Persian New Year: Learning the traditions behind Nowruz & what it means to the Austin community

Austin
Nowruz Persian New Year

A “haft seen” table, which serves as the altar of the Persian New Year. (Courtesy of Bita Razavi)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — In the cycle of seasons through Earth, the second the sun crosses the vernal equator marks the start of Nowruz. 

Nowruz – or “new day” in English – is the Persian new year celebrated by millions of people with different ethnic backgrounds, religious beliefs and political tendencies. The holiday resembles growth and prosperity in the new season.

In Austin, Nowruz began on Saturday, March 20 at 4:37 a.m. this year. The celebration is 13 days long and follows the succession of a variety of different rituals and customs to mark the beginning of spring. 

Bita Razavi has celebrated Nowruz for 16 years in Austin. Typically, Razavi would spend the day hosting a festival at Central Market, which traditionally serves Persian food with a display of dancers and musicians. 

With the festival at Central Market being canceled for the second year in a row, Razavi stepped into the role of organizing and connecting people to nearby events though a Facebook page.

City of Austin proclamation designating first day of spring in 2021 as Nowruz Day

“It is an important connection to my background and culture,” Razavi said. “I love educating my community about it too.”

For the last three years, Razavi’s application has been accepted by Mayor Steve Adler proclaiming the first day of spring as “Nowruz Day” in Austin. This year she plans to participate in a variety of the events posted on the Austin Nowruz Facebook page including pop-up restaurants and Zoom meetups. 

History of Nowruz

Nowruz is an ancient tradition with a rich history that spans 3,000 years. It is not only celebrated in Iran but in other countries associated with the widespread Persian empire including Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Georgia and parts of Uzbekistan. 

Faegheh Shirazi, professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas, said the holiday is secular for most people who celebrate it. However, she said Nowruz began with Zoroastrianism, the last religion of the Iranian people before the Arab invasion. After 1,400 years of Iran being converted to Islam, Shirazi said Persians never departed from celebrating Nowruz.

“The schools in Iran are closed for two weeks for Nowruz and even the Muslim celebration of Eid is only a one-day holiday in Iran. You can see the resistance.” Shirazi said. 

Weeks of preparation

One month before Nowruz, there is a tradition called “khooné takoonee” which translates literally to “shaking of the house.” People deep clean every crevice of their homes eliminating all dust and trashing any broken items. 

Next, they begin preparing for the “haft seen” table, which serves as the altar of the new year. The table includes items that resemble love, peace, prosperity, health, happiness and new beginnings. 

“Haft seen” means seven s’s. Each of the items follow the rules of being edible and plant based. Razavi said she and others in the Persian community have been able to find each of these items in town.

  • Seeb apple, symbolizing beauty
  • Seer garlic, symbolizing good health
  • Senjed fruit of the oleaster tree, symbolizing love
  • Somāgh sumac, representing the color of sunrise
  • Serké vinegar, symbolizing age and patience
  • Sabzé wheatgrass, representing new life springing forth
  • Samanoo wheat pudding, representing sweetness and affluence.

“All of these are really meaningful,” Shirazi said. “Seven has to do with the belief of Zoroastrianism that there are seven angels that each item is related to. You can’t find any other items in the 2 million vocabulary words in the Persian language that follow the rule of starting with ‘s’ that are plant based.”

Mohammad Firoozi shops at Phoenicia Bakery for Persian food items for Nowruz.

A couple of weeks before the holiday, people begin planting their wheatgrass, or “sabzé.” This becomes the centerpiece of the table. On the 13th day of Nowruz, people will take the wheatgrass and release it into a body of water to “give life to life.” 

Two days before Nowruz, people create small fires to jump over while saying a chant. What they say translates to English as asking the fire to take away “yellowness” and “sickness” and give back “redness” and “vibrancy” for life. The moment Nowruz begins on Saturday, the entire family gathers around the “haft seen” and rings in the new year together.

Traditional Dishes

On the first day of Nowruz, Persians serve a traditional dish of herb rice and fried fish. Other favorites include nut mixture treats and an Iranian noodle soup.

Amir Hajimaleki, an Iranian immigrant, chef and restaurant owner in Austin has worked the last few years on a Persian restaurant concept called Roya. He calls it his passion project. 

Hajimaleki said his popup for Roya this year sold out “exceptionally quick” and will be his largest event to date. 

“It’s cool to see that when we do these popups, how people get excited about trying this food,”  Hajimaleki said. “People kind of leave their struggles aside for that moment of sitting around a beautiful table of food just enjoying their friends or family.”

Persian Dance and Music 

When there was a Nowruz festival in Austin, Central Market hosted musicians and performers. With the event being canceled this year, the artists made new plans.

Mohammad Firoozi outside Phoenicia Bakery

Mohammad Firoozi, a member of the band Atash, has been playing music in the United States since he moved from Iran in 1973. This year he plans to have a small celebration with his kids and will sing a private concert with friends.

“Every day I wake up, and I play to the sun or to nature. I play music every day for myself,” Firoozi said.

For former director of the Ravaan Persian Dance Company, Geeti Mahajan, it will be the first time she has not performed for Nowruz in eight years.

“I thought it was really important for us to maintain a presence and help Persians have an identity that’s more solidified because dance is not legal in Iran,” Mahajan said.

Central Market performance in 2019. Courtesy of Ravaan Persian Dance Company

Mahajan brought Persian dance to Texas after training with Shahrzad Khorsandi, a pioneer of Persian dance in California. Mahajan said Persian dance can be distinguished by its intricate upper body and hand movements.

“I’m personally using Nowruz as an opportunity to reboot and to rejuvenate and to create something new, create a new vision, a new chapter in life.” Mahajan said. “I see the impact it has on my community; there’s a matter of pride.”

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