Thursday, March 20, 2008

Happy Nawroz!

BUTTERFLIES, by Behnam Askari.

Happy Nawroz!

IT'S the Spring Equinox, and for Iranians, Afghans and Kurds, as indeed for Parsees (that is, a faith community originating from Zoroastrianism), that means it is the New Year - 1387 I believe, or New Day, Nawroz, or Nowruz, no matter how you spell it.

Starting the year with the flowers of Spring
seems as good a time as any, and that Zoroastrian link is a clue that the roots of this festival go way back, and are certainly pre-Islamic.

Though some Muslims such as Alawites, as well as the Baha'i, have incorporated it into their practice, others of a more fundamentalist persuasion frown on it, much as English Puritans once sought to outlaw the frivolity of Christmas.

But they've never been able to ban it. I asked a friend of Iranian origin who is a member of the Muslim Parliament about this. "They don't like it", he said - they being the religious authorities and strict mullahs - "but there's no way they can stop my mother holding a party".

If not even the Taliban could stop Afghans celebrating, that is a tribute to the human spirit and the strength of traditions reflecting our interface with Nature.

It's some years since some Kurdish friends invited me to join their Nawroz celebration. (at the Red Rose club, which meant we could enjoy something else the fundamentalists would not like, a pint with our kebabs). You can even celebrate the Spring on a wet night in darkest Finsbury Park. I had a good time, enjoyed the food and the friendly atmosphere, and even got shlepped into a kind of debka.

I must admit I remained ignorant of the festival's wider significance, thinking it was just some Kurdish custom. I am resolved to remedy this now, thanks to the internet, beginning with:

Starting the year with Spring, Primavera as the Italians say, is an old and widespread tradition. An oddity of the Jewish calendar, an eclectic affair combining both Egyptian and Babylonian influences, agricultural (governed by the sun, and the rising of the Nile) and pastoral (the moon, and hence the months), is that though Rosh Hashana, commonly called the "Jewish New year" falls in Autumn, the first month of the year is Nissan, roughly corresponding with April, which sees the Passover.

But another possible link is the festival of Purim, which comes before it, and is also a Spring festival. Whereas Passover celebrates the exodus and liberation of the slaves from Egypt, Purim concerns later events in Iran, and a triumph over enemies, supposedly in the time of Ahasuerus(Xerxes) and Queen Vashti. The Jewish protagonists are called Mordechai and Esther, which some scholars suggest were really names derived from the Babylonian deities Marduk and Ishtar. Only whereas in the Purim story, Mordechai is the father of Esther, who is the heroine who saves the day, the Babylonian story had Ishtar (also identied with Venus)ther holding the baby Marduk. That has led people to think of another famous mother and son, called Mary and Jesus.

Both Moses and Jesus had to be rescued from menacing rulers as babies, and come Passover, you are also thinking of Easter (though that has come earlier this year, with Nawroz!), when Jesus is betrayed after a Passover supper with his comrades, is killed, but goes on to be reborn - just like the ancient Egyptian corn god. It is all very complicated , but fascinating. Trying to trace how all these strands are interwoven in human imagination is much more interesting than the austere interpretation of strict believers who try to insist that their particular piece of thread is given by God, and defined by the priests, and anything else must be rejected.

It's much more fun being an atheist, by which I mean to say, a historical materialist!

As to Queen Vashti, by the way, there's a ladies' hairdressers called Vashti's in Shepherd Bush.

But to finish on a serious note, the picture above is a painting by Behnam Askari, a young Iranian who together with his mother and younger brother faces deportation from Britain. Part of our wonderful government's commitment to freedom. The family came to this country when Behnam was 15 because his father was working here. When the father returned to Iran on a visit he was arrested, because two of Behnam's old schoolmates whom they had allowed to stay at their flat had been charged with possessing subversive leaflets. Like other repressive regimes the Iranian authorities prefer uncovering a "conspiracy" to merely nicking two students, and so Behnam and his mother face lashings and imprisonment if they return to Iran. Behnam's old teacher and other friends are campaigning to help the family stay in Britain.

I chose the Butterflies picture because it is pretty and makes me think of Spring, and freedom. There was a news item on television the other night about conservationists worried that some of Britain's butterfly species are endangered, and working to rescue them. We saw youngsters enjoying a visit to a butterfly farm and marvelling at the beautiful creatures around them.

Let's hope a similar appreciation of diversity spreads, so more people act to safeguard endangered human beings.

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At 11:10 PM, Blogger Charlie Pottins said...

By way of a PS, and a correction, Happy
Purim, which this year opened on the day after Nawroz.
And apologies that I
got Mordechai's
relationship with
Esther wrong (he was
apparently a cousin, though he had apparently
been looking after
her as his ward since her parents died. Kind of detail makes it
more like a real novel, right?)
And tomorrow I'll
see if my local
baker has any hamantaschen (Haman's Ears, poppyseed pastries).
And later I'll go for a drink, though not 'ad lo yada' -till you can't tell (the difference between Mordechai and the bad guy, Haman.


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