Spring Equinox Signals Persian New Year

For Iranian-Americans, as well as communities in the Middle East and parts of Asia, the Spring equinox is celebrated as the start of a new year. In Iran, Nowrouz, which is Persian for New Day, is a massive celebration which includes elaborate traditions like jumping over fire, to let go of the past and embrace a healthy life. Iranian-American author and commentator Firoozeh Dumas shares her stories of celebrating Nowrouz in Iran and the United States with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Well, happy New Year. Did you know that it's New Year's? I know that for many of us, maybe most of us, the month of March means the beginning of spring. But for Iranian-Americans and for others in the Middle East, Central and South Asia, the first day of spring is a joyous New Year's celebration. Persian New Year, or Nowruz, takes place at the exact moment of the spring equinox. On the East Coast, that will happen on Sunday, March 20th, at 7:20 p.m., to be exact.

We wanted to know more about Nowruz, so we've called on Iranian-American writer and commentator Firoozeh Dumas to share some of her stories with us. She's the author of two books "Funny in Farsi" and "Laughing Without an Accent." And she's with us today from Southern California.

Firoozeh, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. FIROOZEH DUMAS (Writer): Well, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, am I saying it right? Nowruz?

Ms. DUMAS: Yes.

MARTIN: What does that mean in Persian exactly?

Ms. DUMAS: Well, it means new day, and which pretty much describes what the new year means to us. It's all about hope and renewal.

MARTIN: I understand that you were born in Iran but your family moved to the United States when you were seven years old. So, what are your fondest memories of celebrating the New Year?

Ms. DUMAS: Well, when I lived in Iran, the one thing I remember the most about Nowruz was that for the weeks leading up to it, the city just palpitated with joy and excitement because Nowruz is a holiday that's celebrated by everybody. So the young, the old, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Baha'i, you know, the atheists, everybody would get into Nowruz. So it was just a very exciting time when everybody would seem to be happy and nice to one another. Even, like, the taxi drivers.

MARTIN: Oh, well, and that's saying something, isn't it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, we're excited. We're going to try to create some excitement. Tell us some of the things that we should be doing if we want to participate in the excitement there.

Ms. DUMAS: Well, just grab any Iranian friend you have and go to their house because what you'll see is an amazing array of sweets. And then we have something called a Haft-seen. Let's just say it's akin to, let's say a Christmas tree. Everybody has it in their house, with seven things, which in our language start with the letter S. And they pretty much all have to do with health and wealth and love and all the things that we hope for in the new year.

And just to give you an idea of what's on this Haft-seen, you have sib, which is apple, you have sanjed, which is a dry fruit of the lotus tree. It represents love, seer, which is garlic and represents medicine, and vinegar, which is sil(ph), which symbolizes patience. And anyway, so we have these seven s's along with hyacinth, which is the plant of Nowruz. And, you know, in the same way that in America we associate the smell of, you know, the Christmas tree with Christmas. For us, the smell of hyacinth represents Nowruz.

MARTIN: Even though we're on different coasts, our resident Persian-Americans have presented a beautiful pastry tray for us here so that we can try to get into the spirit of things. Now, I'm looking at some beautiful, little bites of, like, pastry that look like maybe little doughnuts? I don't know. I don't know what to say.

Ms. DUMAS: So that's probably bamieh.

MARTIN: That's it.

Ms. DUMAS: So, we, let's see, for the listeners out there, this is where radio is limited, it's kind of a cross between a ladyfinger and a doughnut hole. And the batter...

MARTIN: It does look like a very pretty doughnut hole.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DUMAS: Yeah. And the batter is basically like this, it's like sugar, flour, rosewater, a little fresh lime juice and you pipe it - you actually fry it in deep oil. And then afterwards you soak it in rosewater syrup solution. It's really sweet. But you have to remember, it's usually eaten with unsweetened black tea. But I got to be honest with you. I don't like that - that it's too sweet.

MARTIN: I'll be the judge of that. I'm going to have a little bite here.

Ms. DUMAS: OK, try it and see. Drum roll, please.

MARTIN: I need a drum roll please. Drum roll, please. Here it is. Mm. You know what? I have to tell you, too sweet is just right for me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DUMAS: Michel, you're now officially Iranian.

MARTIN: And then there's some beautiful tea. And of course I see some pistachio nuts. And there's some - so, sweets is tradition. What happens, do people just visit and share sweets and pastries?

Ms. DUMAS: OK. And then this is the other part that I love. So, when the new year arrives, the tradition is that you go visit your relatives, but you always start with the oldest one first. And so there's this - it's this wonderful respectful holiday and I think it makes people happy to be old. Because it is really a great respect to go to somebody's house first.

And so it always starts out, you go and you visit your oldest relative and then you go - and of course you eat a bunch of sweets at their house. And then you go to the next relative and then you eat a bunch of sweets in their house. And then you go to the next relative and the pattern continues.

And, so, you know, very similar to Thanksgiving. You know, you're terribly bloated afterwards, but it's so nice because it's an excuse to take time out of your way and to visit all of your relatives.

MARTIN: Well, I think this is exactly the kind of holiday that a lot of us can get into.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: For all kinds of reasons. So, Firoozeh, what are you going to do on the holiday? Are you going to - are family members so spread out now that it's hard for you to maintain that tradition? Or what do you do?

Ms. DUMAS: Well, no, actually, for the past 25 years I lived away from my family. But just this year I moved closer to them. So, the moment when the new year happens, I will be at my sister-in-law's house and my parents will be there and my mother is going to bring her signature dish, which is Reshteh Polo, which is a noodle rice. And my sister-in-law is going to have Sabzi Polo Mahi, which is rice with a fried fish, which is a traditional food of Nowruz. And, of course, you know, lots of other little side dishes and sweets. So we'll be there at the moment that the new year arrives.

MARTIN: Wonderful. And, finally, you know, I should've asked you this at the beginning, what is the proper greeting? I said happy New Year to you initially, but what's...

Ms. DUMAS: Yes. No, that's right (foreign language spoken) in Persian. We say (foreign language spoken). Or, you know, happy New Year works too. And by the way, for the listeners, it's year 1390.

MARTIN: Good to know. OK. Let me try it. So, (foreign language spoken). Happy New Year.

Ms. DUMAS: Very good.

MARTIN: Firoozeh Dumas, Happy New Year to you. She is the author of "Funny in Farsi" and "Laughing Without an Accent" and she's with us from Southern California. Thank you so much for joining us and happy New Year once again.

Ms. DUMAS: Thank you. Happy New Year to you.

(Soundbite of music)

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