The legend says that on the last days of winter, when the spring breeze can be felt on the air, an old woman, living alone in her house on the outskirts of her town, starts anticipating the return of her love, who is on a 12-month journey. This old woman’s name is Nane Sarma (Lady winter / Grandma Frost) and her love is an old man called Amu Nowruz (Uncle Nowruz). When the last day of winter finally arrives, Nane Sarma wears her best clothes, meticulously cleans her house, she puts a rug in her terrace, overlooking her front yard, and she puts fruit and nuts in bowls, awaiting the arrival of her beloved. She waits and waits until she slowly drifts to sleep. Right when she is asleep, Amu Nowruz finally comes from the hill that overlooks the town. He comes to her house and sees that the woman has waited for her just like all the other years. But Nane Sarma looks so peacefully asleep, that Amu Nowruz finds it hard to awaken her from her nap. Instead, he plucks a pot marigold flower from the garden, and puts it right near her head. Because Amu Nowruz is the messenger of the spring and he should go and deliver this message to everywhere, he can’t stay more than a few minutes, and while Nane Sarma is asleep, he bids her farewell and leaves to bring the happy news of arrival of spring to other people as well. When Nane Sarma wakes up, she realizes that she has missed her chance yet again, but she sees the marigold flower and the eaten fruit, and realizes that her beloved Amu Nowruz had been in her house.
Just like Nane Sarma in this legend, we too often feel like spring arrives so quickly and unexpectedly. In Iran, the last month of the year, Esfand, is a month which passes away too hastily, as if it’s in a hurry to welcome the first day of Spring. Esfand is, if not the best, one of the most beautiful months of the year in Iran. For every Iranian, Nowruz or the Iranian new year, is a time of wonder and beauty. Streets are lined up with vendors selling Sabze (germinated wheat sprouts), hyacinths, cineraria and various colorful new-year flowers in pink and purple and burgundy. Kids buy goldfish happily and everybody feverishly cleans their home in the anticipation of the new year. Families buy sweets, pastries, nuts and dried fruit, and everybody counts the days until the big day. When the new year comes (which happens at a different time each year) you can see people dressed up and in crisp suits and shiny shoes everywhere, going to see their families.
New year also means gorging on a delicious, mouthwatering feast. The most famous traditional new-year dish in Iran is herbal rice with fish. Of course, because fish is not a staple in many Iranian households (especially in the past), there are various other new-year dishes as well. For example, in north west of Iran (Azerbaijan province), one popular new year dish is Dolmeh. Dolmeh, is a fragrant mixture of rice, yellow split peas, several kind of herbs (dill, …) mixed and cooked together which is then wrapped into tender grape leaves and cooked. As a final touch, it’s garnished with a handful of dried “Zereshk” berries and golden fried onion shavings. It is said that the pot containing the Dolme should be simmering while the new year arrives. Another popular dish is rice mixed with noodles and “Aash reshte” which can be described as something between a soup and a stew which also contains noodles. These foods are a symbol of bringing good fortune and prosperity.
The traditions surrounding Nowruz varies from place to place. The nomads also celebrate Nowruz in their own way. Instead of cleaning every nook and cranny in the house, they dissemble their tent and set it up a fair distance away. They make the Haft-seen table with any items they might have available that start with the sound “s”. Afterward, they dress in their new clothes and go visit the other families/tribes that are living close by. Of course, living a nomadic lifestyle means there are no days off, so while the rest of the country goes travelling or enjoys staying at home, the nomads will be doing their normal routine of shepherding. Instead of Nowruz being just one day, the Bakhtiari people celebrate it for 3 days. They also gather together and sit around the tent, while the patron of the tribe (or any old and wise person) recites tales of Shahnameh (the ancient Iranian epic tales) and poems of Hafiz. During this part, you can see the tribe members, specially children, listen entranced and in awe to the incredible stories of these ancient poems. For the nomadic people, who spend their days away from any source of digital entertainment, the tales of Shahnameh about bravery and epic battles between good and evil are just as fascinating as watching TV series to modern city dwellers.
Of course, this year because of the corona virus situation, our new year doesn’t have the same color and vibe it used to have. I remember how as kids, we used to all gather in my grandmother’s place and bring the walls down with our noise, playing and running around, awaiting the magical moment when we would be awarded with a crisp bill of money from inside the Quran as Eidi. This year, everybody is encouraged to stay at home and the family gatherings that made every new year so special can’t take place. Still, while it is inhumane to be under sanctions in this dire global situation, our country is trying to safely pass the last Nowruz of this decade (1399) with the help of the people and the dedicated medical staff.