My earliest memory of Nowruz was decorating eggs with my family at our dining room table. I was six years old, and we used a cheap egg-dyeing kit — the kind you find at drugstores, with concentrated watercolour tablets and wire dippers that bend under the weight of the eggs. My mom had hard-boiled the eggs minutes before, and their warmth dried the paint as soon as the brush hit the shell, making the paint chip. These kits were marketed for Easter without explicitly saying so, but a picture of a cartoon bunny and the words “He is Risen!” made it obvious. In America, Easter signifies Spring and dyeing eggs is seen as part of that holiday’s tradition, but egg-decorating was invented by the Persians during The First Empire, way before Christianity existed. Nowruz is our start to Spring, a marker of the cyclical beginning of not only a new season, but also a new year in Persian culture.
All this was according to my dad, who told me these things when I was a child, and who was — and is still — as proud a Persian as can be, despite living in another country. He immigrated to America in 1975, three years before the start of the Iranian Revolution, and eventually made a home for our family just outside of Los Angeles. He always emphasized how other cultures borrowed traditions, like painting eggs, from ours. He also was sure to remind me and my sister, year after year, that this was our tradition. We started it. “Don’t forget that,” he said.
As the years went on, as we all grew older and acclimated to new schools and workplaces and beginnings, we did forget — or, at least, the rituals surrounding Nowruz didn’t stick with us. My family stopped decorating eggs by the time I was seven.
But celebrating Nowruz continued, in our own way, without the same rituals, but with different things to mark the time. Some years we leapt over bonfires on Chaharshanbe Suri in the large fire pit at my cousin’s house; other years we’d hop over a Yankee candle in our backyard. A few times we threw our rotting sabzeh in a stream near the local park on Sizdah Bedar with all the other Iranian families, but usually my mom just dumped it in the bin with other yard waste. My parents claimed that these traditions were sacred, but I always wondered why they treated them so flippantly, when nobody else was around. These customs felt unimportant when my parents planned them for our family, and celebrations when the community was involved.
As a kid, the most exciting part of Nowruz was when I got to skip school for a few days and see my entire extended family — at least the ones who also defected to Southern California. My mom’s memory of that time, she recounted to me recently, centres on the weeks she spent preparing the house when it was our turn to host; the scrubbing, dusting, and organizing that came before the large meal she “cooked” for sol-e-no (the new year). What I remember, though, was her ordering sabzi polo mahi, a dish of green rice with fish, and kuku sabzi, which is kind of like an herb frittata from the Persian restaurant down the block, then placing the food on ceramic platters as if she’d made it herself. Regardless of whose memory is correct, our new year customs felt less like meaningful traditions, and more like dutiful afterthoughts.
I now live in Brooklyn, a continent away from my family. Because of the distance and because of the pandemic, I spent Nowruz in 2020 alone, surrounded by memories instead of family. It was the first time since leaving Los Angeles two years ago that I didn’t travel home for the new year, and as I felt the muscle memory of familial bonding trying to flex, I spent my solitude reflecting on what it was like to grow up as a queer kid in a Persian family. My childhood shaped me into the person I am today, someone who feels as much pride as I do shame for my background because my queerness and heritage were at odds with each other. I separated myself from my Persian-ness in many ways and felt estranged from my culture in the process.
That changed this past year, in isolation, away from my family; I was forced to face myself and the culture I came from but knew nothing about. Reclaiming my Iranian heritage over the past year was my most significant step toward feeling connected to our traditions. I explored this through pastimes — like reading and cooking — I already loved, but had never accessed from the perspective of my culture. Most of my time in quarantine was spent reading and re-reading works by Persian novelists and poets — like Sadegh Hedayat and Forugh Farrokhzad — and cooking fesenjan, a walnut and pomegranate stew with chicken, and tahdig. There is no direct translation for tahdig, the crunchy rice left at the bottom of the pot, but it is our most prized, yet comforting delicacy. I cooked these things for the first time in my life, while watching films by Abbas Kiarostami and Samira Makhmalbaf. I ate bastani, a Persian ice cream with rosewater and pistachios, on the couch, and developed interest for Hossein Dehlavi’s scores and other contemporary Persian composers. I dismantled my own apathy for Iranian culture by learning — and relearning — it on my own. These cultural gems, which feel so much a part of my identity today, all seemed to have been hiding from my sight. Except, they weren’t hiding — I had just refused to look.
This year, Nowruz feels completely different. I’m again away from my parents for the second year in a row, but I won’t be spending it by smoking weed on my couch while watching Gilmore Girls, like I did last year, before I’d embarked on my journey of reclaiming my roots. And, my new outlook of Persian culture will influence how I celebrate.
Not everything I’m planning for this year’s Nowruz is traditional: I’m swapping the customary sabzi polo mahi for tachin e mahicheh, a baked rice and barberry casserole with lamb, and my haft-seen, which historically features symbolic items related to Persian spring, will instead showcase relics of my favourite Persian writers and artists, like Hedayat. Why? Because I want to start my own traditions, ones that I can keep, ones that I can even pass on. I want to create new memories that feel authentic to me and my experience as a queer Iranian American, rather than to follow the familial traditions that I never completely understood. Still, I appreciate them now for what they were: my introduction to my heritage; my foundation upon which I’m building my own life, in this new year, and beyond.