Kourosh Ziabari – Fair Observer: The Middle East sits on a keg of gunpowder. Sectarian tensions, armed conflicts, violent extremism and foreign intervention continue to undermine the security of a region long coveted for its energy resources and geopolitical importance.
Looking at the larger picture of regional developments, one can conclude that the Middle East is in dire need of peace and reconciliation before the worrying crises send it spiraling out of control. Even though the situation is so tense, the rest of the world cannot claim that it is impervious to the challenges and woes of the turbulent neighborhood.
In a region marred by division and conflict, there is a unifying festival that has the potential to bind nations closer together and purge their hostility and bitterness: Nowruz.
What is Nowruz?
Literally meaning “new day,” Nowruz is the ancient Persian New Year festival celebrated by over 300 million people around the world, including the Middle East, Central and South Asia, and parts of eastern Europe. People in Iran and countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Albania, Azerbaijan, India, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan observe Nowruz, which hails from Greater Iran and is associated with Zoroastrianism, a Persian religion founded in the 6th century BCE.
The worldwide celebrations of Nowruz started on March 20 and last two weeks until the 13th of Farvardin, the first month of the Solar Hijri calendar—coinciding with April 1—in accordance with an ancient tradition.
The significance of Nowruz lies in its concurrence with the arrival of spring. The Persian New Year begins at the moment when the sun crosses the celestial equator, marking the Vernal Equinox and the start of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. So, every year, the Persian New Year kicks off somewhere between March 19 and 21, which Iranians colloquially refer to as tahvil-e-saal, or the transition of the year.
To Iranians living at home and abroad, Nowruz is a crucial time for reflection, reunion, family gatherings, philanthropy, social engagement and celebration. In a society such Iran’s, where people spar over political issues on a daily basis and ardently debate the nuclear deal with the P5+1, not to mention the racial and ethnic differences that render the country a mélange of cultures, Nowruz acts as an umbrella that pulls together the entire population harmoniously.
Millions of cordial messages of felicitation are exchanged over cellphones on the eve of the New Year; people visit their parents and grandparents and receive gifts; families pray at the tombs of their loved ones and eulogize them; charities throw lunch parties for orphans and disabled children; and many prisoners jailed on non-violent charges are granted clemency. Persians, Iranian Arabs, Kurds, Azeris, Turkmen and Baluchis—both Muslim and non-Muslim—observe Nowruz with almost the same rites and practices.
The same holds true for the rest of the Middle East as well as Central and South Asia, where other nations celebrate Nowruz. Kurds in Iraq, Syria and Turkey; the people of Azerbaijan; the Persian-speaking population of Afghanistan and Tajikistan; the Zoroastrians of India; the Shia communities in Pakistan; and millions of people elsewhere in the world commemorate Nowruz and consign their differences to oblivion.
Nowruz has undergone many challenges, especially in modern-day Iran, as conservatives go to great lengths to wipe it out, claiming it is a secular holiday running counter to the principles of Islam. However, they have failed to abate the public affection with Nowruz, which is too deeply-rooted in Iranian culture to be exterminated or undermined even after some 3,000 years. Moreover, there have been spiritual components in Nowruz that attest to its moral distinction, making it invulnerable to the malevolence of those who crave to denigrate it as an irreligious, unethical festival.
During Nowruz, people usually recite prayers at the moment of Vernal Equinox, bestowing well wishes on family and friends. Many of them go to places of worship and other holy sites during the first days of spring, and it is customary to visit the elderly and patriarchs—a practice highly recommended in Islamic tradition.
In 2009, Nowruz was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and it was recognized as an international holiday by the United Nations General Assembly in the following year.
This longstanding fiesta serves as a reminder that springtime is the best opportunity for getting rid of acrimonies and reflecting upon how to build bridges.
On March 19, US President Barack Obama, in line with a convention he has set since 2009, broadcast a videotaped message on Persian New Year, extending his greetings to Iranians across the world, including Iranian-Americans observing Nowruz and the “patriotic Iranian-Americans” serving at the White House. Obama took the opportunity to touch upon his commitment to improving Iran-US relations and the benefits that Iranians will reap from the nuclear agreement.
Obama said the nuclear deal would mean “more opportunities for Iranians to sell their exports including textiles and agricultural goods to the world,” while Americans eager to buy beautiful Persian carpets, caviar, pistachio and saffron will have the chance to find these precious items.
He emphasized that there remain disputes between the Islamic Republic and the United States. However, he added that “even as our two governments continue to have serious disagreements, the fact that we are now talking to each other on a regular basis for the first time in decades gives us an opportunity — a window — to resolve other issues.”
The US president continued to state: “As we do, I firmly believe that we can continue to expand the connections between the American and Iranian people,” adding that his historic visit to Cuba 88 years after a US president set foot in Havana “would be a reminder that even after decades of mistrust, it is possible for old adversaries to start down a new path.”
Nowruz is an occasion when everyone thinks of making friends and renewing old ties, eliminating the enmities and promoting peace. This is not only the case in interpersonal relations, but also in the interaction between governments that have long been at odds, including Iran and the US.
Since assuming office, President Obama has annually built on the opening of Nowruz to reach out to the Iranian people and the government, and in 2009, he was the first US president to directly appeal to the “Islamic Republic of Iran”—as opposed to “Iran”—in his Nowruz message, signaling to observers that he was not planning for regime change in the country. There was no sign of hostile rhetoric or threats in Obama’s greeting message. He simply raised his aspirations for better relations between the Iranian and American people.
Similarly, Persians, Arabs, Azeris, Turks, Kurds, Sunnis and Shias in the Middle East and Central and South Asia can capitalize on the advent of Nowruz to heal their relations and throw any animosity into the dustbin of history. There are so many commonalities and shared values in Nowruz traditions of all these different ethnic groups, and it is conceivable that they can achieve a universal, common understanding of how to rescue the region from violence and conflict and eventually come to terms with each other.
This article was originally published on Fair Observer.