, where most people live in small to large apartments, wall-to-wall carpeting consists of piecing together handmade Persian rugs of different sizes and shapes across almost every inch of floor space. With an average rug spanning about 9ft x 6ft, and a typical home possessing anywhere from five to 50 rugs of varying dimensions, khooneh tekooni can easily become backbreaking work. Luckily, my quasi-guest status operates as a "get out of jail free" card in these types of questionable situations.
In addition to spring cleaning, Iranians arrange the Haft-seen, a symbolic display centering around seven ("haft") items beginning with "seen" (the letter for "s" in Farsi). So, sekkeh (coin), seeb (apple), sonbol (Hyacinth flower), and a number of other "seens" may be included in the layout. This ceremonial decor used to be called Haft-sheen (sheen is the Farsi letter for "sh"), where in place of serkeh (vinegar), there was sharab (wine). But when Islam came to Iran, the customs were altered to fit the nonalcoholic aspect of religion. The Haft-seen decoration remains in place from the start of the new year to the final day, on the 13th of Farvardin.
Norouz, another name for Iranian New Year, is the only holiday welcomed with a party, Chaharshanbeh Soori, and sent off with one (13-Bedar). Most Iranians use their two-week vacation to visit family and friends, throw parties, and squeeze in some well-deserved rest and relaxation. It's customary to be in a crowded setting at all times, eat plenty of sweets, hand out Eidies (newly printed money) to younger kin, throw parties, and observe other fun-filled traditions.
I think my version of the holiday was atypical, however, for a number of reasons.
First of all, I hung out with a bunch of exhausted, wealthy, middle-aged/ elderly folk on the Caspian seaboard. It was quite boring for my cousins and me, considering swimming was out of the question, due to slightly frigid temperatures, leaving shopping in the town as our only alternative outdoor activity.
This Caspian Sea visit was different from others we've taken throughout the years because, for one thing, the whole region has become far more touristy. I hate it when that happens because then all those hand-woven baskets and wooden handicrafts characteristic of the seashore towns of the north become ridiculously overpriced (compared to Tehran rates!) and much less creative. Moreover, I'd begun to suspect that many of the shops were promoting goods imported from Turkey as being homemade; falsely claiming that a Turkish-made item was produced in Iran appears to be a growing trend, so be forewarned! From my experience, souvenirs imported from Turkey have been low in quality, compared to their Iranian-made counterparts.
Another manner in which the Caspian Sea region has changed regards the styles of villas being built. Rather than invest in a cozy villa nestled within a lush landscape, many residents have taken it upon themselves to build seaside castles, or excessively ornate buildings that swallow up the majority of the property they inhabit. These gaudy designs indicate to me two things: 1. Napoleonic complex, a common feature of modern architecture in Iran (why does everybody want to be a king?), and 2. Rejection of nature (it's as if people try to construct up to the last penny they've got, even if the result resembles a concrete jungle, rather than a house). I will try to post pictures of this widespread embrace of structural pretentiousness, which has been romanticized as a high-class phenomenon.
On a side note, here's a funny-looking bush, located in the front yard of a normal-sized beach house:
Upon my early return to Tehran, I encountered another uncommon situation—Eid-e Aval (the first new year). Eid-e Aval is the first New Year’s after the death of a family member. My uncle's wife had lost her 90-year-old uncle only a day before New Year's Eve. Therefore, instead of approaching the holiday season with a jovial attitude, my uncle's family, and anyone else related to the deceased, exhibited a grief-stricken demeanor.
According to Iranian death rites, the first 40 days after the passing of a loved one makes up the most solemn mourning period. And since New Year’s falls within these 40 days, hence constituting Eid-e Aval, any friends of my uncle or his wife must pay the proper respects by visiting them sometime within these two weeks. In addition, my uncle, his wife, and the kids spent much of Eid-e Aval attending various gatherings and ceremonies related to death. Furthermore, nobody will be attending any social events that feature dancing or music, such as weddings or birthday parties, at least for the duration of the 40-day mourning cycle. Of course, this last clause doesn't apply to friends of my uncle's wife, or distant relatives to the deceased, such as me.
One major aspect of Norouz that I wholly neglected was my family obligations, which—at the minimum—comprised of visiting the homes of family members who are older than me, i.e., practically all my relatives with their own residence. This tradition of dropping by is called "Deedani" (or seeing), and carries with it a burdensome load of expectations and respect. As if shirking my Eid Deedani responsibilities weren't enough, I was supposed to call every single family household on the first of Farvardin to communicate warm wishes for the new year, but decided to watch Iranian movies on my laptop instead. Fortunately, my cultural ineptitude was slightly redeemed by a telephone failure story and a few belated deedanis, one of which I was able to slide in right at Norouz's close, Seezdeh (13) Bedar.
On the 13th and final day of New Year’s, Iranians must spend the day outdoors, amidst nature and greenery. Most pack up their picnic gear and head out to a grassy knoll somewhere, usually in a park, where they eat, drink, and play. Sometime during the day, the Haft-seen comes down, and the sabze (bright green sprouts that resemble an uprooted lawn sample) must be tossed into a river.
Outside, at the extremely crowded neighborhood park, we saw a sabze thrown onto a patch of grass. Kneeling down, we proceeded to tie knots into the blades, which my cousin explained was for good luck in the coming year. While I absentmindedly followed her cue in this ritual, wondering why I hadn't heard of it before, she casually mentioned that it was practiced by single people, causing me to drop the blades and recoil with disgust. Then, my eyes instinctively darted around, quickly surveying the scene to make sure no one saw me tying anything. Why does everything have to relate back to marriage here?!? That's another topic, for another day.
Anyway, during our outing, I spotted Saeid Pirdoost, also known as Sardar Khan from Shabhaye Barareh (Barareh Nights), or the Dad on Noghte Chin (Dot), strolling about with his wife and kid. I was surprised that nobody else ran up to him asking for his picture, except my cousin and me.
Fortunately, he was extremely patient and human-like, and I totally used my "foreigner" credentials to request a photo, as justification for any potential rudeness I might have unintentionally displayed, as dictated by Iranian social norms. I always feel obligated to gauge stuff like that because Iranians seem to have a significantly low threshold for boldness.
By the way, I bleeped out my face so the psychos out there don't recognize me. Stay tuned for Part 2, which I plan to add tomorrow.