Celebrating the Iranian New Year

Ex-patriot Iranians celebrate in Los Angeles and send a message back home.

Three years ago, when thousands of Iranians gathered on Los Angeles’ Westwood Boulevard to celebrate their New Year, altercations broke out over the flags hanging from storefronts. Many expatriate Iranians show allegiance to the old Iranian flag, which is red, white and green with a golden lion and sun. To them, the old flag symbolizes an Iranian legacy that is thousands of years old. Others believe that hanging the old flag is a political statement, dismissive of the new government and its Islamic flag. Still others hold that the New Year is a cultural celebration and that arguments over politics should be avoided.

Every year, on the Sunday after the Iranian New Year, the city blocks off a section of Westwood Boulevard, the same area that is famous for its rows of Iranian book and music shops, restaurants, travel agencies and many other specialty stores. Thousands come from all over to see one another, to dance and listen to music and to welcome in the New Year with fellow Iranians.

As a result of the disagreements, and even physical assaults that occurred, the following year, in 2008, the annual New Year celebration was cancelled. It was blamed on those who wanted to control the event with their political agendas.

Then last year, festival coordinators agreed to bring back the event, but to make it a policy to leave politics out.  Memos spread throughout the community, particularly addressing storeowners, stating that no visible political statements could be made, with a flag or otherwise. And accordingly, Iranians draped the boulevard with flags that were red, white and green and blank in the middle.

This was before the June elections. It was a time when Los Angeles Iranians agreed to hide their political sentiments for fear of losing the only common ground they shared with fellow Iranians. They emphasized cultural aspects. They played up the customs, the food and the music.  They celebrated their New Year by buying the ingredients for their haft sin (seven S) table, where each item on the table begins with the letter S and is symbolic for the coming of the spring season.  They would gather annually on Westwood Boulevard to see one another and to hear dignitaries, including the mayor of Los Angeles, pay homage and extend New Year greetings to his large Iranian constituency.

This year everything was different. The Iranian New Year is the first day of spring and this year it was March 20. The same Iranian people who fought to de-politicize their New Year celebrations came out and made a conscious effort to have their voices and political opinions heard. An enormous sized Iranian flag adorning the old lion and shining sun hung in the center of Westwood Boulevard where no one could miss its presence.  The flag, that became a centerpiece for the day’s events, hung in front of carpet store, Damoka.

“We have always kept our flag with the lion and sun up and we always will,” Alex Helmi, owner of Damoka said. “Even last year (when lion and sun flags were banned) we put our flags up.”

Helmi formerly served as the president of the festival planning committee. He resigned and now sits on the board along with other Westwood Boulevard business owners.

As the old Iranian flag, in various sizes and forms, was waving throughout the street, with it wafted an air of optimism, hope and solidarity that was absent from these annual gatherings for years.

Most poignant was the irony in seeing the flag that had “Death to the Islamic Republic” written in its center, the same flag that ignited all the arguments years ago, hanging again.  This time, storeowner Roozbeh Farahanipour, owner of Delphi Greek, received dozens of compliments on his sign. Two years ago, he received a punch in the face.

“This is a victorious sign for us.  We are showing that the opposition against the Islamic regime is still strong in Los Angeles, Farahanipour said.  “The lion and sun flag is a national symbol. This flag is the one thing that unites all Iranians. Everyone accepts this flag so it has become the symbol of our country and the opposition.”

Around the corner from the festivities stands a striking billboard on Santa Monica Boulevard with a picture of Lady Liberty that reads, “Liberty, Free Iran, Eide Shoma Mobarak (Happy New Year!), The billboard was paid for up by Amir, an internationally acclaimed Iranian fashion designer.

Nowruz is a time of renewal for the Iranian people. It is a secular New Year that celebrates rebirth, nature, peace and oneness. It is neither a political celebration nor a religious one, but this year, the cultural and political have become one -- as the minds and hearts of Los Angeles’ expatriate community are with their people back home.