Nowruz Reminds Iranians of Delightful Memories of Childhood

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Iran Review Exclusive Interview with Michael Craig Hillmann
By: Kourosh Ziabari

The Persian New Year has just started and Iranians across the world as well as people from such countries as Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Armenia and Iraq will be celebrating the festivities marking the commencement of the New Year and arrival of the vernal equinox. Nowruz (meaning “new day” in Persian) is a set of rituals and customs that inaugurate the Persian New Year. There are diverse viewpoints regarding the origins and roots of Nowruz. Some scholars believe that Nowruz first emerged 7,000 years ago, and some others put the number at 15,000. However, what is clear is that Nowruz is an ancient festival with delicate and subtle cultural ramifications and is considered as a hallmark of Iranian culture, even though minorities in different countries on the Persian Plateau enshrine and observe it.

On the eve of Nowruz, Iran Review conducted an interview with prominent Iranologist and cultural researcher, Prof. Michael Craig Hillmann to ask some questions regarding the origins of Nowruz, the importance of the international recognition of Nowruz, Nowruz in Persian literature and the representation of Nowruz in Persian arts.

A graduate of the University of Tehran, Prof. Michael Craig Hillmann is the author of several books on Persian culture and literature, including “Major Voices in ContemporaryPersian Literature”, “Persian Carpets”, “A Lonely Woman: Forugh Farrokhzad and Her Poetry”, “Iranian Culture: A Persianist View”, and “The Blind Owl: The Love Song of M. Sadegh Hedayat.” Prof. Hillmann is professor of Persian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and President of Persepolis Institute, Inc.

What follows is the text of Iran Review’s interview with Prof. Hillmann who answered our questions about the declaration of March 21 as the International Day of Nowruz by the United Nations, Nowruz in Persian literature, the role of Nowruz and other national festivals in bringing Iranians and other nations together and the reflection of Nowruz in the artworks created by Iranian artists.

Q: In 2010, the General Assembly of the United Nations recognized an International Day of Nowruz and described it as a spring festival celebrated for 3,000 years. A year earlier, UNESCO had recognized Nowruz as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. What do you think about the importance of the global recognition of Nowruz?

A: Such international recognition of Nowruz may contribute to a justifiable sense of pride on the part of some culturally nationalistic Iranians, but UN, UNESCO designations may not inevitably translate into “global” recognition around the world of any particular culture-specific event. Regardless, the variegated message behind Nowruz is wholly positive and can only help people see the world in more positive terms the more familiar they become with it.

Q: Have the major works of Persian literature given any hints and clues as to the origins and foundations of the Nowruz festival? At least in Shahnameh, some allusions can be found to the founding of Nowruz during Jamshid Jam's era. Would you please elaborate more on what you have studied about the origins of Nowruz and the references of Persian literary works to it?

A: The facts that Iranians call Persepolis “Takht-e Jamshid’ [Throne of Jamshid], that Jamshid lived only in Iranian cultural imagination, and that Persepolis itself was a spring-time, Nowruz shrine of sorts take us back at least to Achaemenid times (559-330 BCE) in appreciating the longevity of Nowruz as a Persian Iranian cultural phenomenon. Of course, experts associate Nowruz with early Zoroastrianism and sometimes with Zoroaster himself, which might take its history back another thousand years.

Q: Nowruz has been a source of inspiration for many artists who have created brilliant artworks based on their understanding and conception of Nowruz. You have surely seen paintings, posters, calligraphy artworks and heard of music pieces and movies which have been inspired by Nowruz. Why is Nowruz so powerful in enthusing and motivating the artists?

A: Contemporary Iranian artists may find inspiration in Nowruz partly as a result of happy memories from childhood. For example, the California-based Iranian-American artist Badri Borghei has a series of Nowruz paintings that offer appealing romantic and nostalgic snapshots of specific moments in Nowruz celebrations. A famous depiction of Chahârshanbeh Suri in a wall painting in the Safavid building in Esfahan called Chehelsotun and a famous painting by a member of Kamâlolmolk’s school depicting Sizdah-be-dar show just a part of the inspiration that Nowruz activities have offered Iranian artists.

Q: Why have the great Persian poets paid so much attention to Nowruz in their works? What about the contemporary and modern works of Iranian literature? Is Nowruz so prominent in their works?

A: Pre-modern Persian poems usually depict a stylized, idealized world that does not seem to imitate the familiar physical world in which readers live. For people who live on the Iranian plateau, the one season that approaches an imagined ideal environment would be spring. Hence, pre-modern Persian poets have used spring-time, garden imagery as the setting for their idealized depictions of love and the rest. Many Persian carpet designs do the same thing and keep spring alive in homes all year round. In the introduction to his Golestân [Rose Garden] (1258), Sa’di sings of the praises of spring and tells his readers that his book will prove to be a sort of spring paradise for them.

Q: The Haft-seen table is a hallmark of Nowruz and a historical symbol for Persian culture. Many families in Iran consider the Haft-seen spread a source of blessing upon the arrival of the New Year. What do you think about Haft-seen and the messages it imparts?

A: Haft-seen spreads can remind viewers of the vitality in the New Year about to begin and also, insofar as some Iranians include copies of Hâfez’s Divân [Collected Poems] and the Koran on it, situates Nowruz within Iranian literary and religious contexts. The fact that the Haft-seen itself goes back in Iranian history may communicate to some Iranians that they are part of a long-standing, culture-specific cycle of rebirth and renewal.

Q: Nowruz, Yalda Night, Sadeh Festival and other Iranian festivities and rituals connect and bring together millions of Iranians across the world at certain times during the year. Iranian families feel committed to enshrine and venerate these customs and pass them along to the next generations for preservation. What about these customs and rites makes them so enduring?

A: If Iranians abroad were living in Iran, they would feel more directly in tune with the sights, sounds, language, national cuisine, and culture-specific doings there. Separated from Iran, they can create mini-Iranian environments abroad through participation in Mehragan, Yalda, and Nowruz celebrations, and picnic excursions, and through the rhythms of Iranian-style social lives.
Q: What makes the classic Iranian poets different from the writers and poets in other countries, especially those Western nations with strong literary traditions? What do you find in Persian literature that makes it distinctive and appealing?

A: Persian poetry may not differ essentially as poetry from poetry elsewhere. But how pre-modern Persian poets achieved poetic effects in their verse may differ greatly from how pre-modern poets in the English language achieved poetic effects. Two factors account for some of the differences: the differing natures of the Persian and English languages and the distinctive, intimate connections of many pre-modern Persian poets with royal courts. A third factor has to do with continuity in Persian poetry not in English poetry, a continuity that connects today’s readers to their literary culture of a thousand years ago. For example, reading Ferdowsi’s Shâhnâmeh [Book of Kings] (1010) for many educated Iranian readers is no more difficult than reading a newspaper editorial).

Key Words: Nowruz, Iranians, Persian New Year, International Day of Nowruz, UNESCO, Iranian Literature, Haft-Seen, Hillmann

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