Iranian Americans find ways to mark Nowruz far from large communities
Washington - "Uncle Nowruz" is alive and well and living near Tampa, Florida.
For most of the year, Alexander Radfar, 58, leads a quiet life. He and his wife have a home in Lutz, Florida, with their two children, ages 19 and 16.
But in the Iranian-American community of the Tampa area, Radfar has an important role to play as spring arrives and hundreds of millions of people around the world -from Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and other parts of central Asia - celebrate the new year with the spring equinox, which falls on March 20 this year for most of the world. In the United States, the largest Iranian-American communities organize parades down Madison Avenue in New York and up Dearborn Avenue in Chicago; puppet shows at a children's festival near Los Angeles; and a Persian bazaar and folk dancers at a festival in Houston.
The Tampa area's Iranian-American community is smaller, but Nowruz is no less important. If anything, say those who live far from the biggest concentrations of Iranian Americans, Nowruz is all the more important when they and their children have fewer ways to reinforce their Persian culture.
Radfar is part of that. Dressed each year as Uncle Nowruz, he attends the community's big celebration - 600 to 800 people, he said. Along with the sit-down dinner, the dancing and the disc jockey, Uncle Nowruz comes with his bag of gold - gold-colored coins - and gives the money to children, wishing them luck for the new year.
"This is just to keep the culture alive in the children," Radfar said.
Alexander Radfar has been "Uncle Nowruz" for the Iranian-American
community of Tampa, Florida, for about 20 years.
On the 13th day of the new year, Uncle Nowruz is back in action. On a day when Iranians traditionally have a picnic in the park or wherever they can find a patch of green, Radfar is dressed in costume again, this time armed with cookies or candies.
"We go to the state park, and I go from shelter to shelter and give them a sweet and wish them a sweet and healthy new year, whether they're American or Cuban or whatever," he said.
On the eve of the last Wednesday of the year - the Zoroastrian fire festival, Chaharshanbe Suri - Radfar celebrates less publicly but no less enthusiastically. He builds a fire in his yard and invites friends over to leap over the flames, exchanging their winter pallor and the old year's illnesses for ruddy cheeks and good health in the new year. "I'm going with all the fire department codes, with the fire extinguisher and the water hose," he said. "I want to follow the 3,000-year-old tradition so my children understand it."
Not every Iranian American does as much for Nowruz. Ramin, who asked that his last name not be published, said his town of Spartanburg, South Carolina, has a very small group of Iranian Americans, but Greenville, a larger city about 20 miles (32 kilometers) away, has a much bigger population, about 100 families, which he said is enough for a good Nowruz party.
Ramin said the age of his children - 2 and 3 - limits what he and his wife can do. "If you come to our house, it's more like a war zone," he said. Nonetheless, he said, "on Saturday morning, we're going to try to put a haft seen table together," referring to the traditional display of symbols of the season.
The Nowruz celebration will mean a traditional dish of fish, rice and vegetables around the time of the equinox (early afternoon in South Carolina), and then a chance to rest before the community party at night, Ramin said.
Highland, Utah, doesn't have enough Iranian Americans for much of a party. "I don't have anyone with the exception of my parents," said Iraj Partovi.
Partovi moved to the city of about 8,000 people five years ago for a job with a telecommunications company, but he did not leave Nowruz behind. He and his family celebrate in ways that Ramin in South Carolina, Radfar in Florida and anyone in Tehran would recognize.
For Chaharshanbe Suri, he built a fire, as he does every year. "The idea is that, spiritually and physically, they're trying to start anew," he said.
The family will have a haft seen table, and Nowruz will bring visits with family and some friends. The disputes of the previous year are forgiven and forgotten. People tell stories. And his children, a 20-year-old daughter and 18-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, get another taste of their culture.
"For me, it is important for my kids to know what they are, not just what they see in the media," Partovi said. "A lot of good stuff has been preserved, and I'm proud of it."
Partovi said his children's attitudes toward their culture have changed as they have grown and learned to be part of mainstream America. "In the beginning, my kids, they didn't see their friends doing these things" and felt different. "But they came to love it, and now if we don't do something, they miss it," he said.
His children have come to appreciate the traditions of their friends, too. "That's the great thing about America. People here come from all over the planet, and it is a country of immigrants," he said. "To me, I think they are richer because they learn to be part of the mainstream, but it doesn't necessarily conflict with what they love from their culture."
On the 13th day of the new year, Partovi and his family will go to a picnic that draws 300 to 400 people from a scattered Iranian-American community. He has about an hour's drive, he said; "some people, they come from Wyoming," the nearest state to the northeast.
"The turnout is pretty good for the size of the population here," he said. "I was surprised."
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