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Middle East Jasmine Dispatch

Spring Forward! Into the Year 1379?
April 1, 2000

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Jazz at the Turkish-Iranian Border
Winter snowflakes, spring flowers, summer heat, and autumn leaves. We know the year is creeping by as these four seasons magically appear and fade away, each one making way for the next. After the first two months of the year, winter chills warm up and we begin to move into spring. But wait a minute! Rewind! The Trekkers are in Iran and, although it's March, the new year is just beginning. I don't mean that metaphorically. Yes, the birds and the bees are buzzing anew, and the once bare tree just outside my window is now covered in beautiful white blossoms; new life is everywhere and spring is certainly in the air. But in Iran, spring, with its lofty breezes, is more than a new season's dawn; it also marks the Persian New Year, or the No Ruz (pronounced 'No Rooz').

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Haft-Sinn Table
With glorious explosions, and fireworks sprayed across the midnight sky, countries all over the Middle East and Africa counted down to the new year. It was only three months ago that we ourselves crossed into a new year, and among the many surprises that were waiting for us here in Iran, with its new culture, new way of life, and new language, was a new year. In the United States, our years are based on the Gregorian calendar. In Iran, however, there are three calendars in effect: the Persian calendar, the Muslim calendar and the Gregorian calendar.

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Monica with little Hadi
It was Chahar Shanbeh Suri, and we arrived just in time for the beginning of a thirteen day long New Year celebration in Iran. Streets were aglow with fires (even though the police were trying to crack down and prohibit the age-old tradition of fire-jumping) and families gathered around the flames; chanting, singing, and leaping over the flames.

"Give me your beautiful red color
And take back my sickly pallor!"

It's not called the Eve of Red Wednesday for nothing. After watching the fabulous display of bravery and enduring the deafening firecrackers, we followed the crowd as the party moved into the house. A grand feast awaited us all while we posed for pictures in front of the dining room table. Almost like the cornucopia on the Thanksgiving table, families decorate their No Ruz tables with the Haft-Sinn. The seven traditional items on the No Ruz table (all of which start with the Persian letter "s") are all placed on the table to symbolize the anticipated enlightenment and happiness that will come throughout the new year.

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It seems like using three calendars might get a little confusing but it's really very simple. The Persian calendar is based on the solar cycle and is the official, every day use, calendar. The Muslim calendar is based on the lunar cycle and is used for Islamic religious dates and holidays. The Gregorian calendar is used for dealing with foreigners, and it's also in some history books. The mainly-used Persian calendar comes from the Zoroastrian calendar, which is calculated from the first day of spring, beginning with the year that the prophet Mohammed fled from Mecca to Medina (the year 622 CE for us Westerners).

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Kavi and Bri
So let's do some math! If the Persian calendar began in our year 622 CE, what year are they celebrating now? You've got it, it's the Persian year 1379! No Ruz 1379 began at 11:05:48 PM Tehran time on Monday March 20, 2000. If you live on the east coast of the United States (EST), No Ruz 1379 began at 03:05:48 PM March 19, 2000. If you live in the GMT area No Ruz 1379 (2559) began at 02:05:48PM. And for all the west-coasters the Persian New Year 1379 began at 12:46:29 PM PST. Don't take these calculations lightly! They are timed down to the second by cosmologists from all over Persia who pinpoint the exact time of New Year, according to the alignment of the sun and the moon. This tradition is one of many age-old customs and ceremonies that have weathered the test of time, making No Ruz the most fascinating of the Persian festivals.


enlightenment - state of being enlightened, reaching a spiritual plateau
prelude - preliminary to an action
lackadaisical - lazy, without energy
folkloric - an adjective, folklore means traditional beliefs, legends, and customs

On any given day during the two weeks leading up to No Ruz, Iranians dance in the streets to welcome No Ruz. We stared out of our bus windows in amazement as brightly colored clowns dodged the insane Iranian traffic, singing and dancing the whole time. Haji Firuz, New Year's jesters, disguise themselves with makeup and brightly colored satin outfits to parade through the streets with tambourines, kettle drums, and trumpets, spreading good cheer and the news of the coming new year. Fire-jumpers and dancing clowns, wow! The new year hadn't even arrived yet, but this was an awesome prelude. I could hardly wait for the countdown!

The Western Calendar

This calendar was created by Pope Gregory in March 1582. At that time, the current calendar year was 10 days off the seasonal year. (The real concern was not Christmas, but Easter, which had to occur near the vernal equinox and according to the lunar cycle, but that's another story.) He made two corrections. The first was that he just dropped ten days. The day after October 5, 1582 became October 15, 1582 (some countries adopted this change later, in some cases centuries later) This restored the equinox to its rightful place. The second change was to reform the calendar to prevent slippage in the future. In the West, we use that same calendar system to this very day.

I waited and waited, and finally, at about 11PM, I began to worry. Where was everyone? The fireworks? The toast? All dressed up and nowhere to go, I realized that our traditions were very different. There is no countdown here. No Ruz is at different times every year depending upon the alignment of the stars. Our friend Louie shared how this year, for example, No Ruz falls "at a respectable hour." So instead of the focus being on the exact moment that we cross into the new year, Iranians spread the celebration out over an entire thirteen days; with most of that energy dedicated to spending quality time with the family.

The Muslim Calendar

The Muslim calendar is lunar, and it doesn't adjust. Thus, the holidays come about 11 days earlier in the season each year. Some years, for example, Ramadan comes in the spring, then in winter, then in fall, etc. Since Ramadan involves fasting from sunrise to sunset, it's a lot easier when Ramadan comes in deepest winter (shorter period from sunrise to sunset) than when it comes in the spring. Ramadan happens at the same time of year every 35 years.

I have to admit, I was initially disappointed with the lackadaisical attitude toward celebrating New Year. According to our New Year tradition, the country should have exploded at this point! Compared to the nation wide party we are used to in the USA, the Iranian New Year tradition seemed dull. But I quickly realized that Iran had a buzz of its own. We gathered around the table and feasted on the traditional New Year meal of fish and rice. Then we packed up with the family and went out to the town square for ice cream, a walk, and a late dinner. Rich in folkloric details and symbolic gestures, I began to appreciate the calm of the air.

Families strolled along the streets, greeting one another and enjoying the time they had to spend together. Many relatives traveled a long way to make it in time for No Ruz. We have a few more days of rest and relaxation with the Hadi family until SeezDeh BeDar, which literally translates to The Thirteenth Day. After this, it's back to work for the entire country. We'll join most of the country for a picnic and good wishes to bring the new year in right! Stay tuned. There's an entire country left to explore!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Reader Comments: Check them out and share your own!

Abeja - Trekking the Silk Road
Brian - Yes, They've Heard of Ricky Martin--and More Answers to Your Questions
Jasmine - Spring Forward! Into the Year 1379?
Team - Purim: An Ancient Story Not Soon Forgotten
Monica - The Hejab in Iran: Don't Leave Home Without It...

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