Nowruz and The Sins of the New Day

21 March, 2022
A tra­di­tion­al Per­sian Zoroas­tri­an haft-sin for Nowruz (pho­to cour­tesy Sur­fI­ran).

Today’s impos­si­ble prompt: a poem about spring cel­e­bra­tions and peace.


Maha Tourbah


Sun­day, March 20th, marked the begin­ning of the Spring Equinox in earth’s north­ern hemi­sphere. It was at 16h33 and 23 sec­onds, French time, accord­ing to the Insti­tute for Celes­tial Mechan­ics and Com­pu­ta­tion of Ephemerides (IMCCE) in Paris, that at that moment in the astro­nom­i­cal cycle the sun was exact­ly above the equa­tor, mak­ing the day and night equal, announc­ing sun­nier times, longer days and short­er nights. In some parts of the world, for some 300 mil­lion peo­ple, the Equinox calls for days of cel­e­bra­tions devot­ed to a com­mem­o­ra­tion of life, new begin­nings, and nature’s rejuvenation.

Peo­ple have held this cel­e­bra­tion sacred for over 3,000 years in regions that include the Balka­ns, the Black Sea Basin, the Cau­ca­sus, the Lev­ant and Cen­tral Asia into Iran and Afghanistan. Orga­nized reli­gions, how­ev­er — includ­ing Catholi­cism, Judaism and Islam — have tried to sti­fle these pagan cel­e­bra­tions , because they remind peo­ple of our col­lec­tive past before there was one true god.

Why would any­one repress, on a mass scale no less, a cel­e­bra­tion of the Equinox, a mer­ry event that comes at a time of year after the long win­ter — an occa­sion that prompts folks to deep clean their hous­es! In what world is this bad? On a more spir­i­tu­al lev­el, it seeks to bring fam­i­lies togeth­er to feel joy over some­thing as intrin­si­cal­ly good and even tan­gi­ble as nature spring­ing into flow­er­ing blossoms…

I know why, of course: it’s all pol­i­tics and pow­er grab­bing of people’s minds. It’s not enough to demand feal­ty to God; reli­gious lead­ers must also con­trol your social cal­en­dar. But let’s not give them more than these two lines.

In Iran, this hol­i­day is called Nowruz and cel­e­bra­tions go on for 13 days, usu­al­ly end­ing in an all-out fam­i­ly pic­nic. Indeed, Nowruz is a fes­ti­val fêt­ed world­wide by var­i­ous eth­no­lin­guis­tic groups, root­ed in the rit­u­als and tra­di­tions of the Zoroas­tri­an reli­gion. In every Per­sian home, in Iran and abroad, the “haft sin” table is painstak­ing­ly dec­o­rat­ed and proud­ly parad­ed for vis­i­tors to see and gush over. In Per­sian, “haft” means 7, lucky num­ber 7 and “sin” is the let­ter (s) pro­nounced “seen.” Sin is also the let­ter at the begin­ning of each of the items on the des­ig­nat­ed table, each of them being a sym­bol of spring and renew­al. These items may vary from house­hold to house­hold, but are usu­al­ly com­prised of:

  • Sabzeh (سبزه): Sprout­ing /Grass: the sym­bol of rebirth and growth.

  • Samanu (سمنو): Samanu: the sym­bol of pow­er and strength.

  • Sen­jed (سنجد): Elaeag­nus angus­ti­fo­lia: the sym­bol of love.

  • Somāq (سماق): Sumac: the sym­bol of sunrise.

  • Serkeh (سرکه): Vine­gar: the sym­bol of patience.

  • Seeb (سیب): Apple: the sym­bol of beauty.

  • Seer (سیر): Gar­lic: the sym­bol of health and medicine.

Of course, vari­a­tions exist, the most notable are one of two books: a book of poems or the Quran, both sym­bol­iz­ing wis­dom almost in antag­o­nis­tic ways.

For Ira­ni­ans, Kurds, Slavs and inci­den­tal­ly many peo­ples with ancient roots that cel­e­brat­ed and cel­e­brate still the Spring Equinox, times have been dif­fi­cult … always, it seems. War has been loom­ing over them threat­en­ing and pal­pa­ble for as long as they can remem­ber. It wasn’t so long ago that they were under its destruc­tive rage, and it nev­er seems to com­plete­ly dis­si­pate from their conscience.

It is rarely an inbred war, usu­al­ly an imposed and import­ed one.

