Haft-Seen-2014Kourosh Ziabari – Fars News Agency: Iranians across the world have just celebrated the arrival of the Persian New Year, the beginning of spring and the ancient Nowruz festival.

Many of the Central and West Asia and Middle East nations as well as people from different countries and cultures have joined the Iranians in observing the Nowruz, an ancient festival that marks the commencement of the solar year.

The German citizens had the opportunity this year to attend a Nowruz festival organized by the Ethnologisches Museum of Berlin with the cooperation of the embassies of 11 countries celebrating Nowruz, including Iran.

Dr. Ingrid Schidlbeck, the curator and organizer of the Nowruz ceremonies in Berlin says that this ancient festival is respected because of the links it creates between the peoples and nations and because of its beautiful rites and customs.

“The basic idea behind Nowruz festival is the solidarity between people, not only between kin but also between different ethnic groups, religious affinities, countries and nations. These features at least contributed to the recognition of Nowruz as a global festival by the United Nations because the festival opens up the space for peaceful harmony,” said Dr. Schindlbeck in an exclusive interview with Fars News Agency.

Ingrid Schindlbeck studied anthropology at Berlin. In her research, she concentrates on societies of West and Central Asia, particularly Turkey and Azerbaijan where she did extensive fieldwork focusing on the topics of socialization of children, kinship, gender, religion and material culture. Currently she is the chief curator in the Ethnologisches Museum and lecturing anthropology at the Institute of Anthropology in Berlin.

Dr. Schindlbeck took part in an interview with FNA and talked of her viewpoints about and experiences of Nowruz as an ancient Persian festival and the different aspects of this important cultural heritage. What follows is the text of the interview.

Q: Nowruz marks the beginning of the solar year and starts concomitantly with the vernal equinox and the arrival of spring. Why did the ancient Iranians select spring and the moment of vernal equinox as the beginning of their New Year? Is there any certain wisdom behind this?

A: Nowruz festival is connected with the Old Iranian solar calendar. According to this calendar, Nowruz and the New Year start with the vernal equinox, the beginning of the first day of the first month of this calendar. To select this moment as the beginning of a calendar-based system is quite understandable because the sun is from then on shining longer and the light is winning over the darkness. Nowruz originated in pre-Islamic times and it is supposed that it had in the past a strong connection with Zoroastrianism which put much importance to fire and sun. So it could well be that thousands of years before, there was much more wisdom bound to Nowruz than today.

Q: In February 2010, Nowruz was recognized by the United Nations as a global festival and March 21 was named the International Day of Nowruz. What features do you think Nowruz has that makes it worthy of being internationally recognized and celebrated? How can Nowruz contribute to the growth of global peace and strengthen the links between the nations that observe it?

A: During the Nowruz festival, it is the custom in most countries that people visit their relatives, friends and neighbours. The wish and aim behind these visits is to have good relationships or to strengthen already existing relationships. In a more general perspective, the basic idea behind Nowruz festival is the solidarity between people, not only between kin but also between different ethnic groups, religious affinities, countries and nations. These features at least contributed to the recognition of Nowruz as a global festival by the United Nations because the festival opens up the space for peaceful harmony.

Q: Nowruz has been enshrined and observed for more than 3,000 years and is considered to be one of the oldest human festivals on the earth. How do you think Nowruz has survived throughout all these centuries and is still a popular tradition for more than 300 million people who mark it every year with excitement and happiness?

A: In nearly all cultures of the world you find traditions and customs which are bound to the cycle of the year. Anthropologists speak of the cyclical time in contrast for example to linear time. Festivals which celebrate the beginning of a new cycle are accessible and attractive for many people regardless of their ethnicity or their religion. Maybe this is one reason why Nowruz has survived throughout its 3,000 year old history and is celebrated by more than 300 million people.

Q: What’s your assessment of the role Iran played in registering Nowruz as a global festivity in the UN and also as an intangible cultural heritage in UNESCO? Of course different countries celebrate Nowruz, but it seems that the role of Iran in leading the efforts to make Nowruz an international festival was central and pivotal. What’s your take on that?

A: Nowruz originated in the geographical area which the ancient Greeks called Persia. The word “Persia” should here not to be mixed with today Iran. The Ancient Greeks denoted a big geographical area beginning from Egypt and stretching until Central Asia as Persia. Persia refers here to a broader culture with different ethnic groups and a 3,000 year old history. Here lies the origin of Nowruz festival. In this sense it is an old-Iranian festival and therefore Iran feels a primary responsibility to promote the festival.

