Urban Chaharshanbe Soori: or, "Why are we jumping over tealights?"

Photo: Sina Araghi

Like most young people in New York who don’t have trust funds and aren’t investment bankers, I live in an insanely small room in an apartment I share with a roommate that I found on the Internet. We have a tiny courtyard, but I’m not even on the lease so starting a bonfire to jump over it for good luck on Chaharshanbe Soori would surely get me shot by the old-school Italian landlord. Similarly, the tiny living room space I share is not conducive to a full-blown haft seen. Add to that the fact that I’m living nearly 3,000 miles away from my family for the first time ever, and the idea of Norooz this year made me incredibly homesick and sad.

This year I found myself at an Irish bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with some friends on the night of Chaharshanbe Soori, which is the one tradition I take more seriously than any other in my life. Even as a kid, it was more magical to me than my birthday, maybe because it always involved elements of danger (jumping over massive fires) and lawlessness (the fire department is on high alert and usually shuts us down or makes us do the fire-jumping in designated areas) in addition to the usual community and family elements of all holidays. Because I wasn’t at home in LA this year, I had put a few tealight candles in my pockets and when we were all ready to leave the bar, I lit the candles outside and we all took turns jumping over the tiny flames. My friends are good sports, though I’m sure they thought I was making the whole thing up, and I feel a little better embarking on a new year having said the yellowness-redness chant as I hopped over each little candle. I’ve made up some of my own traditions, too, like making a wish as I do this and lining up three candles. So I guess some of it is made up, after all.

The next morning I woke up to find the awesome photo above in my inbox. It’s of fire-jumping at Dockweiler Beach in Los Angeles and it was taken by LA-based photographer Sina Araghi (who I met a few weeks ago in New York and who I’ll post about again soon). The photo reminds me of freaking out as a little kid by the thought of jumping over fires, and of the uncle or friend’s older brother who always jumped first, showing off as the flames appeared to engulf him. I was always convinced someone would be hospitalized before the night was through, but no one ever got burned. There were always baby-fires off to the side for the old ladies and little kids, and that’s where I’d be except when the aforementioned uncle would grab me by the armpits and swing me over the big fire himself. Even good luck requires a little risk. I like to think there’s no shame in tealights or baby-fires, but then I remember all the Iranian moms and dads that I’ve seen jump over fires with their squirming toddlers, and I realize I’m pretty much a wuss.

In any case, the whole night made me think a lot about assimilation and the different ways in which Iranians, particularly second-generation diaspora Iranians, preserve or reinterpret old traditions. I wonder what Iranians in other parts of the world are doing on these 13 days of Norooz, and I hope everyone had a great Chaharshanbe Soori, whether you were the big-fire bad-ass on a beach with lots of Iranians or the homesick wuss hopping over tealights on a city sidewalk with confused, good-humored Americans.