Wishes of “Happy Nowruz” filled the halls of the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer and Sackler art galleries March 7 as the visitors enjoyed a day of musical performances, storytelling, fire jumping and Persian delicacies. Revelers crossed paths with the mythical New Year character Haji Firooz and admired a traditional haft-sin table filled with items emblematic of good luck and nature’s spring rebirth.
Nowruz — “new day” in Persian — occurs on the date of the vernal equinox, this year on March 21. But festivities traditionally cover 13 days, and the early start avoided conflicts with home-based celebrations.
While Nowruz traditions trace back some 5,000 years, this New Year is designated as 1388 on the present-day Iranian calendar, dated from the Prophet Muhammad’s migration to Medina.
The event was a first for the Freer and Sackler galleries, but one that officials hope to repeat annually, according to Claire Orologas, head of education and public programs for the galleries.
Adapting an ancient Nowruz custom, youngsters jumped over a simulated fire composed of streaming shards of red plastic. The activity symbolizes the victory of light over darkness, as the troubles of the old year are left behind.
Some 40 elderly Iranian-American men and women, many using walkers and wheelchairs, joined an enthusiastic audience in the Freer auditorium to hear singer Mamak Khadem and an ensemble featuring santur — a type of dulcimer — keyboard, clarinet, saxophone and drums. The visitors came from Nu Horizons, a senior citizens center in nearby Silver Spring, Maryland. Nu Horizons numbers about 80 Iranian Americans among its 100 clients, according to Maria Elena Anawisa, the facility’s activities coordinator.
Families and groups of friends enjoyed the fortuitously spring-like warmth of the day in the Freer’s courtyard, sharing long-grain rice, kebabs, spinach soufflé, the traditional noodle and bean soup ash-e reshteh, baklava and tea as they sat at tables arrayed around a central fountain. Scores of others waited patiently in the serving line until the manager, overwhelmed by the unexpectedly large crowd, called out, “No more food.”
Sonny Tabrizian, an architect, and his wife, Parvin, a nurse, in the United States for 40 years, were celebrating their continuing link to their Persian culture. They took a pair of visiting Americans aside to explain the traditions they still cherish, the pride clear in their beaming faces and their voices.
Ladan Judge, who came from Tehran when she was 15, and her American husband, Gregg, brought their son Daniel, 11.
Daniel said the haft-sin table — containing items like apples, hyacinth, vinegar and wild olives, selected because all begin with the Persian letter “sin,” or “s” — was like the one that his family displays at home each year when they celebrate Nowruz. His father, Gregg Judge, said his own growing involvement in Persian culture “has been an interesting journey for me because, being American, it was brand new.” He said the couple is raising Daniel with an appreciation for both cultures.
Mazda Shasaghi, who arrived from Iran four months ago, was there with her 8-year-old twins, Kiarash and Kianoush. She had been delighted to hear about the event. “We’re trying not to forget our language and our old tradition. That’s very important,” she said.
Christine Fonsale Rogerson and her daughter Juliette, 5, learned about the event from Juliette’s kindergarten teacher, who is Iranian. “She said there was going to be food and games,” Juliette said.
Guiding the kids who jumped over the simulated flames was Bhnam Taleblu, a freshman at George Washington University and a member of the college’s Iranian Cultural Society. Taleblu was costumed in a flowing white robe and equally flowing white beard — a representation, he explained, of “an old wise man ushering in the new year.”
Born in the United States of Iranian immigrant parents, Taleblu said that, raised in a traditional family, he absorbed much of his historic culture. “I think that’s the beauty of Iranian culture, that regardless of what’s going on politically, whatever our global crisis might be, we always have a culture to take refuge in,” he said.
Meanwhile, George Mason University student Soroush Rahmani roamed the hallways in the bright red garb of Haji Firooz, whom he described as a symbol of the good times at hand with “winter over and the new year beginning.”
Complimented on his excellent command of English, Rahmani, who immigrated eight years ago, had a ready answer: “You go to a new place, you’ve got to learn the language, learn the culture and live it that way,” he said.
Washington has a substantial Iranian-American population. A spokesman for the National Iranian American Council estimated that more than 30,000 live in the metropolitan area, out of about 1 million nationwide.