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New York - A dozen colorful floats - richly decorated open trailers, each pulled by a small truck and depicting historical scenes and landmarks from Iran - were waiting in a cross street on either side of Madison Avenue. Groups of young dancers in flowing costumes were practicing nervously in the street as friends and family members took photos. Marching bands rehearsed while sound operators tried out the giant speakers each float carried, producing at times a deafening cacophony.
Finally, at a few moments past noon, the Persian Parade took off. Five mounted New York City police officers, one of them a woman, rode their horses at the head of the procession. One carried an American flag. Another carried Iran's pre-Islamic Revolution flag, the same Iranian flag carried by hundreds of participants and spectators.
For the next two hours about 1,000 members of the Iranian immigrant community in the United States and Canada marched or rode slowly down this elegant avenue in the heart of New York City. Thousands of other Iranian Americans lined the route, cheering in the shadows of New York's skyscrapers.
The March 29 parade was staged in the middle of the traditional two-week period of celebration for Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Many Iranian Americans celebrate the holiday in the traditional way, with family visits and sometimes-larger festive gatherings. But for six years, a typically American way of celebrating - with a parade - has been growing in popularity.
The idea started with a married couple. Both were born in Iran but moved to the United States when they were young, and they met in their new homeland. Several years ago the two were watching a U.S.-produced Persian-language television program that showed a Nowruz celebration in a park in Montreal, Canada, with a singer and a few dancers.
"We thought we could do the same thing, but bigger," said Niki Shabnam Rezzadeh, a dentist living in New Jersey, which neighbors New York.
Her husband, Rudy Rezzadeh, a cardiologist, added that the couple thought a parade was a good way to help keep alive the culture of the large Iranian immigrant population in the United States, especially among their children born here.
"Instead of reading a book to them, I'd rather show them a small aspect of the culture," he said. "I'd like the kids to be proud of their culture."
Rudy said he feels equally attached to the cultures of the United States and Iran, but political tensions between the two countries, and misconceptions among Americans, sometimes make the immigrants' Iranian identity a burden.
"There is a lot of pain that goes with it," he said. At times of heightened tension, "people are reluctant to identify themselves as Iranian Americans" for fear of being treated with suspicion.
A similar sentiment was expressed by American-born Saba Javadi, 15, who came with her mother and older brother to watch the parade. Each year she goes with her family to spend the summer in Iran. "At school, all my friends know I'm Iranian; everyone's OK with that. But when I tell them we're going to Iran they say, 'Oh my God, isn't that dangerous? Don't they have bombs there?'"
Her mother, Iranian-born Roya Zahedi, brought the children to the parade from their home in Commack, New York, on Long Island, 45 miles away, where she works as a head bank teller. Although the family speaks Persian at home, and Zahedi often prepares Persian food, she said the parade was a welcome opportunity to acquaint her children with more aspects of Iranian culture.
Mostly, she said, the event was a joyous occasion to celebrate the Persian New Year. Nowruz, she said, "is an escape from the darkness of winter; it represents a new beginning."
New York is world-famous for its dozens of major annual parades. Among the best known are the Columbus Day Parade in October, commemorating the Italian explorer who "discovered" America for Europe in the 15th century, and the St. Patrick's Day Parade celebrating Irish-Americans. The most famous procession is Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, put on by the Macy's department store chain in November each year since 1924. Hundreds of thousands of people turn out to watch volunteers pull the parade's giant helium-filled balloons in the shape of well-known cartoon characters.
The Rezzadehs, along with a committee of like-minded Iranian Americans, organized the first Persian Parade in 2004. Staged yearly, it has grown since then. Last year's parade had a literary theme, and there were floats dedicated to the great Persian poets Ferdowsi, Omar Khayyám and Rumi.
This year's theme was Persian history, with a float dedicated to the 6th century BC emperor Cyrus the Great. A group of male students from George Mason University, in Virginia, put on displays of Varzesh-e Bastani, a type of traditional wrestling, along the parade route.
The organizers say the parade is strictly nonpolitical. Niki Rezzadeh said the only difficult decision was which version of the Iranian flag to fly at the event. The committee decided to use Iran's historic flag, featuring a lion, and not the newer flag adopted by the current Islamic Republic.
The parade ended at a park, where participants and spectators socialized while eating sandwiches and listening to Iranian pop music.
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