Aresh Javadi had not yet begun to start the first of three fires at sundown, when the NYFD truck showed up. “People think we’re setting the whole town on fire, but we’re celebrating,” says Javadi, 52.
Over a hundred people had arrived at El Jardin del Paraiso, a community garden on East 4th Street. They were celebrating Chaharshanbe Suri, which loosely translates to “Red Wednesday,” a traditional fire festival held every year on the eve of the last Wednesday before Persian New Year, Nowruz, which starts this Sunday on the vernal equinox. And part of the fun is building big bonfires and jumping over the flames.
“Usually, we just do it, and nobody minds,” says Javadi, who began organizing the festival in New York nearly two decades ago. An educator and environmental activist, Javadi started by introducing the tradition to his tight-knit arts community, and it eventually expanded to include people from all over New York. But a couple of hours after the NYFD left, the festival continued with the eventual lighting of a single bonfire.
The ritual, dating to 1700 BC, has roots in ancient Persia and the Zoroastrian religion, but is observed by various ethnic communities, from Central and South Asia to Turkey and Albania. Though it may have pagan overtones, the flames from the fires symbolize enlightenment and starting anew. While leaping over the flames, participants chant: Sorkhi-ye to az man; Zardi-ye man az to (your fiery red color is mine, my sickly yellow pallor is yours) as a purification rite to receive warmth, energy, and good health in the coming year. “That’s what we’re here to celebrate, the coming of Spring, our shared humanity, love, and compassion with each other,” Javadi says.
Despite the firemen’s leeriness, Persian society is everywhere in the city. There are tens of thousands of people of Persian descent living in the New York area, yet people are more likely to associate Iran with trade sanctions than its cultural imports. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen this many Persians,” says Samantha Meadows, a Brooklyn resident who came to the festival with her boyfriend, Farris Hassan. “I just moved here from Texas, and you won’t see anything like this in Texas!”
“We’re native New Yorkers, and we’ve never heard of Chaharshanbe Suri,” says Gemma Inguanta, 25, who attended the festival with her twin sister, Victoria. Their friend Jasmin Tabatabaee invited them. “We grew up on Long Island with a lot of Indian friends, and Egyptian, but not many Persians — and nothing as far as Persian-related events. So this is a first.”
Along with hopscotching over open fires, the festivities include live music, dancing, and an abundance of foods, from mixtures of dried nuts and fruits to soups and Iranian desserts.
Javadi hopes next year’s festival will grow in size, and have permit-approved fires. He also plans to urge city officials to attend and take part in the ancient Persian tradition, with hopes to broaden understanding of the cultural significance behind the celebration.
“It’s true, it’s very weird. But it’s only because we’re far from nature,” he says. “How weird is it to live in an apartment that’s as big as a box and not know who your neighbor is? This is about enjoying life, nature, and seeing the earth and the stars.”