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Fired Up for a Good New Year

With a Hot Party, Iranians Look for Luck and Herald the Change in Seasons

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 16, 2005; Page B01

At first glance, it looked as if techno-pop arsonists had taken over the University of Maryland's Shady Grove campus. A pounding bass beat rocked the parking lot, and the scent of cologne mingled with smoke as people in dark coats fanned a row of fires on the asphalt.

"Go on, jump!" a mother urged as her small sons stared, wide-eyed, at a pyre of burning wood and cardboard. A man lifted a little girl over the flames, and she squealed with delight. Dark-haired teenagers in tight jeans milled around as grandmothers in headscarves warmed their hands over the fires, hardly moving aside as families clasped hands to run down the line and leap the flames.

A DJ adds a contemporary touch to the ancient holiday by spinning Persian dance tunes into the night at the University of Maryland's Shady Grove campus. (Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)

Across the United States last night, Iranians emerged from their homes to celebrate Chahar Shanbeh Souri, an ancient Zoroastrian holiday that has been part of their culture for centuries. In Iran, city streets blaze for one night during the last week of winter as Iranians of all religious persuasions jump over fires.

"My yellow [sickness] to you, your red [health] to me," they cry -- a purification rite meant to bring good luck in the new year, which for Iranians begins on the first day of spring. Festivities last more than two weeks, beginning with fire-jumping on the last Tuesday night of winter and ending with a nationwide picnic on the 13th day of spring, when it is considered bad luck to stay indoors.

Like the Shady Grove event -- sponsored last Friday, somewhat ahead of the calendar, by the university's Iranian Students' Foundation -- many of the celebrations took place with official permits. In Los Angeles, which has the largest concentration of Iranians in the country, thousands flock each year to the beach to shed their yellow and take in some red. In Seattle, another Iranian enclave, the celebration used to be in a state park, but after complaints about litter, it was moved to a beach.

Not all Chahar Shanbeh Souris are on the police radar. Some Iranians quietly light fires in back yards and on high-rise balconies. In New York City, a group lugs Duraflame logs to a fenced-off lot, keeping nervous watch for police cars and helicopters.

Shaghayegh Madani, 22, of Springfield used to celebrate with her family in their back yard. But one year, a fire truck came wailing down the street.

"The neighbors called the police," said Madani, who was at Shady Grove on Friday. The family had been whooping and laughing, but that wasn't how it was reported to authorities. "They said, 'These people are trying to burn themselves.' "

Fire officials warned that in the future the family would have to apply for a permit and pay $500 for a marshal to come monitor the fire, which could last only a half-hour.

"We're like, 'What are you supposed to do, this is our culture,' " Madani said. But Chahar Shanbeh Souri wouldn't have felt the same with a $500 chaperone, so they stopped doing it at home.

Iranians in the United States see the holiday, which is also celebrated by Afghans, Tajiks, Indian Parsees and others, as a nostalgic link to their homeland. In Iran, many see it as a snub to their government; consequently, its popularity has soared in recent years.

Before the 1979 Islamic revolution, "it was just a little Halloween-like event," said Ahmed Karimi-Hakkak, director of the newly established Center for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland at College Park. Children would bang pots and collect candy in front of houses, and the fires were small.

But after the Islamic government tried to ban Chahar Shanbeh Souri because it was a non-Islamic holiday, it took on greater significance. "It all of a sudden became . . . a rallying cry for Iranian identity," Karimi-Hakkak said, noting that the ritual now involves huge crowds and massive bonfires that are impossible to leap.

The Washington area's 85,000 to 100,000 Iranians make up the third-largest concentration in the United States, Karimi-Hakkak said. Spread over three jurisdictions, they sometimes have a hard time getting together, and such celebrations provide a good excuse. At the Shady Grove event, about 1,500 people came to dance to the pulsing Iranian music spun by locally based DJ Babak Hafezi; slurp steaming bowls of aush, a noodle and herb soup; and have red-white-and-green Iranian flags painted on their cheeks.

Yasmin Fallahkhair, a 13-year-old from Potomac with long brown hair and braces, excitedly bought an Iranian Students' Foundation T-shirt reading "Fear the Lakposht," a Farsi-language play on the university's "Fear the Turtle" slogan. "You don't really see a lot of shirts that have Iranian things on them," she said.

Jennifer Rostami, 20, the student group officer selling the T-shirts, recently converted to Zoroastrianism, her father's religion. The fire represents life and death, she said. "When fire burns across land, it destroys, but new things grow out of it."

But Ash Azari, 19, a business student, had no interest in jumping the knee-high fires. In Iran, where he lived until he was 15, the flames shot up over seven feet.

"You didn't jump over it," he said. "You jumped through it."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company