By Rene Wadlow
May the soul flourish;
May youth be as the new-grown grain.
Nowruz, usually celebrated on 21 March in Iran and Central Asia, is the “New Day”, the end of the old year with its hardships and deceptions and the start of the New Year to be filled with hope and optimism. It is a day for spiritual renewal and physical rejuvenation and is usually a time for reciting devotional poetry, presenting food with symbolic meaning to guests, and visits among family and close friends.
Nowruz, which coincides with the Spring Equinox, is related to myths focused on the sun and thus symbolizes the connections of humans to nature. In some of the myths, Nowruz is considered as symbolizing the first day of creation − thus a time when all can be newly created. It is a day between times − old time has died; new time will start the day after Nowruz. In this one-day period without time, all is possible. The seeds are planted for a new birth. Among some who celebrate Nowruz, real seeds are planted, usually in seven pots with symbolic meanings of virtues. Their growth is an indication of how these virtues will manifest themselves in the coming year. Among those influenced by Islam and Christianity, Navroz is the day when God will raise the dead for the final judgment and the start of eternal life.
Nowruz has an ancient Persian origin, related to Abura Mazda, the high god who was symbolized by the sun and manifested by fire. Nowruz is also related to the opposite of fire, that is, water. However water can also be considered not as opposite but as complementary, and thus fire-water can become symbols of harmony. Fire – as light, as an agent of purification, as a manifestation of the basic energy of life − played a large role in Zoroastrian thought and in the teachings of Zarathoustra. Thus we find fire as a central symbol and incorporated into rituals among the Parsis in India, originally of Iranian origin.
From what is today Iran, Zoroastrian beliefs and ritual spread along the “Silk Road” through Central Asia to China, and in the other direction to the Arab world. As much of this area later came under the influence of Islam, elements of Nowruz were given Islamic meanings to the extent that some today consider Nowruz an “Islamic holiday”. Nowruz is also celebrated among the Alawits in Syria, the Baha’i, the Yezidis, and the Kurds, each group adapting Nowruz to its spiritual framework.
In Turkey, for many years, Nowruz was officially banned as being too related to the Kurds and thus to Kurdish demands for autonomy or an independent Kurdistan. I recall a number of years ago being invited to participate in a non-violent Kurdish protest in Turkey on Nowruz to protest the ban. I declined as the idea of going from Geneva to be put in a Turkish jail was not on top of my list of priorities. Fortunately, for the last few years, the ban has been lifted, and Kurds in Turkey can now celebrate openly Nowruz.
The celebration of Nowruz in the Cental Asian Republics has had an uneven history during the Soviet period and since − ranging from a ban because it was too Islamic, to being promoted as of Zoroastrian origin and thus anti-Islamic, to being “nationalized” as a holiday of national unity.
As armed conflicts in Syria, Iraq, “Kurdistan” and Afghanistan and strong tensions in Iran and Central Asia continue, we must hope that 2015 Nowruz will purify the old and plant the seeds of a new harmonious regional society.