It’s a balmy fall evening in Tehran. The city sparkles with strings of colorful lights that make me think of Christmas. Green and white cloths are wound around trees lining the streets, and huge banners bearing slogans in Arabic hang from the buildings. In the city squares, people wave flags and shout “Ya Mahdi!” It’s Nimeh Saaban, a religious Shiite holiday that celebrates the birthday of Zaman, the Twelfth Imam who went into hiding in the tenth century and is supposed to return to earth on Judgment Day.
I’m riding in a car heading north toward the mountains and when we stop at a red light, a man approaches and passes a box of pastries through the window. I eye the cream-filled buns uncertainly. I’ve seen Tehran street urchins rush up to cars and spray water on the windshield then demand payment for carwash services, a practice that usually causes the driver to erupt in a frenzy of angry curses and threatening fists. But everyone is smiling now.
“Take one,” my companions urge. “They’re free.”
I help myself to the pastry as well as a plastic cup of hot chocolate that someone else passes through the window. The pastry man wishes us health, happiness, and good fortune before moving on to the next car.
Later, I learned that this custom of distributing food in public spaces has a name. It’s called nazri, the art of sharing food with strangers. An art because, like much of Persian culture, there’s more to this ritual than meets the eye. And as is often the case in Iran, it’s not done on a small scale. Distributing pastries and hot chocolate is a minimalist form of nazri. More often it involves vats of rice and kebabs, cauldrons of gheymeh (a lamb and split-pea stew) or stock pots filled with halim (a porridge much like oatmeal but made from wheat berries). In short, it’s not intended for a family of four but for hundreds, even thousands, of people.
Nazri comes from the word nazr, which means “vow.” Essentially it’s a pact a person makes with God that if a certain wish comes true (often recovery from an illness), he or she will go out and feed the multitudes. While it’s possible to perform nazri at any time, this form of charity is often associated with religious holidays like Imam Zaman’s birthday.
Another such holiday is Ashura, which commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, in a 7th-century battle between Shiite and Sunni forces. For a period of ten days, cauldrons filled with steaming food are set up along the streets, and volunteers hand out portions to passers-by. These offerings are not the thimble-sized food samples you might receive in a supermarket brand promotion, but normal-sized bowls filled to the brim.
While some families prepare all this bounty themselves, in today’s rushed society where many women work and have careers, it’s become common to order the food from a caterer and have it distributed in a family’s name. One traditional practice is to slaughter a lamb, cut it up, and give the meat to the poor.
Another custom related to nazri involves a trip to the cemetery, which for many Iranians is a regular weekend ritual performed on Thursday afternoons (in Islamic countries, Friday is the holy day of rest). Families visit the graves of their loved ones bearing not only flowers but also food—fruit, pastries, nuts, and tea—which they will share with other people who have come for the same purpose.
Many things in modern Iran are changing, and traditional customs are being lost. I hope that nazri continues for a long time to come, because there’s something about sharing food with strangers that makes us feel connected to our global community.