Nowruz celebrates a new day of colour and culture

Illustration by Afshin Sabouki

Illustration by Afshin Sabouki

On March 20 at 9:57 a.m., thousands of people in Metro Vancouver will celebrate a new year. The Persian New Year, or Nowruz, which literally means “new day,” begins exactly when the season changes from winter to spring on the vernal equinox.

Traditional Nowruz activities include spring cleaning, or Khouneh Tekouni, performed before Nowruz in preparation for the visitation of friends and family; the Fire Festival, or Chaharshanbe Suri, celebrated the night before the last Wednesday of the year; and Haft Sîn, a table-setting with seven symbolic elements starting with the letter ‘S’ in Persian.

Although Nowruz has its roots in ancient Iran and is sometimes referred to as the Iranian New Year, Davood Ghavami, president of the Iranian-Canadian Congress, states that Nowruz is not limited to the Iranian community.

“It has been welcomed by all nations and Canadians,” says Ghavami.

More than 330 million people worldwide from diverse ethnic communities and religious backgrounds celebrate this 3,000-year-old festival. In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly recognized the International Day of Nowruz, while here in Canada, Nowruz was added to the national calendar in 2009 (Parliament of Canada, Bill C-342).

According to a 2011 Statistics Canada Report, there are over 34,000 people in Vancouver whose mother tongue is Farsi, a dialect of the Persian language spoken in Iran.

Ghavami, who is also the coordinator of this year’s 24th Annual Fire Festival in West Vancouver, points out that while the majority of attendees are Farsi-speaking or of Iranian background, there are many attendees who belong to other Persian-language communities, including Dari (spoken in Afghanistan) and Tajiki (spoken in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan).

“Last year, the West Vancouver Police Department estimated that there were around 20,000 attendees, and more than ten per cent of attendees were primarily members from the Tajik, Afghani, East-Indian, Pakistani and Chinese communities,” says Ghavami.

Persia’s presence in the Lower Mainland

According to Mehran Norafkan, an instructor at the SFU Language Training Institute, there has been increasing enrolment and diversity of students in the SFU Persian language courses that started two years ago.

“Students showed a strong interest, so we began to offer two classes per semester,” says Norafkan.

Additionally, Norafkan points out that when the course first began, most of the students were Iranian-Canadian.

“As we continued the courses we had more students from non-Iranian backgrounds. This semester, the majority of students are from non-Iranian communities,” says Norafkan.

Meanwhile, UBC has orchestrated the Initiative in Persian Language, which seeks to institute a Persian language program, as well as a Chair in Persian language and literary culture to focus on the historical depth and geographical breadth of the Persianate world.

UBC and SFU are also the homes of student-run clubs that provide a community for Persian students. This year, UBC Persian Club and SFU Iranian Club collaborated to organize the Nowruz Gala 1393 (Persian calendar date).

“Nowruz is one of the most important symbols of the Iranian culture, and celebrating it helps Iranian students to feel connected to their heritage and culture,” says Navid Fattahi, president of the UBC Persian Club.

He also acknowledges the club’s intent to share Persian history and culture and invite broader participation.

“Every year, UBC Persian Club celebrates Nowruz with various events on and off campus, and attempts to familiarize the non-Iranian audience with Persian culture, and create a sense of union and community,” says Fattahi.

A colourful, cultural festival

Azita Sahebjam, director of Vancouver Pars National Ballet, notes that while Nowruz celebrations are mostly attended by Vancouver’s Iranian community, she sees people of various ethnic backgrounds introduced to the special customs of Nowruz celebrations through a friend or partner.

“Everyone is welcome,” says Sahebjam.

Persian dancers. | Photo courtesy of Vancouver Pars National Ballet

Persian dancers. | Photo courtesy of Vancouver Pars National Ballet

Persian New Year celebrations hosted by Vancouver Pars National Ballet will include Iranian folk-dancing, as well as Spanish flamenco, Argentinean tango, and Egyptian candle dancing. Sahebjam says these fusion-style performances highlight Persian music and lyrics alongside the dance and customs of other rich cultures.

For Sahebjam, the Nowruz celebration is not only an opportunity to marry diverse performances, but also an opportunity for Iranian women to practice the art of dance.

“In Iran, women cannot dance, and there are no proper dance academies. In Canada, women have the freedom to express their culture through dance,” says Sabejham.

Ghavami feels that Nowruz celebrations like the Fire Festival are attractive to many people because of the connection to nature. He adds that in previous years, First Nations, Filipino and Chinese groups have attended the Fire Festival to share and perform their traditional dance and music.

“The Lower Mainland is a multi-cultural area where people from all over the world get together and experience the customs and traditions of other countries. Nowruz has a very rich historical and cultural background, which makes it very interesting for other communities,” says Norafkan.

For a festival as colourful as Nowruz, it is no surprise that it draws thousands of people from Metro Vancouver’s diverse communities.

“Nowruz is a calling to bring harmony, joy and gratitude into our lives,” says Ghavami. “All come together for this new day.”

24th Annual Fire Festival:
March 18 at 4 p.m.
West Vancouver’s Ambleside Park

Vancouver National Pars Ballet’s Persian New Year Celebration
March 30 at 7 p.m.
Performance Works on Granville Island

Nowruz Gala 1393
March 21 at 9 p.m.
Imperial Vancouver on Main Street