NoRuz (New Day) is the Iranian New Year that dates back to the 12th BC and has survived invasions, foreign rule and most recently, the Islamic Revolution. The celebrations begin on the 20th or 21st of March and continue for 13 days.
In 1979 Khomeini had declared NoRuz celebrations as void since it was not an Islamic holy day. But except for a few zealots the opposition towards the change amongst the Iranians was too great and the celebrations continued.
Haft Seen is the sofreh, which is spread to celebrate the NoRuz. The sofreh includes seven (Haft) features beginning with ‘S’ (pronounced ‘seen’ in Farsi). Seven has always been considered a lucky number. Everything in the Haft Seen (see featured photo) symbolises life or wishes we have of life.
In my memoir, Under a Starless Sky, I’ve dedicate several chapters to the celebrations around the Persian New Year.
In the excerpt below I’m in a taxi with my grandmother on our way to Tehran’s Bazaar. Whilst driving through the busy streets, Eshrat Mamman explains the symbolism of each item in the Haft Seen.
She counted the number of ‘seen’s that are in the Haft Seen one by one on her fingers.
“First we have Sabzeh (Barley or Wheat sprouts) which is for new growth. Then it’s the Sonbol (Hyacinth) that represents beauty, spring or new life.”
The taxi suddenly braked hard throwing us forward. The taxi driver tooted his horn and leaned out the window to hurl abuse at another driver.
Eshrat Mamman squared her shoulders. Her lips parted as if she was about to say something to the driver, but thought better of it and eased back in her seat.
“Now where was I? Of yes, the Haft Seen.” She counted her third finger
“So we have Sabzi & Sonbol. Then comes Seeb (apples). Aside from adding colour and vitality, Seeb was the first fruit in the Garden of Eden.”
“But didn’t Adam have to leave Eden because he ate the apples?”
“Yes child. That’s true. But the Garden of Eden is thought in our folklore as the spring of life. And maybe…” She paused. “Maybe the apples are there to remind us not to sin.”
Outside the taxi the streets of Tehran with its traffic, its pedestrians and its graffiti walls sped past in a collage of shapeless, edgeless colours. I moved closer to my grandmother linking my arms through hers. She counted her fourth finger.
“Then we have Sekeh (coins). That ofcourse is for wealth and prosperity.”
She stopped abruptly. Leaning forward she tapped the taxi driver’s shoulder.
“Where you think you’re going? Why you taking the long way? Do you think I’m not paying attention? Turn right into the next street. I’ve been travelling this route longer than you’ve been alive. Shame on you! trying to play a trick on an old woman.”
She sank back in to the seat. “Now where was I? Oh yes! Next is Seer. Seer (garlic) is to ward off sickness and to warn off bad omens. And Samano is a brownish thick paste which traditionally was used in feasts.”
I pinched my face “I can’t imagine anyone finding Samano tasty.”
Eshrat Mamman grabbed my chin and shook it affectionately.
“Don’t pinch your face like that. One day it will set pinched and no one would want to marry an ugly pinched faced girl. As for Samano, it’s very nutritious and we should always be thankful for God’s food.”
The Taxi stopped in front of a group of people. Two new passengers squeezed in the front passenger seat and a young woman got in the back with us. There were now seven in a taxi. I had to sit on the edge for the last passenger to fit in. The windows fogged enclosing us further from the outside.
Eshrat Mamman continued to count the ‘S’s’ on her fingers.
“For the last ‘S’, we can have Somagh (sumac), Senjed (bohemian olives), or Serkeh (vinegar). They all add flavour to our meals.”
“What about the goldfish, the bread and the coloured eggs? None of them start with ‘S’. Why do we have them?”
“My goodness child!” She ran her fingers over my head and kissed my forehead. “I was getting to that. Doesn’t that daughter of mine teach you any patience?” Creases around her eyes deepened as her lips parted into a smile.
“The bread is there as our wish never to go hungry. The eggs are there as sign of life and fertility and colouring them gives the table a festive look. The Goldfish represents the animal kingdom. We need them for food and like us they are God’s creatures. Now tell me have you ever watched the goldfish the second before the New Year?”
“Just before the Nu Ruz, the fish stay perfectly still. As soon as the Nu Ruz begins they start moving and if you’re looking carefully at them, you’ll see they are dancing.”
I looked back at her wide-eyed.
“Now tell me do you know what else we have in our Haft Seen?”
“The Koran.” I said proudly. “And Mum puts new Tomans in between the pages. She says it brings prosperity if it’s blessed by the Holy book.”
“Excellent” She chuckled. “Families who are not Muslim put The Torah or The Bible. Can you remember what else?”
My brows drew together in concentration.
A woman passenger sitting next to me in a black chador leaned her head close to mine “Candles and mirror.”
“Candles and mirror!.”
“Bravo! Now what are they there for?” Eshrat Mamman wiped the condensation on the window with her sleeve, scanning the street. It was busier this end of the city. There were many pedestrians with bags in their hands going in and out of shops.
I looked at the woman next to me. She was in her early twenties with dark almond eyes. Her eyebrows were plucked and shaped in an arch. She wore black eyeliner and mascara but no lipstick. “Candles are for fire and the mirror is to warn us by reflecting evil.” She said softly in my ear.
Eshrat Mamman smiled at the young woman and me before she leaned forward in her seat and tapped the driver on his shoulder.
“Drop us off at the next set of lights.”
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Till next time,