Tehran Puts Urban Spin On Rural Rite of Spring

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 20, 2009

TEHRAN, March 19 -- Marjam Mohammadi, a Tehran housewife, was haggling over a goldfish.

"Include its food in the price, and I'll pay you your 2,000 tomans," about $2, she quickly told the shopkeeper, feeling the anxiety of dozens of other harried customers.

"Please move on," one of them urged. "Time is running out." The pressure was no exaggeration. Virtually everyone in the shopping center needed goldfish to celebrate Nowruz, the Iranian new year, which comes at the beginning of spring.

A plasma television screen in the shopping center's marble hallway showed that only 24 hours remained until the Iranian year 1388, which starts Friday. Images of pre-Islamic statues of Persian kings, shown next to the flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran, alternated with symbols of Nowruz, including goldfish, barley sprouts and hyacinths.

The final rush before the new year showed how Iran's increasingly urban culture is modifying rural traditions. With more than 70 percent of 68 million Iranians living in cities and the rest being closely connected to them, the way time and money is spent during Nowruz -- a time of family gatherings involving many preparations -- is changing.

"When I was a child, we used to get our goldfish from the pond in my grandfather's garden," recalled Mohammadi, holding a bowl with her fish. But Tehran has grown from a city of 4 million inhabitants in 1979 to a metropolis with more than 12 million people, and she explained that her grandfather's house had been demolished and a high-rise built on top of the garden. "No one has ponds anymore," she said. "And we don't have the time for such long preparations."

The goldfish was to be part of her family's sofre-ye haft sin, a decorated table that holds symbolic items. People display an apple, for instance, to represent beauty and health. The goldfish symbolizes life, eggs connote fertility, a copy of the Koran or a poetry book stands for spiritualism. When the new year starts -- the moment the sun crosses the equator and spring officially begins in the Northern Hemisphere -- families gather near the table.

"Until some years ago, people used to paint their own eggs, and they grew their own barley for their haft sin table," said a street hawker in front of the shopping center. "Now they have less time to do it themselves, so we sell them what they need."

Nowruz is celebrated in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and many other countries. The ancient festival is rooted in Zoroastrianism, the world's first monotheistic religion, and was spread by the Persian empire. Even though some of Iran's current leaders have at times opposed the pre-Islamic festivities that mark the new year, the Nowruz celebrations are now embraced by the ruling Shiite clerics as an undeniable part of the country's national identity.

Many Iranian families begin their Nowruz preparations weeks ahead of time. A spring cleaning, called "shaking the house," has to take place in order to start the new year fresh. Flowers are bought to herald the approaching season, and people buy new clothes for their families.

For Ali Jamshidi, who runs a boutique selling faux Burberry dresses and hair clips studded with imitation diamonds spelling the word Chanel, the month leading up to Nowruz used to be very profitable. Not anymore, he explained, sitting in his empty shop. "In the past, people would only buy clothes for the new year," he said. "Now they shop the whole year round, because they have more money than in those days."

Nasser Fakouhi, a professor of social anthropology at the University of Tehran, said urbanization is altering Nowruz. He pointed at his living room to illustrate how the lives and traditions of many Iranians have changed in recent decades. "This is 50 square meters," or about 540 square feet, he observed. "How do you fit 30 people in here?" Extended families used to live together in huge houses, but no longer, he said. "Apartments used to be called 'cages in the sky' -- now we all live in them. It's just one of the ways our lives have changed because of moving to the city."

He said that urban life is giving many Iranians greater opportunities in terms of work and services but that it is altering traditions such as Nowruz. "From about 10 years ago, many people started spending their money in a more individual way, such as traveling abroad. They now pay people to do their Nowruz preparations. In general people hold many fewer big gatherings than 10 years ago and spend more money on themselves."

Even so, for those who can afford it or choose to do it, Nowruz remains a time to have dozens of friend and relatives over.

"You can do it!" an older man with a big moustache said while his 20-something son prepared to jump over three small fires, a rite that marks the victory of light over darkness as winter nears its end. Accompanied by a loudspeaker blaring Euro house music and Iranian pop songs, the younger man quickly hopped over the small fires. Everybody clapped as his girlfriend pelted him with small firecrackers.

About 30 people, old and young, danced in the living room of a two-story townhouse with a garden filled with spring scents. They greeted two cousins who had just arrived from Irvine, Calif., to celebrate the new year with family in Iran.

"I wouldn't miss Nowruz in Iran for the world," said Ali, who asked that his family name not be used. "When else to dance and laugh with all your family and friends and jump over fires?"

© 2009 The Washington Post Company