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Sofreh Nazr - An Iranian Shia Tradition


By Syma Sayyah, Tehran


I had not been to a Sofreh for a long time and then I was invited to three different Sofreh-e-Nazr ceremonies in one week, all held by second cousins of mine.  All of them are traditional westernized Iranian families.[1]


Sofreh is a Persian word which technically means spread but when used in conversation it means a cloth, simple or grand, usually spread on the floor on top of the carpet, on which food is served, and nazr means a wish or a vow which one makes with God.



There are at least two other types of Sofreh that I know of.  The Sofreh-e Haft-Sin celebrates the coming of the Norouz or New Year.  It is one of oldest Iranian traditions left to us from Zoroastrian times.  This sofreh is displayed from about a week before the new year until 13 days afterwards and has seven items which start with letter S in Persian (such as apple-sib, vinegar-serkeh, garlic-sirr, coin-sekeh etc.) plus the book of prayer, a mirror, some sabzeh-grass which families grow specially for the Norouz and a few goldfish swimming in a small bowl among many other things.



Another type is the Sofr-e-aghd.  When a couple in Iran choose to marry traditionally, then one of the most important parts of this tradition is that they make their vows sitting at the edge of their sofreh-aghd, which is spread on the floor. At the top of the sofreh there is a large mirror and two large candle sticks placed to the sides of the mirror which the bride later takes to her new home, and this set is considered a very important symbolic item.  There are many other items on the sofreh including nun sangak (a large size brown flat bread), nuts, honey and empty egg shells all beautifully decorated, and a small stool for the bride and groom to sit on in front of the Koran, for their marriage vows to be made.  There are many people, mostly ladies who are specialized in preparing sofreh-aghd and it is now a very serious business.  I have seen many wonderful sofreh-aghd in my time and the best that I remember was for my younger sister Mina’s wedding 27 years ago, as she has such a beautiful and grand taste.





The Sofreh-nazr is a religious tradition among Iranian Shia women and brings the ladies attending a sense of comfort, togetherness and sharing. Only women attend these ceremonies which some believe is a ritual left to us from our Zoroastrian ancestors.  . 

Prayers are made to God through one of the imams. Hazrate Abul Fazl (the half brother of Imam Hossein who was very brave and suffered great pains and like Imam Hossein was a martyr in Kabala) and Imam Hassan the second Shia Imam (who was a very patient, thoughtful and peace loving imam) are the two most common holy and pious ones in whose name sofrehs are held. By the way many items on Imam Hassan’s sofreh are traditionally green, sometimes including the food offered.  I was told by a friend that those who make a wish to Hazrate Abul Fazl are usually granted their wishes quickly.





A women will make a  nazr when she has an important wish or request to be fulfilled and then she makes a vow with God that if her wish comes true (hajatt is granted) she will hold a sofreh ceremony in the name of the imam or pious one in whose name the vow was made.  It is then that women are invited to the sofreh.  By tradition friends, family and neighbors are invited to share this event.  The hostess prepares more fruit, nuts and food than is needed as it is given to the guests to take away and to share with their family who could not be there.  It is strongly believed among the great majority of people that the food, fruits, nuts at a sofreh-nazr are blessed and can bring goodness, and many while eating it will make a nazr (wish) themselves so the tradition continues.  Also if you help during such a ceremony it is believed that your own wishes may come true sooner and better.





The ceremony usually takes place in the afternoon to end with dinner or in the morning to end with lunch.  It starts with reciting some prayers.  Usually there are booklets with the prayers in Arabic that are offered to guests who wish to read them, although I was amazed that many knew the verses by heart.  A lady (khanoum) who can read the Koran and Arabic prayers well leads the prayers and often receives a donation which they may use for charity.





At the end of the ceremonies usually prayers are said in Persian for the souls of all loved ones, and for the wellbeing of those who are ill, as well for the hostess and her family.  I was surprised that in the three sofreh that I attended, they also prayed for the young to stay on the straight and narrow path, and to find employment.  Finally prayers were said seeking God and his holy believers’ help for all present to stay pious, healthy and good.




A sofreh can be simple or very elaborate.  Contrary to what may be believed, it is common among rich and poor alike, it is just that those who are better off invite more guests and have a bigger and more elaborate sofreh in terms of decorations or types of food served. 





Generally one can expect to have some Aash or soup.  Halva is also served, which is made of special flour, sugar and saffron.  Bread, cheese, and greens are put there as well as fruits and nuts (ajile moshgell gosha) which are put in small satin cases and are given to each guest to take home with them.  Afterwards food is served which may be something simple or rich.


I have a few pictures from the sofreh that I would like to share with you.

[1] I have divided Iranian society for myself. Traditional/modern, westernized/non-westernized, professional/non-professional among other things


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