By Heidi Noroozy
Tomorrow morning, at precisely 8:44 a.m. Tehran time (or 10:14 p.m. tonight PST), Iranians, Tajiks, Afghans, and related cultures around the world will be ringing in the year 1391. The Persian New Year, or Eide-e Norooz (which I wrote about last year), coincides with the Spring Equinox and is celebrated at the same moment everywhere.
But the festivities really began last Tuesday with a fire festival called Chahar Shanbeh Souri, which translates as Red Wednesday, even though the celebrations begin at dusk on Tuesday night (and generally run into the wee hours of the morning). Like Norooz, Chahar Shanbeh Souri is celebrated throughout the world, wherever descendants of the ancient Persians can be found.
The Persians believed that the spirits of their ancestors, as well as guardian angels, returned to the world for a visit during the last ten days of the year. On the final Tuesday before the new year began, people built bonfires which were kept burning throughout the night, as a way to welcome these good spirit guests and to protect against evil forces. The idea was to keep a symbolic sun burning throughout the unluckiest night of the year.
Iranians today still build the bonfires much as their ancestors did, as I discovered on my first visit to Tehran a decade ago. That year, the fire festival coincided with the beginning of the holy Islamic month of Moharam, which commemorates the massacre of Imam Hossein and his Shia followers during the Battle of Karbala. Moharam is a time of sorrow and solemnity, not one of joy and celebration, so the authorities announced that Chahar Shanbeh Souri would be celebrated one week early.
This decision did not go over well with the citizens of Tehran, and many people simply celebrated the festival on the new (fake) date as well as the original (real) one, so I got to experience it twice in one year.
Shortly before dusk, I ventured out of the house with my sister-in-law and her husband. Our first stop was at a small shop, where we bought a matchbox-like packet of firecrackers – slender sticks that resembled cigarettes with an incendiary tip. You struck the firecracker against the box, just like a matchstick, and tossed the “cigarette” onto the street, where it exploded with a loud bang.
Not all the fireworks were so harmless, though. As we approached one street corner, my sister-in-law pointed to a man on the roof above our heads then shoved me into a doorway. Moments later, something dropped to the pavement with an earth-shaking boom, like a shot from a cannon at close range. The man had tossed a home-made explosive known colloquially as a “bomb” onto the street, fortunately not too close to us, since these fireworks are filled with pieces of broken glass. They are not only dangerous but also illegal.
Later, we made our way through the hillside neighborhood of Zafaranieh in North Tehran, where narrow streets climb steeply between tall, marble-fronted buildings. The fire festival was in full swing here, and apart from the women’s scarves and knee-length tunics (mateaus), there was little in the scene to remind me that we were still in the Islamic Republic. Western-style Persian music blared from open windows, where people stood shouting encouragement to the street below. A crowd had gathered there, with young men and women dancing to the wild rhythms, arms undulating in a grace that is uniquely Middle Eastern.
The searing odor of the fireworks gave way to the more familiar scent of wood smoke as revelers stoked bonfires built at intervals along the street, feeding crates, tree branches, and even bits of broken doors into the flames. At one end of the street, people lined up for their turn to leap over the fires, the women gathering up their long manteaus at the waist to save the fabric from wayward sparks. As they soared over the blaze, each person chanted the same phrase: zard-e man az to, sorkhi-e to az man (fire, take my sickly yellow color and give me your healthy red). It is an age-old ritual of cleansing by fire (without actually getting burned), a way to banish the illness and bad luck that has accumulated over the course of the year.
The festival has remained such a vivid memory over the years that I made it the opening scene of my as yet unpublished novel, Bad Hejab.
Very little of what I witnessed at the fire festival is strictly legal under Iran’s Islamic law. Not the Western-style music nor the bonfires and the pagan rituals associated with them. Most definitely not the mixed-gender dancing and singing in the street. But as my sister-in-law whispered in my ear, the authorities look the other way on this one night of the year. To ban the fire festival would be an exercise in futility – the prohibition would simply be ignored.
In the years since that first fire festival I visited in Tehran, I’ve celebrated Chahar Shanbeh Souri many times here in California. The fires are smaller and the women unveiled, the fireworks are absent and the prevailing scent in the air is kabab on the grill. But the music, dancing, and enthusiasm are exactly the same.
To give you a small taste of this entertaining festival, here is a short video clip I took last week in the parking lot of the Bazaar Norooz market in San Jose.