Millions of Iranians around the world celebrated Now Ruz this week, the Iranian New Year, a season of rebirth that begins with the first day of spring and brings with it two weeks of joyous gathering and festivity with family, friends, and neighbors. That this three thousand year-old Persian holiday, its origins preserved forever in stony profile at the ruins of Persepolis, continues to be celebrated by the government of the not-yet 40-year-old Islamic Republic of Iran, adds evidence to the claim that nationalism, in both its pre-Islamic and Islamic variants, is “the determining ideology of modern Iran.” More broadly, the case of Now Ruz demonstrates that even the most aspirant ideological movements are, in the final instance, subordinate to the particular, their political passions tempered by local practices and identities that constitute the “imagined nation.” Now Ruz, a pre-Islamic and Zoroastrian tradition, flourishes in the hard soil of post-revolutionary and Islamic Iran not in spite of Khomeini’s ideology, but because Iran’s leaders are politically savvy enough to rely on this ancient tradition to legitimize their modern politics of Islam.
My research on the development of postrevolutionary elementary school curriculum between 1979 and 2009 provides insights into how Now Ruz prevails as a core component of Iranian nationalism in the contentious cultural climate after the revolution. It does so by subsuming all rivals.
The Iranian New Year falls between the February anniversary of the 1979 revolution and the official founding of the Islamic Republic by referendum in April of that same year, known by its date on the Persian calendar, the 12th of Farvardin. Textbook planners made a concerted effort throughout the 1980s to fuse these three major days on the national calendar into a single event, a singular creation myth explaining to young children the recovery and rebirth of the “lost” Iran. Thus children in the early grades studied Now Ruz in sequence with “The 12th of Farvardin, Islamic Republic Day,” the latter now reimagined as a natural and fated occurrence. “Every year we congratulate each other on the ‘freedom of spring’ alongside the spring of nature,” reads the third grade primer from 1987, “[as] we celebrate the cry of Now Ruz along with ‘Islamic Republic Day’.”
Islam played only a cameo role in these earliest years, an accompaniment to the traditional Now Ruz rituals that include the display of the haft sin, or seven “s’s.” Textbook illustrations typically featured a happy family gathered around the sofreh, with either the father or grandfather reading from the Koran, sending up prayers on behalf of his family and all Iranians so that God might grant them “complete success and triumph” in the coming year. Mothers offered prayers as well, for the women of the world but especially for their children, a maternal intervention so that God might grant all youth a path leading to dignity and freedom.
At the end of the 1980s, textbook authors introduced a new stridency into the material, a symptom of an acute renewal of the Islamicization of Iranian society and institutions brought on by the winding down of the war with Iraq and the increasing ill health of Khomeini as he neared the end of his life. Anxious to get ahead of a generation rising without direct experience or memory of the revolution, curriculum writers pressed Now Ruz into the service of piety, its traditions reimagined as an expression of Islamic and moral virtue. Across the curriculum new narrators appeared who taught children that the community of believers, the ummat, took precedent over the nation, or even the members of one’s own family. The young protagonist of the 1988 edition of the third grade primer emphatically retells the story of how she and her family spent the first day of the new year visiting those who had lost relatives to the war in the struggle against oppression: “Several families of martyrs live near our home and the people love them dearly. On New Years many people had gone to see them to wish them a happy New Year and to pray for the victory of all of the world’s Muslims.”
This new piety proved to be unsustainable. The war ended and Iran entered its Thermidor. During the 1990s and into the early 2000s, curriculum authors placed a premium on normalcy, achieved by finding balance between the particularity of Iranian national identity and Iran’s place as a member of the community of nations. Like all other countries, the Islamic Republic was glorious in its own, unique way: “Many of the world’s people celebrate the first day of their country’s new year,” read the 2007 second grade primer. “All of these celebrations are beautiful but the Now Ruz celebration has its own glory.”
Now Ruz was now bound to a single cause, its own. Textbook authors no longer sought to tie the New Year’s celebrations to the revolution or the overthrow of the monarchy. While prayer and worship continued to play important roles as components of the holiday, their purpose shifted away from political liberation to self-help. God’s role in the new year was to provide guidance so that the Iranians might become better people, constituted by a life of considered “good values.”
Moments after the arrival of the vernal equinox this past Monday, the Iranian Leader Ali Khamanei appeared on television and radio to deliver the annual Now Ruz address to the country, as Ayatollah Khomeini and the Pahlavi Shah had done before him, as his successors will do after Khamanei has gone from the scene. That the nominal spiritual leader of Iran and many of the world’s Muslims would lead the nation in celebration of what is, at heart, a pagan holiday would hardly come as a surprise to much of his audience. Iranians take solace in the permanence of their culture, in the enduring belief that its practices eventually envelop and transform, fully, all who deign to define its boundaries. The seduction of the transgressor is one of the enduring tropes of being Iranian, durable in a way that no Gellnerian nor Andersonian account can easily explain. Invading Greeks became Persian, as did the Arabs after them. Mongols, Turks, British, and the Americans: Each in its turn became Iranian, and so it was with the current government, which found itself lost to the desires of spring in spite of itself, despite being Iranian in the first place.
Shervin Malekzadeh is a Visiting Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s Middle East Center. His research can be found at http://www.shervinmalekzadeh.com.