Pittsburgh recognizes Persian new year

By Lindsay Carroll

Several branches of U.S. and local government — including Pittsburgh’s City Council… Several branches of U.S. and local government — including Pittsburgh’s City Council — have reached out to Iranians to recognize Nowruz, a holiday which commemorates the Persian new year and the first day of spring.

Iranian Pitt students and members of the community celebrated the holiday Friday night at a ceremony at the City-County Building, followed by a dinner and dance in the William Pitt Union Ballroom. Persian Panthers of Pitt, the Persian Student Organization of Carnegie Mellon University and the Iranian-American Cultural Association of Pittsburgh sponsored the events.

Amirreza Masoumzadeh, president of Persian Panthers, said the organization was founded in spring 2008 and has about 140 students and members of the community on its mailing list.

While 22 international Iranian students are enrolled at Pitt, according to Pitt’s 2010 Fact Book, Masoumzadeh said other members are U.S. residents or citizens who are not here on a student visa.

The major goal of the group, he said, is to provide an understanding of Iranian culture and help bring unity to Iranian students at Pitt — some of whom are away from their families.

Although the group tries to stay apolitical, he said some members were involved in protesting the Iranian presidential elections last June. The group did distribute wristbands to “show solidarity,” he said.

Masoumzadeh, who is from Mashhad in northeastern Iran, came to Pitt in fall 2007 to complete a doctoral degree in information science. He said the group also hosts other traditional Iranian celebrations, such as Yalda, a winter solstice holiday, as well as movie nights and a backgammon tournament.

He said he finds the Pitt community to be very diverse, although sometimes Iranian students encounter prejudice because of the tense U.S.-Iran political relationship.

“I especially find the society here very diverse, compared to European countries,” Masoumzadeh said. “So I think that yes, there is [prejudice] to some degree, but that’s mostly because all the media attention is on the political disputes and that’s how people’s minds are shaped.”

Celebrating renewed life

Nowruz, which means “new day” in Farsi, dates back at least 3,000 years to ancient Persians who celebrated the first day of spring. The holiday was one of the major festivals for Zoroastrianism, the main religion of ancient Persia.

Sonya Greco, an Iranian Pittsburgh resident who attended the event, said that even before Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persians believed that their ancestors would come to visit them on the first day of spring each year.

But when it became an official holiday of the Achaemenid dynasty, which ruled Persia and many parts of the world during the 500s to 300s BCE, Nowruz became a holiday celebrated throughout the empire, Greco said. During this era, kings from different regions in the Persian empire brought gifts to the emperor on Nowruz.

It’s now celebrated throughout the world, especially in other Central Asian countries.

Greco, a senior manager of professional relations for pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline, came to the United States from Tehran in 1985. She said Nowruz symbolizes a rebirth of nature, the sacredness of life and new beginnings.

Rituals can differ from family to family, but Nowruz consists of three important days over a three-week period, said Omid Moghimi, a Pitt junior, at the City Council presentation Friday.

On the last Wednesday of the Persian calendar year — before Nowruz — the family will clean the house and make a fire to burn clutter. This is called Chaharshanbe Suri.

They will jump over a smaller fires, symbolizing leaving grudges and baggage behind and “absorbing life from the fire,” Greco said.

The actual day of Nowruz is on the first day of spring at the exact time of the vernal equinox, which was 1:32 p.m. on Saturday this year. Traditionally, people wear new clothes.

Finally, Sizdah Be-dar takes place on the thirteenth day of the new year, or twelve days after Nowruz, Moghimi said. Iranian families celebrate the day outside, and usually this is the last day of a two-week break from work or school.

People of different religions celebrate Nowruz, said Bahar Fata, a 31-year-old bioengineering graduate student from Tehran. Fata’s family is practices the Baha’i faith, which was founded in the 1800s with the intent of unifying all people and religions, she said.

Fata said families place their own religious books, such as the Qu’ran, on a Nowruz display table. At the celebration in the Union, they set up a table with a book by Persian poet Hafez, which symbolized knowledge and learning, Fata said.

The Union Nowruz display also included a mirror, two candles, a pot of hyacinths, wheat grass and bowls of goldfish, apples, garlic, date-like fruits, coins and vinegar.

Fata said these items, seven of which start with the Farsi letter “s,” symbolize different hopes for the new year. For instance, garlic represents health and medicine, coins represent prosperity and the vinegar symbolizes age and wisdom. Nowruz tables also typically include colored eggs, similar to Christian Easter traditions.

At the exact time of the equinox, families dress up and join their family around the table. One person from the family picks up the holy book and the family prays and meditates, Fata said.

Behdad Beheshti, a 22-year-old industrial engineering doctorate student from Tehran, said that Nowruz is not as special of a ritual in the capital city as it might be in the Iranian countryside and that his family doesn’t have specific traditions on the holiday.

“The most important thing is to see family and relatives,” Beheshti said.

A member of the Pitt’s Iranian student group, the Persian Panthers, Beheshti said many Iranian students in the United States come from Tehran because it is the country’s cultural and educational center.

A new political beginning

Greco attended the City Council ceremony, when City Council announced its recognition of Nowruz.

“It was a special day for all of us, because a lot of times, we are viewed through the lens of our government,” Greco said.

The U.S. House of Representatives also passed a Nowruz Resolution last week, expressing appreciation to the U.S. Iranian community and recognizing the holiday.

While Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has earned a reputation as a Holocaust denier, Greco emphasized that Iranians have “lived peacefully with minorities,” including Jews, Assyrians, Kurds, Turks, Armenians and Baha’is.

President Barack Obama chose to address Iran last Saturday and on last year’s Nowruz as well.

“One year ago, I chose this occasion to speak directly to the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and to offer a new chapter of engagement on the basis of mutual interests and mutual respect,” Obama said in the address, available on the White House website. “I did so with no illusions.”

In the address, Obama discussed Iran’s development of nuclear weapons as well as the country’s much-publicized presidential election last June, in which many Iranians accused the incumbent Ahmadinejad administration of election fraud. The protest movement was largely a social networking one — many Iranians used Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to protest and spread information about the elections.

Acknowledging past grievances between the United States and Iran, Obama asked the Iranian government to “tell us what you’re for.”

He said increasing the U.S. commitment to U.S.-Iranian education exchange and communication technology will “enable them to communicate with each other and with the world without fear of censorship.”