Middle Eastern

Why This Norooz Won't (& Can't) Be Like Other Years

March 13, 2017

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.

Photo by James Ransom

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.

The Norooz meal feels incomprehensibly small relative to worrying about the status of your parents’ citizenship.

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.

42 Comments

Transcendancing March 24, 2017
*love* My heart breaks for everyone in fear at this point with so much that is horrible going on. Thank you for sharing a little of your reality with us, all of us - even those of us who don't appreciate your candour. Sure this is a food and recipe site, but food is a part of life, culture and the everyday - these things don't exist inside a political vacuum, and nor would I want them to. Thank you, and I'm sorry it's so horrible. I want so much for it to be better and I'm doing what I can in small ways.
 
Andrea S. March 22, 2017
Thank you for your post. Food and culture go hand in hand. I'm so sorry that you have been impacted by such narrow-mindedness of the current administration and I commend you for telling your story. I too hope for a new beginning and the coming of spring. I wish you well!
 
Namedafteradesert March 20, 2017
I feel very much the same way, and some of these comments are disheartening. I haven't been to Iran since I was born there, but norooz this year feels different because I am too afraid to even set up a haft seen on the table by the kitchen window (I have a nosy neighbor who makes it known she doesn't like middle easterners or muslims (she'll mistake it for a muslim custom). I don't like responding to "where is your name from" questions anymore. I am getting married soon and my family is too scared or can't make it to the US due to the ban, so they won't be there. I've also re planned my honeymoon abroad numerous times due to the ban (and I am a citizen). My life has changed dramatically since November. I don't feel like celebrating at all.
 
Molly E. March 18, 2017
I have celebrated Norooz (one of the spellings) for a long time...even though it is not my original culture. I see the new beginnings as essential (especially now in these difficult political times. I celebrate each year by writing a poem representing the new beginning; the good thoughts, good words, and good deeds that come with new beginnings. The renewal of the Mother. For a while (at least) it will happen every year.
 
Jamie March 16, 2017
I don't think it's really up to us as readers to decide what should and shouldn't be posted to this site. That is Food52's role - it is their site after all.
 
fur8elise March 17, 2017
True.
 
Gayle C. March 15, 2017
Thank you for writing this and thank you for your courage.
 
G March 15, 2017
I have been a long time follower of this website, and honestly I just enjoyed the pure escapism of it. It was such an oasis, until I read the comments on this article and I think my blissful period of ignoring reality just ended. Granted, in the face of everything that is going on this article sounds shallow, entitled and actually the effect of it upon the reader is counter the purpose the writer must have had. Even an Iranian reader, sitting in Tehran such as me. But the comments chill me. The reason Iranians around you become petrified, is not the travel ban per se. It's because as middle-easterners we recognise it as a prelude to something much worse. And it seems to me that the majority among ordinary Americans are oblivious. And worse they don't wish to bother themselves. Among the comments here, there are the people who become offended about something "political" being posted here, then there is the Iranian émigrée who basically says let's go to war with Iran, and set them "free" she's the quintessential example of everything that is wrong with our contemporary culture, her kind of thinking caused so much strife in so many directions that only someone like C.G. Jung found expand on it articulately, and then there are others who live in this fantasy land where nothing penetrates. Ladies and gentleman, excuse me for disturbing your food fantasies, please tell me, did they finally find the weapons of mass destruction? Didn't they admit that there were none? Tony Blair actually came out and apologised! How about you take everything that's being said to you with a grain of salt? I'm not saying iranian government is anything to write home about. Trust me these past 37 years have not been fun and giggles here. But we don't need your brand of help. We really do NOT! Also if we Iranians are among the biggest threats to the western civilization, please, please tell someone tell me why there were no Iranians in any of the terrorist attacks around the world in the past 16 years? Weren't they mostly Saudis and Pakistanis? The funding sources were also traced back to both these countries too, weren't they? Both of these facts are according to American news sources. So please tell me why aren't they in the travel ban? Explain it to me, someone please! And I assure you I'm not becoming hysterical over this because I'm dying to come to America. My dream destination is Lake Como. I'm becoming hysterical because this is the American M O when you are marking your next target to invade. And you invade. You attack. You shed blood. You make orphans. You destroy homes. You destroy. You burn. And you do it so politely. You don't touch the real centers of terrorist threats. Who knows why. And everyone walks on eggshells around you when socially conversing because we don't wish to offend you or set you off, or it's so rude to point out how atrociously bad you are at geography and history, or it's politically incorrect, or just plain rude. Or when I become agitated I stutter, so I smile and swallow. Well it's very rude to attack countries on, literally the other side of the globe. It's inconsiderate and rude and inhumane. Your government is doing this for oil. And because you want to sell your weapons. And the prospect of it all is so scary at the brink of what should be the start of a new Persian year, that food fantasy just isn't cutting it anymore. They say you can wake up a sleeping man but you can't wake a man who's pretending to be asleep.
 
