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Welcoming Spring, Persian Style

By Esther Agbaje, Special Correspondent,

Philadelphia museum celebrates Nowruz with family-centered activities

Philadelphia - Patrons of the Philadelphia Museum of Art recently had a chance to enjoy a taste of Persian culture to mark the Persian New Year, or Nowruz.

The all-day "Celebrate Norooz" festival March 8, hosted in cooperation with the Persian community of the greater Philadelphia area, is in its fourth year at the museum.

"This event has grown over the years," said Emily Schreiner, manager of family and children programs at the museum. In 2008, some 6,000 people participated in the museum's Nowruz activities, and Schreiner estimated the same turnout - or more - for 2009.

Parents in the Persian community said they began the annual event as a series of workshops in schools to show their American-born children what life is like in Iran. Most events by the group are simply a way to reach out to other Persians in the area and provide opportunities for them to get to know one another, but some events are more educational, like the one for Nowruz.

"Celebrate Norooz" educates all Philadelphians about a Persian tradition and provides a taste of the Persian community's culture.

"It's a very beautiful, festive, family event," said Schreiner, when asked why the museum became involved in the event four years ago. "It casts a more positive light on Persian culture than what we usually hear about in the media," she continued.

At the museum March 8, many visitors were families with young children who came to make arts and crafts connected to Nowruz, which begins on the first day of spring.

"We brought our son to the museum for the activities and for the history," said Dr. Nunee Sarkhassian. She and her husband brought their 5-year-old son to learn about the culture from central Asia.

"It was a way to spend an hour doing a fun activity, and we wanted to see the dance performance," said Hiromi Kawakami who brought her children, ages 4 and 6, to the museum for the event.

Guides were on hand to help children color in Persian rugs, decorate Nowruz eggs, and create paper haft-sin (seven "S's") tables containing items symbolizing good luck and rebirth.

The haft-sin table at the museum had more than the traditional seven items. There were decorated eggs, garlic, fragrant hyacinths and incense that drew attention. Lentil sprouts were used for one of the symbols, the sabzeh (green sprouts), and there was a large mirror and a large bowl of water with a goldfish

There were other exhibits of various aspects of Persian culture, such as a musical video tour of Iran highlighting parks, squares, and mosques all over the country.

Ramin Vassighr, a Persian community volunteer, spoke of how architecture was the second most important thing in Persian culture, after a love of poetry and literature. There was also a clip of Azerbaijani dancing that he said was fun to show children because it reminded them of break dancing.

An artistic woodworker showed his woodcarvings of Persian rugs and other images. Artistic woodworking, also known as wood inlay, is a way to decorate wood with veneer in different colors to create images and designs similar to paintings. Dr. Mustapha Shayegan had various sized paintings on display, one of a Persian rug that took two years to complete, and a chest that he made for his niece.


Visitors also learned about Parsi Zoroastrians from a presentation by the Zoroastrian Association of Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

The Parsi Zoroastrian sect migrated from Persia to India about 1,000 years ago. Members moved to India as refugees from Persia to escape religious persecution. Parsi Zoroastrians no longer have direct connections to present-day Iran, and the community has assimilated into Indian culture since the migration.

The Zoroastrian display featured their own version of the haft-sin table and other artifacts.

Other displays showcased the Zoroastrian religion and culture. One of the more eye-catching displays was of centuries-old saris. These saris are family heirlooms that are passed down. Each was fashioned with hand embroidery or hand painting from China. There were also religious texts and books of poetry on display as well as a video of a coming-of-age-ceremony for Zoroastrian children.

The biggest draw of the day was the Persian dance performance by the Silk Road Dance Company and a Philadelphia area children's dance group from Mainline Performance Arts.

The Silk Road Dance Company performed seven dances - some from Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Bukhara as well as some of Zoroastrian influence. The dances each had traditional costumes and an accompanying story.

Laurel Victoria Gray, artistic director of the Silk Road Dance Company, learned many dances from central Asia from the renowned Uzbekistan dance legend, Qizlarhon Dustmuhamedova.

Gray first met Dustmuhamedova in 1979 during the Cold War, when only cultural visits were allowed. Gray was the first American woman to learn Uzbek dances from Dustmuhamedova. Lessons and exchanges continued through Dustmuhamedova's subsequent tours to the United States and through Gray's visits to Uzbekistan and other central Asian countries.

Since then, Gray has developed dance troupes that specialize in genres of dance from this region of the world.

The Silk Road Dance Company has danced at the museum event every year, and for 2009 it performed new dances in new costumes. Each of the three shows for the 2009 festival was sold out.

The Zoroastrian dance titled "Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds" symbolized the spiritual preparation for rebirth and renewal of spring.

Dances symbolized blooming flowers, femininity and flirtatiousness, like the "Dance of the Smiling Flower." Some dances featured roses being thrown at the feet of the audience. Others symbolized budding love, when young men and women meet at the well in villages.

The children especially enjoyed the dance of the Nowruz dragon, which showered them with chocolates. The purple-headed dragon and the dancers moved through the audience as children cheered and reached for the candy.

The Nowruz dragon, a tradition developed by the museum and the Silk Road Dance Company, finds its roots in the "Caravan of Joy" often present at festivals in Tajikistan and in the story of the Persian hero Rustam, who fights a dragon.

"We simply decided to expand on this folklore and connected it to Nowruz," Gray said. "It is a big favorite!"

See also "Nowruz Event in United States Celebrates Iranian Culture."

About U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) engages international audiences on issues of foreign policy, society and values to help create an environment receptive to U.S. national interests.

... Payvand News - 04/01/09 ... --

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