Nowruz in the Time of Coronavirus
This year, a holiday that celebrates spring and renewal is more necessary than ever.
No table was set this year. The lentil sprouts were not grown in a dish, the eggs remained raw and unpainted, the sweet wheat germ pudding wasn’t cooked, and plans for family feasts were cancelled. The most I managed was lighting a few candles, making calls to Iran and Los Angeles to exchange well wishes and worries, and a promise to myself to cook a comforting childhood favorite made with eggs and herbs.
This is what celebrating Nowruz during a global pandemic looks like. Nowruz means "New Day," a tradition that has lived on for over three thousand years in the face of collapsing empires, calamity, war, new borders—and now a devastating virus that has brought the world to a halt. Restaurants are shuttered, hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs, and hospitals around the globe are rapidly filling up with people fighting for their lives. It’s hard to be in the mood for celebrations.
Rooted in Zoroastrian traditions, Nowruz is often called 'Persian New Year," but celebrated by many diverse ethnic and religious communities who hail from the Asian continent. This includes my family, ethnic Armenians from Iran, who left the country as refugees in the waning days of the Iran-Iraq war and started anew in the U.S. Overnight, we became part of the Iranian and Armenian diasporas that span the globe, holding on to the lives we once lived while attempting to create new ones.
Lasting for two weeks, Nowruz commemorates the vernal equinox. It ushers in the spring, and is a nod to rebirth and renewal. It's a tradition rooted in celebration, abundance, and one of the oldest manifestations of the adage, "This too shall pass."
Much of the holiday centers around the "Haft Sin," a table that holds at least seven things that begin with the Persian letter "sin." Each has a deep, spiritual meaning. Some of these items include lentil sprouts for rebirth, vinegar for patience and wisdom, and garlic for health. Colored eggs represent fertility, a mirror symbolizes reflection on the past, and coins are included for prosperity. Sometimes a holy book is present, often the Book of Divinations by Hafez, a revered 14th-century Persian poet.
Growing up, I remember my mother reading from Hafez's book, her painted red nails skimming the pages filled with divinations, the shimmering gold coins and live goldfish on the Haft Sin table at an aunt’s house, how I watched lentils soaking under tissue for days in the kitchen, impatiently waiting for the first signs of life, and the visits to family for elaborate meals and the welcoming of another year into our lives.
Last year, away from family and seeking to learn more about the tradition, I sought to recreate those scenes, and set to work on assembling an elaborate Haft Sin table. I diligently acquired almost every item ahead of time, made wheat germ pudding from scratch, and dyed eggs with red onion skins, a traditional method often used in Armenian households for Easter. Unable to find gold coins, I used tokens from Chuck E. Cheese's, etched with the pizza rat’s face on one side, and the tagline "where a kid can be a kid" on the other.
Our new reality in the time of coronavirus didn’t allow for this kind of care, nor the nuance of incorporating my multi-faceted identity. As the virus began spreading, city governments ordered lockdowns, emails from businesses shuttering their doors poured in, and social distancing became the new normal. The debilitating panic and anxiety crept in, leaving no room to properly plan for Nowruz.
When I called my mom, she said she never imagined her children would be experiencing something like this. I spent the first few years of my childhood in-and-out of a basement bomb shelter with her and extended family members, and this collective moment was bringing back memories of those difficult days for her. But somehow it felt worse. At least back then, she said, we knew where the danger could come from.
As Coronavirus cases surged, Iran, impacted by U.S. sanctions that have prevented access to medical supplies, has struggled to cope. This week, as fresh sanctions were imposed, Iran’s health ministry announced one person is dying from the Coronavirus every 10 minutes.
This devastating news, coupled with constant updates of the growing pandemic everywhere, had a visible effect on Nowruz celebrations. In the midst of the anxiety the virus caused, the New Year took on somber, profound, and even humorous meanings in the Iranian diaspora. Without access to supplies thanks to social distancing rules enacted to slow down infections, Nowruz observers shared their last minute, makeshift Haft Sin tables, assembled with as many items they could find in the house, while others got creative, turning the table into an enviable art project or a hilarious take on cleanliness as panic buying swept the country. Unable to celebrate together, families arranged meetings on Zoom and FaceTime, and shared screenshots on social media.
I called my family in Iran several hours after the spring equinox and spoke to my octogenarian great aunt, quarantined and unable to travel outdoors for fear of becoming infected. Please keep calling, she said. Call often. We had arranged to meet each other in Armenia this spring, plans that were now cancelled.
After I hung up, I took out ingredients to make Kuku Sabzi, an herb and egg Persian frittata that’s eaten for Nowruz. One year, my mom had cut and securely packed the herbs in my sister’s suitcase to bring to me. This year, I was on my own. As the greens simmered on the stove, they offered a humble path to welcoming the New Year, even in less than ideal conditions.
We need rituals to feel human, to feel normal, to anchor us to the ground when things fall apart. In times of crisis, performing ceremonies that tie you to your roots, to a place, and give you a sense of balance are crucial to well being. We needed Nowruz more than ever, to let us know that things can always change, that life can persist in the face of the unimaginable, and that warmth and joy, though delayed, will always arrive.