Nowruz, my yearing

It is never the same

By Shirin Tabibzadeh
March 20, 2009

As Nowruz approaches, a feeling of nostalgia and yearning fills my heart. The pain of a past long gone and the longing for a dear land that I have not seen for more than two decades but can still revive its scents in my mind, as if it were yesterday, sometimes becomes overwhelming.

Nowruz had a special place in our household, it was something more than a tradition or ritual. It was more than a celebration, it was sacred. We observed it in full fledge. Ignoring a single element, it was instilled in our minds, could be a bad omen.

Nowruz was the time of mending the broken hearts, making up with the ones we had hurt, extending a helping hand to the ones who were less fortunate, and a time when doors were open all day long to family and friends, to the rich and the poor, and you never were tired to receive people or to go from one place to the next and stay for lunch or dinner wherever you happened, at that hour, to descend.

Mother fanatically observed every rule and every custom. From months before Nowruz she was thinking first about everyone's lebaas-e eid (New Year clothes) and then khooneh takooni (spring cleaning) and then baking, with dear Zahra's help, home made cookies, Baklava, Sohan, and the rest.

A few weeks before Eid, plates of grown wheat and lentils and ... would be seen on a mantle or a table, or by the window pane. She might have decided to change a curtain here, a tablecloth there, or just a set of new dinnerware for a change. The yard was cleaned, the gardens plowed, spring flowers were planted, a bunch of daffodils here, a few jasmines there, and the outside and the inside of the house would be painted, with its annual paint.

Though a bit on the chubby side, mother was truly beautiful, with ivory skin, hazel eyes, and long chestnut hair, most often bundled with a pin on the back of her head. Mother was a perfectionist and quite adamant in her ways. Nothing made her more uneasy than taking the traditions lightly or ignoring the trend. She was the planner of every event, the one to balance the household budget, the one to oversee the children with whatever they were doing at a given day. She was the center of our love and our awe, the one who had the last word and -- usually -- had to be obeyed. A strong headed, energetic, strict woman but at the same time the kindest and the most sensitive of all time and a perpetual worrier for the things that might go wrong.

Father, on the other hand, was the essence of serenity and peacefulness. He was adored by all, attracted people's respect with no effort. A learned educated man for his time but humble and kind towards a child, a grown up, a beggar or a king. He would sometimes disappear on a weekend for an hour or two and when I asked him "where were you father?" he would say "Nowhere dokhtar jaan, just visiting a friend," and then immediately he would say "promise you never forget those who need a friend." And I did not know what he exactly meant. It was only after his death that we came to know the families he had helped.

The children had never even heard him raise his voice, or impose his thoughts, or pretend as if he knew it all. He had something that made you love him and respect him no matter what. Friends and family asked his advice. His words were uttered with such sincerity and demonstrated such wisdom that it was hard to discard.

The relationship between father and mother remained loving, cordial and cherishing to the end. When he talked about her, looking at you with his piercing huge brown eyes, it was pure admiration: "If you only had seen her when she was young" or "I am sure mother knows", or "She has an exquisite taste", and mother's most effective threat would be "I will tell your father when he gets back", and that was that.

It was amazing how this strong-headed, extremely smart and knowledgeable woman, revered and respected her beloved man. HER untold frequent messages to her children were "Be the kindest and the most humble but also be strong, persevering, and brave."

No matter at what precise time the winter gathered its wings to fly over the mountains and oceans and plains to move to the southern hemisphere and give its place to the caressing breeze of the spring, we were ready. Be it in the middle of the night or early in the morning or late at night, all the lights would be turned on, all the candles lit, and the aroma of Espand could be sensed coming from the kitchen. We would all run around in haste to take shower, to put on our new clothes, to blow dry our hair, to do the last-minute touch up, as if we were invited to the ball of kings.

A few minutes before Saal Tahvil (exact start of the New Year) we would gather around the table set for Nowruz. The Haft Seen spread was set in the most beautiful form, flowers here and there and candles too, mirror and gold fish and also the holy book. As the radio or TV was on and we anxiously awaited that moment, father recited a few verses of Shahnameh or Rumi's Mathnavi and mother from Hafez. We really did not hear anything as our eyes were hooked to the television or our ears to the radio flow.

As soon as they started the count-down, everyone was silent, our heart beating fast. Ten, nine, eight,... and suddenly boom and the bittersweet sound of the flute which had become the trend to be broadcast right after Saal Tahvil was announced. We would all fly to father and mother and kissed their hands and they in their turn would hug and kiss us on the face and gave us the Nowruz gift which was usually brand new bills between the pages of the Koran.

Since father was the head of the clan, for the first three days, they would stay at home. everyday they had visitors from early dawn until late at night. We the younger ones would visit the older ones in our own turn and every day came back with a bag full of money and sometimes gold coins.

On the fourth and the fifth day, father and mother paid their respects to those who had visited them in the early days. As you went through the street you could see groups of people entering or leaving a house. In small towns and villages the sight of women and children in their colorful outfits was quite eye catching and divine.

When we lived in that small town in the north, one day was set aside for the villagers who came from the vicinities of the town to visit or the Turkmen coming from the plains. That day was one of the happiest Nowruz days for us. Big samovars were set in the yard and a special room with a huge dining table covered with candies and sweets and fruits were set for the visitors which usually all stayed for lunch.

Another day was set for the poor, who came and had a cup of tea and some sweets and left with their gift. I always remember one of them who passed by our house every night at ten sharp, while singing the saddest song. Then there was a few minutes of silence which meant he was at a neighbors' door receiving something for the night. Then he would start singing again until he reached the end of town... and the next day and the next. And I remember it all. I remember and remember and remember in my mind and my heart.

Towards the end, most children were married and had their own home and Nowruz table and so forth. Only father and mother, Kian and Sassan, and I, were left at home. Now, four of them are gone; some died a natural death and some at their prime.

"Sometimes God picks the flower that is still in full bloom; sometimes the rosebud is chosen that we feel He's picked too soon."

Maybe they tried to show me the truth: Not to take anyone, no one, for granted.

"Maybe truth was those two young hands, those young hands which were buried under the incessant falling snow."

Since in exile, I have tried to keep the tradition alive. I have tried to make it as authentic as possible, partly to observe a ritual that is an important part of our national identity. And partly to do what those two precious beings -- father and mother -- loved us so much to do. But it is not the same, it is never the same, and the yearning burns my heart and the yearning burns my soul and I suppose I will give the rest of my life to be there and then with those whom I cherished and so dearly adored.

Happy Nowruz