And yet, here we are, a new lev­el of hor­ror unfold­ing. As nature pre­pares to wel­come its most gen­er­ous of sea­sons, the rebirth of its youth, and its clement weath­er; man pos­tures to invade and con­quer, killing, destroy­ing and dam­ag­ing col­lat­er­al­ly and unashamed­ly. Although war is not unfa­mil­iar to these ancients, the west­ern world, espe­cial­ly but not exclu­sive­ly the U.S., has grown used to play­ing war exclu­sive­ly in oth­er coun­tries, but this round of war is hap­pen­ing in Europe and seems to be threat­en­ing the entire world. Our usu­al so-called pun­dits are talk­ing of World War III. Can any­one alive today real­ly claim they do not know what hap­pens when Europe makes war?

The Farhang Foun­da­tion in Los Ange­les orga­nizes an annu­al Nowruz cel­e­bra­tion for the city’s many Iran­ian res­i­dents and their friends.

How are we to write poems of peace, while war rages? How can we see war and cel­e­bra­tions all at once?

It feels like real­i­ty is split into schiz­o­phrenic lay­ers, exist­ing togeth­er, com­plete­ly dis­so­ci­at­ed from each other.

This split exis­tence is all too com­mon for expats/immigrants (depend­ing on your point of view/color of your skin/job title) like myself, a Lebanese in France.

We are con­stant­ly liv­ing lay­ers of our real­i­ties simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. We seam­less­ly nav­i­gate between the lay­ers, going from tragedy in one exis­tence to cel­e­bra­tions in anoth­er, in one conversation.

There is an Ara­bic poem, writ­ten by the leg­endary Al-Mutan­ab­bi (915–965 AD) that invari­ably comes to mind in these occasions.

It is an impos­si­ble feat to trans­late Al-Mutan­ab­bi, his pow­er over lan­guage is unequiv­o­cal, and I am not about to attempt what he did in Ara­bic into Eng­lish. Or am I? It seems I must, please for­give me:


Ô Holy day, in what state do you visit?

Is it with more of the past, or have you brought some­thing new?

So, in oth­er words, are you going to throw at us the same old hard­ships or will you car­ry nov­el­ty, hope, any kind of change?

Will we see this war esca­late into past night­mares, or will it some­how recede into the hell­ish abyss from which it came?

Will the pow­ers of today’s “free world” choose the sen­si­ble option? Who or what, can stop the war machine? Stand in the face of the arms busi­ness? Unless by some freak chance war becomes unprof­itable, they will only stop if they have to, if they are made to.

We can hope that Europe will make the wise deci­sion of stand­ing up to the U.S. and not let this war esca­late fur­ther, all while hold­ing Putin’s Rus­sia at arm’s length. But they may just not have a say in how things will go.

Either way, how­ev­er all this insan­i­ty plays out, life will not stop. It should not stop. If we let these mon­sters fill us with fear, then they would have tak­en every­thing. We will hold the bat­tered peo­ples of the world in our hearts, we will be kind to strangers, to our neigh­bors, give when and where we can, and we will cel­e­brate life. We must cel­e­brate life.

With this I remem­ber anoth­er Arab poet leg­end, Mrou’o El Qais (501–544 AD) and his infi­nite wis­dom when he said, upon hear­ing the dev­as­tat­ing news of the death of his father (while out drunk with his bud­dies, for context):


Sobri­ety comes not today, and tomor­row refrains from drink

Today, we feast

Tomor­row, we deal (with the world)

I apol­o­gize again for anoth­er trans­la­tion, it’s Spring Equinox, find it in you to for­give me. I did not find a poem in me, but I bor­rowed a few words from past poets that still res­onate today.

Will spring bring peace, O holi­est of hol­i­days? We do not know, but we will cel­e­brate today and tomor­row, and we shall deal with the world and all it will throw at us, tomor­row and today. Seam­less­ly and in one conversation.


haft-sin tableNowruzpeacepoetrySpring Equinoxwar

Maha Tourbah is a software engineer who is gradually transforming herself into a writer. Born in Kuwait, she was raised in Lebanon and Canada and has been living in France for the past 15 years. As a backend software developer, she once enjoyed working out algorithms to complex ideas. In time, she tired of working with machines and wanted to work with people. Thus began her journey into change management, and "when nobody is looking," she writes. "I always loved words, and not just the written words in books, but also in other art forms like music or film — I look for the words." Maha writes from the heart, but as she gets older, her skin thickens, and she welcomes reader comments.


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