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Middle East Abeja Dispatch

Fire Jumping in Modern Persia
March 25, 2000

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Dressed all the same, we still look so different!
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From beneath the black scarves, four sets of curious eyes stared out. Even shrouded in black, we trekker girls look different from the local Iranian women and from each other. In the middle of the street, while an old man with a sparkle in his eye watched over a bunch of kids burning a pile of wooden crates, one kid suddenly burst forth from the crowd, running full force towards the fire. At the last second, his feet left the ground and he sailed over the flames, laughing and landing safely on the other side of the fire. Another tried, but then he stopped short and turned back, frightened by the flames. (The Odyssey World Trek does not condone fire jumping as a way to show off to your friends.)

Map
It was our first night in Iran, and little did we know that it was a minor holiday here in Khoy. We were drawn out of the cozy living room where we were staying by the sound of fireworks. We had to cover up our heads again to go out in public, (except Brian, lucky guy), but it was worth it to satisfy our curiosity.

This fire holiday is a legacy left behind from the time that Zoroastrianism was the religion practiced throughout ancient Persia (which is now the Islamic Republic of Iran). No, Zoroastrianism isn't the worship of a man with a sword wearing tights, but it was one of the first religions ever to believe that there is one God (a monotheistic religion), and that that God is all powerful (omnipotent) and invisible. It was the "official religion" of Persia for centuries, up until the time the Muslim Arabs swept in and brought Islam in the year 637 CE.

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Landing safely on the other side. Don't try this at home!
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Even though this country is overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim today, it's apparent that Zoroastrianism has left an indelible mark on the culture and customs of Iran, making it very different from the other Islamic countries we've visited. Kids setting off fireworks and jumping over flames -- the Zoroastrian symbol of God -- are just one reminder of this fact. (The Odyssey World trek does not recommend pyromania as a form of worship).

The day we arrived was the last Wednesday of the year -- the 25th day of the Month of Esfand in the year 1378! I must admit, I stared at my visa in disbelief when I saw that one! The Persian calendar is based on the old Zoroastrian calendar. I had assumed that the Islamic Republic of Iran would follow the Muslim calendar, but I was wrong!

Vocabulary

condone - to pardon or overlook voluntarily; especially: to treat as if trivial, harmless, or of no importancen
indelible - that cannot be removed, washed away, or erased; lasting; memorable
monotheistic - the doctrine or belief that there is but one God
omnipotent - having absolute power over all; having virtually unlimited authority or influence
pyromania - an irresistible impulse to start fires
shroud - to veil under another appearance (as by obscuring or disguising); to cut off from view; to cover for protection

Here, the New Year starts with the spring equinox, the day that winter ends and days begin to be longer than nights. The schools are out, and everyone is already preparing for No Ruz , the huge New Year's celebration that is coming up. This is like their Christmas vacation!

A 10-year old boy set off another bottle-rocket. I covered my ears and prepared to run, in case it swerved towards me. I don't think this is what Zoroaster (a.k.a. Zartosht) had in mind back in the sixth century BCE, when he started this new religion. But then again, I doubt that the kid knows he is participating in an ancient fire worshipping ritual. After all, he probably has an Islamic name like Ali or Mohammed!

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Persian food is delicious! This is a ritual I appreciate!
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The kids were still jumping over the fire (which was much smaller by now) and shooting off firecrackers, but we old folks were starting to worry about the loud ringing in our ears. Fortunately, we were invited into a nearby house where the party continued. Dancing, music, food and laughter continued... now that was a ritual celebration I really enjoyed!

There were no Zoroastrians at the party, but there are about 150,000 followers of the religion alive in Iran today, and many of them live in the city of Yazd, which we'll be visiting later. Stay tuned to the Odyssey for more on ancient Zoroastrian fire-temples, and the crumbling "towers of silence", enclosed areas, where they used to leave their dead to be eaten by vultures, so as not to contaminate the earth. Yuck! I wonder if we'll find any human skeletons on our visit!

Abeja

p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...abejahummel@bigfoot.com
 

Brian - Of Sheep and Sacrifice
Jasmine - 'Cause you gotta have faith... A Visit to the Black Church
Kavitha - Mission Impossible? Crossing the Border into Iran
Monica - We are Family! Come on Everybody and Sing!
Team - Amnesty International fights for Human Rights in the United States


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