It’s been a long, cold, snowy winter across much of the globe, so we thought we’d do something to celebrate spring.
Nowruz is the traditional Persian new year’s holiday, observed in Iran, Afghanistan, Kurdish lands and beyond where Persian culture has had an influence. A pre-Islamic holiday, Nowruz marks the vernal equinox, the moment at which the day and night are exactly equal in length, and when subsequent days in the northern hemisphere will be longer than nights. Iranians celebrate Nowruz with visits to close friends and family, as well as a haft-sen (seven S), a table laid with items symbolizing spring and beginning with the letter S.
In honor of Nowruz and the turning of the seasons, we revisit some classic MERIP essays in our own haft-sen.
Sabzeh is Persian for sprouted wheat grass, a symbol of rebirth and renewal in nature. No doubt such feelings of renaissance are present in the Iraqi Kurds marking Nowruz, or at least in the twin political parties who claim to represent them. As Joost Hiltermann observes, since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime these “erstwhile kings of the mountains…have become kingmakers in Baghdad.”
Samanu is a Persian sweet pudding made from wheat germ, the consumption of which was once a marker of affluence. “Let them eat samanu” was perhaps the sentiment behind the crackdown on labor activism and the gutting of labor laws in the mid-2000s. But as Mohammad Maljoo writes in “Worker Protest in the Age of Ahmadinejad,” teachers, bus drivers and other workers took to the streets demanding bread and roses, too.
Senjed is the Persian word for the sweet, dried fruit of the oleaster tree, shaped like a date and symbolizing love and affection. In mid-March 2003, three young men in impromptu masks intruded upon Norma Claire Moruzzi’s Persian lesson in Tehran. But it was a tender sort of burglary. When the youths realized they had tied up an arous farangi (foreign bride), they wound up feeding Norma and her teacher tangerines they had peeled with the fruit knives they had brought as weapons.
Sir is Persian for garlic, the aromatic bulb whose medicinal qualities are well known. In “Activism Under the Radar,” Homa Hoodfar tells the story of the Volunteer Health Workers, women from low-income urban neighborhoods who promote the state’s family planning program but in the process transform both gender politics and the relation of citizens to the state. Theirs is not quite the tonic the Islamic Republic had in mind.
Sib is Persian for apples, invoking beauty and health. The hardliners did their damnedest in the Ahmadinejad years to “re-Islamize” the society they felt had strayed from the true path since the Cultural Revolution of the early 1980s. But as Azam Khatam shows in “The Islamic Republic’s Failed Quest for the Spotless City,” they did not succeed in banishing every rosy cheek from the streets. In fact, the arch-conservatives provoked self-described “Islamist feminists” to demand that the state stop mandating the veil for women.
Somaq (sumac) is the Persian term for crushed spiced berries that are the color of the sunrise. At the height of the Green Movement that followed the fraudulent presidential election of 2009, residents of Tehran and other cities were heard calling “Allah-o akbar” from their rooftops from the dead of night until the first rays of dawn. As Kaveh Ehsani, Arang Keshavarzian and Norma Claire Moruzzi demonstrate in “Tehran, June 2009,” they did so partly to summon the spirit of the 1979 revolution but partly to take this religious invocation back from the state.
Serkeh is Persian for vinegar, said to symbolize old age but also patience. The Green Movement was suppressed, but Iranian voters bade their time until the 2013 presidential election, when they rejected the hardline conservative candidate and chose the pragmatic Hassan Rouhani. As Kevan Harris writes in “An ‘Electoral Uprising’ in Iran,” “a single ideological stream cannot permanently divert the course of Iran’s political system. The main reason lies not in the structure of the state but in the social forces that recurrently remake it from below.”
Happy 1393! Here’s hoping that it’s a good year in Iran and everywhere that Nowruz is celebrated.