Q: I read that you held a big festival in Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum to celebrate Nowruz, and that the festival was attended by the representatives of 11 countries marking Nowruz as well as hundreds of foreign guests. Would you please explain more about the details of your ceremony? Why do you think it is important to hold such festivals and ceremonies?

A: Actually the starting point of our idea to celebrate Nowruz in the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin was the opening of the permanent exhibition “Muslim Worlds” in November 2011. In this exhibition we show many beautiful objects from West and Central Asia. After the opening of this exhibition we wanted to strengthen the cooperation between the museum and the countries where our objects are from. The idea of Nowruz festival was born, and with the cooperation of the embassies of Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Turkey, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan we could do it in 2014 for the second time. During our festival the embassies represented their countries with musical groups, booklets and information material. They also distributed national meals without charge to the visitors of the festival. So in doing this festival, the museum strengthens its links with the countries of origin of the museum collections, the museum makes Nowruz festival to an intercultural festival and more popular under the German population and the museum makes it possible that different countries find themselves side by side on the common ground of culture. This is quite well in the sense of Nowruz.

Ingrid-SchindlbeckQ: Although the Iranian communities in different Western countries feel committed to celebrate and observe Nowruz every year, many American and European citizens remain unaware and uninformed about this ancient feast, and this is why they don’t know too much about the delicacy and subtlety of the Persian culture and civilization. How is it possible to acquaint the Western citizens with Nowruz and other beauties of the Iranian civilization and debunk the myths created by the mainstream media that Iranians are uncivilized, primitive and uncultured people?

A: In celebrating Nowruz in the Ethnologisches Museum we clearly contribute to the knowledge about this festival under the German population. Many Germans attended the festival and we really had an intercultural event. Furthermore, we have the intention to make the festival a tradition of our museum.

Concerning the image of Iranians, I do not think that the media want to create or are successful in creating an image that Iranians are an uncivilized people. Quite contrary, Germany and Iran have longstanding scientific collaborations in the field of culture, for example in archaeology, and nobody questions the high Iranian civilization. We should not mix politics with images of people or their civilization.

Q: What aspect of Nowruz is the most attractive and interesting dimension of this ancient festival for you? To me, setting and decorating the beautiful Haft-Seen table is the most delightful tradition of Nowruz. What about you?

A: Nowruz festival marks the beginning of spring. After six month of winter in Germany where the sky mostly is grey, the temperature cold, with rain and snow, it is beautiful to see the fresh green and the first flowers. Nowruz festival celebrates life in all its colors, and this is the aspect I like most.

Q: Each of the elements on the Haft-Seen table stands for a certain concept and notion. For example, red apple represents health and beauty, vinegar stands for patience and long life, goldfish represents life, wheat pudding (Samanu) shows fertility and sweetness of life. Why did the ancient Iranians who first set the precedence of spreading the Haft-Seen table attach so much importance to the symbols and signs of creation and nature? Why did they want to represent all the good things in the life on the Haft-Seen table?

A: I think that we cannot be quite sure how the old Iranians decorated their Haft-Seen table. Traditions are always bound to change and to adapt to new circumstances. But today we have these elements you mentioned and they are seen as symbols for very fundamental aspects of human life, as health, fertility, or in a general perspective the renewal of life.

Q: What do the German people think and say about Nowruz? Have you communicated with the students or scholars who are interested in knowing more about Nowruz and its traditions and customs? What’s their belief about Nowruz? How do they describe this ancient tradition? Do they know that Iran is the homeland of Nowruz?

A: Germans like Nowruz because it is such a lively festival. Some of them compare Nowruz with the Christian festival of Eastern. Eastern is celebrated with flowers and with boiled eggs which are coloured in red, blue, yellow or green, like many people do at Nowruz. These parallels in customs makes Nowruz for the Germans really attractive. For them it is not a festival which is strange, it is a festival where they have a stake in.

Q: And finally, what should be done to protect and preserve Nowruz as an international cultural heritage that belongs to several nations and is respected and venerated even by those who don’t observe it? What efforts should be made to make sure that Nowruz will always be respected and adored by the Persian and non-Persian speaking nations of the Central and West Asia and the Middle East?

A: Nowruz was recognised by the UN as a global festival and it was registered as an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2009. Nowruz has a 3,000 year old history and during these 3,000 years it surely mastered to adapt to new circumstances. I do not think that we have to be afraid for the future of Nowruz festival.

This interview was originally published on Fars News Agency