Celebrating Navroz, the Persian New Year, through the lens of Ismaili Muslims

British Columbia

While eye-catching scenes of people jumping over fires during Navroz — the Persian New Year that marks the arrival spring — may be recognizable images in Metro Vancouver, the ancient festival is celebrated in different ways by people from around the world.

Haft Mewa is made in the Afghani tradition of celebrating Navroz, the Persian New Year. It has seven fruits that represent the seven elements of life: fire, earth, air, water, plants, animals and humans.(Zarmina Afghani)

While eye-catching scenes of people jumping over fires during Navroz — the Persian New Year that marks the arrival of spring — may be recognizable images in Metro Vancouver, the ancient festival is celebrated in different ways by people from around the world.

Called Nowruz in the Persian language Farsi, but Navroz in Ismaili tradition, it occurs at the same time as the vernal equinox, falling on March 20 or 21, when the sun crosses the celestial equator and night and day are equal in length.

"Navroz … is the celebration of the new year and it comes to us particularly from Persian traditions. But of course Persia itself was wide reaching at various points in history," said Salima Versi, an Edmonton-based Ismaili scholar.

Celebrations, traditions, meals, and even clothes are different depending on who is taking part, especially within the Ismaili Muslim community.

"So you have Iranian Ismailis, but you also have Afghan Ismailis, and Indian and Pakistani and so on and so forth. So our contemporary celebrations of Navroz [are] a little bit of all of them," said Versi.

Aly Sunderji says musical performances and traditional Ismaili hymns are part any religious celebration including Navroz on March 21.(Alizain Mevawala)

Different traditions

Take Aly Sunderji for example.

"We celebrate the exact same thing but in a total different way," said Sunderji.

Coming from an East African family, Navroz symbolizes the start of a new beginning for his family as well.

"We attend early morning prayers on Navroz and after that we always have bharazi and mandazi … that's Zanzibari food since we are Tanzanian," said Sunderji.

Bharazi is a stew in coconut sauce, typically served with coconut cardamom doughnuts called mandazi.

That's quite different from the haft-sin table, a Persian custom in which seven specific items whose names start with the letter 'sin' in Persian are set out as symbols of prosperity, health, and happiness.

Bharazi, pigeon peas stewed in coconut sauce, left, are traditionally served with mandazi, a coconut cardamom doughnut. (Kilimanjaro Snack House & Catering)

Feroza Gova Jamal, also an East African Ismaili, says for her family the day is focused around a big meal.

"We do a family-style dinner," and this year because of COVID-19, "we're partnering up with a restaurant to provide meals to lists of seniors," said Gova Jamal.

Aaliyah Jamal, 5, making traditional Ismaili sherbet to celebrate Navroz.(Feroza Gova Jamal)

She says her connection to the day is through one of the pillars of Islam: volunteerism and giving back.

"Three charities we support … our girls collect money from birthdays, Christmas … and then divvy it up and donate," says Gova Jamal

Zarmina Afghani's family dress in traditional Central Asian celebratory clothing for festivities like Navroz.(Zarmina Afghani)

For Zarmina Afghani, a Central Asian Ismaili originally from Afghanistan, Navroz is a time for her family to wear traditional clothing from back home to ring in the new year.

The Afghan community has a similar table to that of the haft-sin because of its close proximity to Persian culture.

"The main thing we prepare for Navroz is haft mewa. That literally means seven fruits," says Afghani.

Haft mewa is a Navroz dessert from Afghanistan meant to be served to ring in the Persian New Year.(Zarmina Afghani)

Haft mewa contains dried fruits and nuts soaked for 48 hours and served to guests coming to celebrate the auspicious day. The seven fruits are meant to represent different elements of life including fire, earth, air, and water.

For Ismailis, the celebration doesn't wait for the vernal equinox, but is set specifically for March 21.

A new beginning for all

Whether it's for an Iranian community member or any Ismaili Muslim, the overall meaning of the Persian New Year remains the same: a chance to celebrate a new beginning.

Across traditions, the greeting "Navroz" or "Nowruz Mubarak" is appropriate for all well-wishers.

About the Author

Zahra Premji is a host/reporter for CBC News Vancouver. She has worked as a host for CBC Alberta News in Edmonton, and a reporter in B.C. and Manitoba on various stories from racism to health and crime to asylum seekers and immigration. You can reach her at zahra.premji@cbc.ca

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