Maryam had invited her two daughters and their husbands and grandchildren for Norouz, the New Year's feast, to her home in western Tehran when I called her on Saturday. It was after 9:02 p.m. when "tahvil," the change from the old to the new year, 1389 after Iranian calendar, was celebrated at Maryam's apartment, as it was in hundreds of thousands of other households in Iran and other countries. She had prepared a beautiful Haft Seen, the Norouz table, and cooked delicious Iranian food. The television was on to follow the announcement of the "tahvil," after which everyone congratulated each other and the children received their New Year's presents. Then they put on CDs to hear good, entertaining music -- something happier than what they always hear from local radio and television.
Every year on the eve of the first day of spring, millions of people in Iran, Afghanistan, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and parts of Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan, and India celebrate the beginning of a New Year, rendered as Nowruz, in Persian: "New Day." Others call it Navruz, Nevroz, Nevruz, or Norouz (which is also RFE/RL's style for the holiday). It is a time of new beginning, peace, joy, and family -- very similar to Christmas and New Year's in much of the Western world. Celebrated since the sixth century BC, it has become an integral part of numerous peoples' culture and tradition. Last February, the United Nations' General Assembly recognized the "International Day of Nowruz, a spring festival of Persian origin."
For Maryam, this year's Norouz ritual started as it did every year -- with a spring clean-up of the apartment two weeks before Norouz. Later, on the last Wednesday of the old year, her sons-in-law and grandchildren went out for "Chaharshanbeh Suri," the fire festival in which people light small fires and spring over them, singing their wishes for the next year.
An Iranian boy joins in celebrations of the ancient Festival of Fire ahead of the new year.
This year, as so often in the last 20 years, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had issued a fatwa, or religious advisory. The fire festival "has no religious basis and will create a lot of damage and [moral] corruption," the Khamenei's fatwa noted, asking people not to attend it. Still, tens of thousands of Iranians went out into the streets or suburbs to mark the fire festival.
In an e-mail to RFE/RL's Radio Farda, an unnamed Iranian said: "Khamenei has again made clear that he is hostile to our traditions. But the fatwa also shows that he [Khamenei] is ready to sacrifice political wisdom to what he thinks is religious dogma."
Using the occasion, Iran's opposition Green Movement had called on people to mark the fire festival and raise democratic demands for change. Iran's police chief, Ahmad Reza Radan, later reported that "around 50 people were arrested in connection with the ritual."
Maryam's sons-in-law and their children hadn't used the Festival of Fire to shout any politically loaded slogans. Asked if she knew about Khamenei's fatwa, Maryam said: "To be honest, I didn't. And even if I had, so what? This is about our culture and tradition, and we don't want to give it away just because it is older than our religion or because the [supreme] leader asks us to ignore it."
"Not only the Chaharshanbeh Suri [the fire festival but]...Norouz itself is pre-Islamic," added Ahmad, Maryam's husband. "I remember [the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini himself tried right after the revolution to ban Norouz by saying it is un-Islamic. But people didn't even want to hear it. So they had no way but to swim with the stream. Since then, Khamenei himself congratulates the people every year on the occasion of Norouz. But they would ban it, if they could."
Norouz celebrations in Kabul on March 21
A similar attempt was made last week in Afghanistan to ban Norouz. Seventy-five Islamic clerics and lawmakers, headed by former Kabul Governor Mullah Taj Muhammad Mujahid, issued a statement calling Norouz "un-Islamic and a tradition of fire worshippers [Zoroastrians]" and asking Afghans not to celebrate it. Those calls also went unheard, and Afghanistan celebrated Norouz as always. A Kabul-based listener of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan said: "This is a very strange call. We have done so in the past and we still want to start a new year with joy and hope."
This year's Norouz strangely united fundamentalist Iranian Shi'a and Afghan Sunnis in rejecting century-old national traditions. And it thus naturally united Iranians and Afghans -- regardless of their Islamic beliefs -- in defying those efforts.Abbas Djavadi is an associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL