When it comes to observing cultural holidays while at Swat, being away from my home and family has always been a challenge. No matter the occasion, I always find myself defying conventional traditionalism and celebrating a filtered-down, dorm-room-makeshift interpretation of the holiday.
With the vernal equinox comes one of my favorite family holidays: Norooz. Celebrated on the first day of spring, Norooz celebrates nature’s rebirth concurrently with the Persian New Year. It predates Islam, dating back to the ancient monotheistic religion Zoroastrianism in Iran, and is observed across a number of political borders, including Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and of course Iran.
One of the hallmarks of this holiday is the preparation of the Haft-Seen table. President of AMENA (Arab, Middle-Eastern, and North African Cultural Group) Ava Shafiei described this tradition as a “7 item representation of the hopes and values for the new year” in a email sent to the Swarthmore community announcing the implementation of the Haft-Seen on the upper floor of Sharples for the week of March 20.
These components include seer (garlic) for good luck, sumaq (ground berry) for the color of sunrise, seeb (apple) for health and beauty, senjed (sprouted wheat or barley) for rebirth, samanu (sweet pudding) for wealth and affluence, and finally serkeh (vinegar) for patience and old age. For additional ornaments and decor, sometimes a goldfish, a mirror, or the Qur’an are incorporated to represent life and reflection.
Being half-Persian, for the past two years I have implemented my own homespun Haft-Seen in my humble abode in Willets. My mom sent me some of the components in the mail, like the senjed and samanu, but for the most part I was collecting items from the most intimate niches of Swarthmore student life, i.e. I stole an apple from Sharples and put Goldfish crackers that I bought from Essie’s in a jar, like a true Persian.
I can just hear my Persian grandma joyously clapping her hands, her infinite amount of wrist bangles clanging in symphony, as she exclaims, “Afareen, azizam!” (Good job, sweetheart).
Admiring the absurd amalgam of objects scattered across the ornate Persian sofreh in my dorm room, I am perplexed by a shocking, existentialist thought: I, Yasmeen Namazie, am nothing more than this filtered-down, dorm-room-makeshift Haft-Seen, because 2,000 miles away from my home and family, I am hardly Persian at all. I am a messy, fractured, last-minute, sad excuse for a Persian.
I confided with one of the only other people who resonates with my existential anxieties surrounding my cultural and linguistic inadequacies: my beautiful sister Leyla.
My younger sister and I, while very similar in personality, could not be more visibly different. She has big, deep brown eyes that don’t squint when she smiles; she has a paler complexion that burns red and not brown under the Los Angeles sun and she has fuller, thicker eyebrows.
In other words, this girl is a cookie-cutter Persian.
“I have a very Persian-looking face — you know that,” my sister said to me on the phone.
“But what about you looks so Persian, Leyla?” I asked.
“I don’t know, I feel like just my face does,” she said.
I was asking her about the Norooz festivities back home in LA, and she was telling me about how she enjoyed our Persian-side gatherings more over our Chilean-side gatherings. This was her logic:
“While looking at both my Chilean and Persian side, I feel more connected to my Persian side because I look more like them so I don’t feel as out of place as I do when I am at Chilean parties,” she said. “I don’t really feel Chilean when I am at Abuelo and Abuela’s house.”
While I was at first critical of what I assumed was an absurd reason for enjoying one cultural space over another, I thought about how my insecurities with language and my inability to speak Farsi operate under the same assumptions: if I can’t participate in Persianness, I therefore am not Persian.
This has truly been the perennial struggle for my sister and I, identifying as bi-racial. Our lives are spent searching for points of reconciliation between our two cultural origins, to the extent that even something as mundane as a family gathering propels us into existential crisis. Even while we participate in the functions, eat the foods, and sometimes even utter the phrases, we are in a perpetual state of inadequacy, of “not enough.”
Leyla shares the same sentiments regarding linguistic barriers.
“Not speaking Farsi is pretty big barrier during relative gatherings for Norooz. Even though I do understand the gist about the Haft-Seen and the cultural significance of Norooz, I feel like when they are talking about it, especially in Farsi, I just can’t contribute because I have no idea what they are talking about. They usually have to translate it to me in English which makes you feel a little bit disconnected … like you are not a part of something.” she said. “I feel like knowing Farsi would make me feel more Persian.”
Together, we thought about what voids would have to be filled in order for us to “feel more” Persian or “feel more” Chilean. Learning to speak Farsi fluently? Taking up dutar lessons and embracing ancient Iranian folk music? Living in a remote hostel in the high desert of Chile? All this infatuation with justifying our Persianness and Chileanness was draining and picked at our consciousnesses.
“All I know is that I like being able to spend time with my family and being able to set up the table because it’s kind of like a family thing. You go to the market and you go buy fish and all the elements of the Haft-Seen — you do it together,” my sister said.
It was in this intimate conversation with my sister that I started to realize that perhaps my cultural identity isn’t conditional or situational, nor contingent on locale. So what if Goldfish crackers are the staple of my homemade Haft-Seen?
Assumptions of my sister and my cultural essentialism are not conducive to my understanding of myself as a multicultural person. Instead, there should be acknowledgment that sometimes I may have to negotiate and renegotiate the bounds of my racialness. Maybe I will just be perpetually grappling with my “pseudo-ness,” but at least I am the agent of this process of formation and reconstruction. Maybe next Norooz, I can be comfortable with this “new normative,” even if it entails grass plucked from the Scott Arboretum in lieu of sabzee.
I would like to thank Farsheed Shomloo for taking the featured image of the Haft-Seen for this article.