As an Iranian-American child growing up in California, it wasn’t the shift in seasons or the grand promise of a new beginning, marked by a fresh bunch of hyacinth on the mantel, that made me love Norooz. Instead, I looked forward to the smaller joys: a new gold coin pressed into my palm by my father, a plate heavy with heapings of my favorite foods, dancing to classic Iranian songs with friends, a new dress.
I was lucky enough to travel to Iran each year with my father—and this year, I’d planned to return at the end of March for the Norooz celebration, the country’s biggest holiday. But it's not a decision as easy as before—and the new beginnings don’t feel so new.
It goes without saying that sentiments of awe and joy and spring that once lit this holiday of the vernal equinox are not quite as moving when my family's ability to travel to Iran has been up in the air. Is it a new year worth celebrating if its beginning is marked by discriminatory policy?
I’m luckier than many Iranian-Americans in the US: a dual citizen with full white-passing privileges. But at the time of President Trump's first order at the end of January, I found myself with no American passport, just an Iranian one, which made leaving the United States at all a gamble, and took returning to my family’s home in Iran off the table. And for my father, who became a naturalized US citizen when I was seven, going home to Iran to handle family matters in the wake of his mother’s death was suddenly impossible, should he want to return to his job, his wife, his kid and his house in America. Trump's revised order, which Muslim advocates still oppose, does not change the fear my family and community experienced in the wake of the first.
Throughout my adult life, there has been an element of risk when it comes to seeing family in Iran—a sinking sensation that something may go wrong, trapping me on either side of the ocean. At the peak of my tension, I often woke up sweating in the middle of the night having dreamt Tehran was bombed. I feel sensitive to politics in a way I’m not sure my white friends do, an anxious feeling in the back of my rib cage when the nuclear deal is mentioned on the radio when I’m in the car and a downright nausea when people ask me about it.
I even bristle when I eat Iranian foods and people inquire about the steaming bowl of khoresht or the smell of aabgoosht. For an Iranian-American, even the contents of your lunch are politicized. I wish I could say having my soup exotified is a fun treat, or that I love explaining my culture and religion and cuisine to my peers, but frankly it is an exhausting, and political, reality.
The turn of events which brought us the January Muslim Ban was not surprising or jarring to me and the handful of Iranian-American friends in New York who I call family. In the days that followed, I met the refrains of “Can you believe it?” with a resounding “Yup.” The American legislation might have been new, but our community's experience was not: Ask a Muslim.
Being an Iranian-American has meant tentatively telling people my nationality when they prompt me for it, unsure of how they’ll react. The January order placed due attention on a feeling my community has had for a very, very, long time (like, Hostage Crisis long). So yes, indeed, I can believe it.
Back in January, the Muslim Ban made it impossible for the many white liberals I find myself surrounded by day in and day out to remain passive and bear silent witness to the demonization of Muslims. In the face of legality and concrete policy, there is finally a tangible act of bigotry to which we—those of us directly affected—could turn to our white peers and say, “You in or you out?”
But on the flip-side of that I-told-you-so emotion, there was—and continues to be—an unending sadness, the gut-wrenching kind. Home is where the heart is, sure—but in the past few months, there's been uncertainty regarding whether my physical body is allowed to be there, too.
There are two of us, Iranian-Americans, at Food52, and the anxiety of it all has become almost all-consuming. There is little joy in the impending new year, but plenty of worry. The Norooz meal feels incomprehensibly small relative to worrying about the status of your parents’ citizenship, or signing over power of attorney to handle affairs after a family member passes. I can’t say we felt much relief when the ban was frozen and, more recently, when the revised order was put forth.
“He’ll find another way to make life hard,” my Iranian-American work counterpart texted me that evening: “This is a symptom of the disease.”
As someone of mixed background, perhaps I loved Norooz so much because anyone can belong—there is no barrier to entry for this holiday, just the promise of a bright year ahead sprinkled with good thoughts, good words, and good deeds (a Zoroastrian Iranian philosophy, or in Persian, “pendar-e nik, goftar-e nik, kerdar-e nik”). Norooz is marked by warm feelings and time spent paying respects to family, sentiments and actions we wish we experienced and enacted more frequently.
Before the ban, I had looked forward to returning to Iran with my dad, gathering around the table with my family, exchanging warm wishes for the New Year over slices of tachin or a heaping plateful of lubiah polo.
I can’t say I know what I’m doing for the holiday this year—even with the order revised, a trip to Iran feels risky at best. Daily life continues, and with it soon, the coming of spring. My fingers are crossed for a new beginning.
This article was written in the wake of the first executive order, issued in January. We've revised it to reflect the current revised order.
Are you celebrating Norooz this year? If so, how? Tell us in the comments below.