If you walk into a Persian home around the start of (northern hemisphere) Spring, you might be greeted by the musky aroma of bidmeshk flowers or notice a carefully laid Haft-sin table. These are signs the family is celebrating Nourooz (sometimes spelt Nowruz in English), Persian New Year. They will wish you Nourooz Pirouz, a victorious or triumphant new year. You could be invited to share a tasty meal sitting on a prized Kashan rug or treated to entrancing tales from Persian poetry.
The Iranian calendar is not the Gregorian one most of the world uses. They have two calendars, the official solar calendar and the Islamic calendar, which is based on lunar cycles. Nourooz falls within 24 hours of March 21 in the solar calendar.
The Haft-sin or Seven Ss
Nourooz celebrations stem from Iran’s pre-Islamic, agricultural society when Zoroastrian was the main religion. Many of the traditions have an agricultural bent, teaching patience, making cultivating seeds inherent in the practitioners. This is evident in the Haft-sin, or SevenSs (‘sin’ is the letter the seven items start with in Farsi), a specially laid table that must include specific items.
First, Sabzeh, something green. Seeds such as wheatgrass, lentils or barley, are grown and placed on the table until the thirteenth day of the new year, when they are cut and thrown away to get rid of bad luck. Samanu is a sweet wheatgrass dish symbolising prosperity. Dried leaves from a Senjed tree (known as silverberry in North America) for love. Seer, garlic, and sib, red apples, for good health. Somaq, or sumac, a spice representing sunrise and serkeh, vinegar, to represent longevity.
The Haft-sin table also includes other items such as a goldfish, representing Anahita, the goddess of water and fertility. There could also be painted eggs for fertility and a book of Hafiz’s poetry. Families and close friends gather around the Haft-sin at the exact moment of the Spring Equinox. Everyone is meant to wear brand-new clothes to symbolise this fresh start. They might recite a poem or read from the Qur’an.
Agriculture and poetry are a big part of Persian culture. Shahnameh, The Book of Kings, is a poetic account of the prehistory and history of Iran before the Islamic Conquest of the Sasanian Empire. It emphasises the importance of Nourooz and has contributed to its on-going celebration in contemporary Iran and by the global diaspora.
If you are ever invited to a Persian meal, you are in for a treat. Persians are famous for their hospitality, a tradition linked to the ancient silk trade, which would see travellers frequently pass through. Persian food has strong, sour flavours, perhaps preferred because Persians do not commonly drink alcohol. Limes and sour fruits are popular, as well as saffron, turmeric, rose water and mint.
Of course, New Year celebrations include feasting. Popular dishes include sabzi polo ba mahi, herbed rice with fish, kuku sabzi, green herbed omelette and of course black tea and tahdig, fragrant rice with a crust. Meals can be eaten at the table or on the floor, eaten with the right hand or, more commonly these days, spoons and forks (knives are not needed for Persian-style cooking).
Cinema of Persia
To see these Nourooz traditions in action, check out Badkonake Sefid, The White Balloon. It follows a young girls’ quest to have the most beautiful goldfish for the Haft-sin.
Cinema of Persia has a proud history, from its first sound film in 1932 to the celebrated Amir Naderi film, The Runner (1984), which was shot during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980 to 1988. Government restrictions such as only allowing Iranian films to be shown in cinemas (which has been eased in recent years) give the local industry incentive to create content. Iranian films often win prizes in international film festivals.
The Iranian Film Festival happens annually in six cities across Australia.
While Persian rugs are not connected to Persian New Year, they constitute another integral part of the culture. Rug-making also predates the Islamic Conquest. The oldest known rug in the world, the Pazyryk rug, is over 2,500 years old and experts believe it was made in ancient Persia. It reflects the agricultural society in which it was made, with stags, horses, goats and fish woven into the design. More recent rugs reflect Islamic influence with geometric patterns designed to enhance the architecture of the room they’re placed in.
Every city and village has its own unique design and there is enormous variety. Even the dyes can be distinctive to a particular region. Natural dyes are difficult to copy because they might be made from produce that only grows in a certain area. The madder root, for example, is used to create red in Turkman Afghan rugs. The exact recipe for such dyes might be carefully guarded by local artisans.
Frank Nasre, who has been selling Persian rugs in Australia for 20 years, says people are usually drawn to a specific style.
“When someone enters a rug showroom, their spirit will be drawn to a nomadic style, or maybe they’ll prefer the designs made in the cities or countryside. It’s all about personal preference.
Mr Nasre also emphasises the craftsmanship and years of skill required to make a rug. There are two types of knots, the symmetrical double knot, known as the Turkish knot and the asymmetrical Persian knot. All handmade rugs are woven using one or the other method.
“My mother only knows how to make rugs using Persian knots. She could not learn how to make Turkish knots after all these years; the method is entwined into the muscle memory of her hands.”
A truly authentic handmade rug can be identified by the knots and unique natural colours used, whereas a rug made by a machine using synthetic dyes and materials will not have these elements. Handmade rugs are usually made from wool, cotton or silk.
Kashan rugs are the equivalent of a Chesterfield Lounge for Persians. Featuring a medallion in the centre, with the floral pattern stretching corner-to-corner, it’s a formal rug that would take pride of place in the guest lounge room.
Many Persians would proudly invite guests into their homes to sit with them on the rug for tea and food, at any time of year, but especially at Nourooz.
Nourooz Pirouz from the Lexigo team!
With thanks to Frank Nasre and family, who generously shared their time and knowledge. Frank and his family came to Australian from Iran in the mid-1990s. They have established careers and businesses in Australia, including selling Persian rugs, and proudly celebrate their heritage.
Written by Sophia Dickinson, LEXIGO: Sophia is a writer and communications consultant with 10 years’ experience in the public service and not-for-profit sectors. She has also taught English in France and spent a year working at a local NGO in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. She is passionate about writing, intercultural communication and languages (she speaks French, Indonesian and is learning Spanish). Read more about her experiences here.