Karine A. March 15, 2017
Well Said
 
Shelley S. March 15, 2017
This is a web site about food and recipes and political commentary has no place here. I thank you for your lovely recipes but I am horrified by your moaning. You may not have noticed that a good portion of the horrors in the world right now are enacted by Muslims. If your heart were really here (you yourself admit it isn't), you and the many millions of "good Muslims" would be protesting the killings and destruction and the "them" (white) against "us" (Persians) mentality you obviously share.
 
fur8elise March 15, 2017
Tom and Panthea, your points are well composed and spoken, and I agree wholeheartedly. The printed word can be misleading, as we can't see facial expressions, hear inflections, see body language, etc., but I read a lot of arrogance and privilege between the lines. There are many forums for contentious political discussion. I would rather look for recipes in an atmosphere that wouldn't contribute to dyspepsia. Do all Americans fit under the label of "white people"? And, btw, my Persian friends consider themselves "white".
 
Tom March 15, 2017
Zoe, need to get the facts straight. Not a Muslum ban. Six countries that the Obama administration identified as being dangerous to the United States. The ban is for 90 days. We are under no obligation to let anyone into this country anymore than you are obligated to let anyone into your home. Can I assume that you probably lock your doors at night. I truly sympathize with any inconvenience caused to you, your family and friends. However, it's the presidents job to keep us all safe, and if that means keeping a few people from coming here for 90 days so we can get a handle on the situation. Finally, I have really enjoyed this site until today, this will be my last visit.
 
Caroline W. March 15, 2017
Zoe,my heart breaks for you,your family, all those affected by this ban,but as you and others say,if not this,then something else,as it reflects the attitudes of some people. And,although they may seem to be a minority,they are powerful,as they can and do feed on fear,mis information,anger,poverty...I live in Ireland,a lovely place,lovely,friendly folks,but even here, one is never really "belonging",even after over 20 years. I don't know what the answer is..but my love goes out to you..and a thank you for the wonderful recipes
 
Karen March 15, 2017
"Horrified," Terri, at this very civil discussion? Shouldn't that term be reserved for actual crimes against women and children, for example, which are all too frequent in this world? This is mere freedom of speech (which we are fortunate to have in America, unlike Iran.) And if separating politics from food is "disgraceful," then most families these days who try to keep the peace over celebratory family meal are no doubt guilty. After all, our country is divided almost 50-50 on politics, like it or not. That is why I still think we should leave politics to the plethora of alternative venues available to all of us. Otherwise, we will spoil this site for about half the country.
 
Louisa S. March 14, 2017
Thanks Zoe for sharing your thoughts so honestly. This is a very unsettling and upsetting time. May we all rise to the occasion and find our strength, we're going to need it. Wishing you and your family a happy Norooz and all good things in the new year.
 
Shari M. March 14, 2017
Our love of food is why we come to Food 52, and what brings us together. As Americans and supporters of democracy we must come together and speak out about the injustices that are being perpetrated by our current administration. America is a nation built by and of immigrants. We cannot ignore what is being done to our citizens, our country, our women, our environment, our government.
 
Cathie D. March 14, 2017
Thank you for enlarging Food 52 boundaries and allowing a real voice and real experiences on the site. I appreciated this reflection, saddening as it may be. We may be bakers but I don't feel the need to live in a fake Betty Crocker feel-good world.
 
terri March 14, 2017
To those posters who wish for this site to remain apolitical, a safe haven to which we can escape from the realities of the world around us: that sentiment is a luxury, and those days are over. We need to hear to hear voices like Zoe's — she is a real person living in the world beside us. Yes, this is a website about food, but it is impossible to separate food from politics in the face of all that is happening. To try to do so is at best naive and at worst disgraceful. I am horrified by some of the comments I've read here., and by the judgment of some posters, who suggest that, "when life gives (us) lemons" that perhaps Zoe should be forced to drink more lemonade than the rest of us. I thank the writer for sharing her personal experience, one that should not to my mind cause controversy. Zoe's story is not so different than any of ours, except for its telling at this moment in history.
 
Karen March 14, 2017
Unfortunately, we are bombarded from every direction with politics and political viewpoints these days. I understand that reality, and I sympathize with anyone who can't visit family, but one of the things I have so enjoyed about this site (in addition to the recipes, tips and comments about food) is that it has until now seemed an oasis from the tensions generated by our disparate political viewpoints. I have friends who would agree with Zoe and friends who would quibble with where she lays the blame for her sadness. Why, though, do we need to introduce these differences into a forum such as this? This is about food, is it not? Can't we all just find common ground in that and not let politics creep into the mix?
 
fur8elise March 16, 2017
Like.
 
Barbara T. March 14, 2017
I joined this site (food52.com) for recipes and foods i may be unable to get unless I make it. I did not join for politics, when I want politics I go elsewhere, not at this site. would love it to stay foods and such!! Thank You!!
 
L. C. March 14, 2017
How much more enjoyable could this article have been if the author had shared memories her past Norooz celebrations with us? How uplifting could it have been to read about her "American" celebration with her adopted "American" friends and family this year? How many of us have found ourselves estranged, not by our own choosing, from family and friends during a holiday and still found ways to celebrate and share our traditions with others? How many new traditions and bonds were created in the process of sharing? Zoe instead of mourning what cannot be, find joy in what can. To quote a proverbial phrase, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade". I wish you happiness in the new year.
 
PunkPosh March 14, 2017
Thanks so much for sharing, Zoe. Hope that you and your family will be able to visit your relatives in Iran soon and be able to return home without all of this political mess hanging over you! And I hope you can find some comfort and joy this Norooz. Thanks again.