Nowruz Iranian New Year Festival

I’ve never had the opportunity to experience Iranian culture before, so I was very excited to celebrate Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, for the first time this year. Since there is a large Iranian population in Southern California, there were two festivals to honor the holiday: one at UCLA in Los Angeles and the other at UCI in Irvine.

Both events were presented by the Farhang Foundation, a nonreligious, nonpolitical, and nonprofit foundation that is dedicated to celebrating Iranian art and culture for the benefit of society. I admire how inclusive and well organized the Farhang Foundation is in promoting Iranian culture and that it does so without a religious or political agenda.

The first festival I attended was at UCLA. Although we got there rather late, there was still a lot to see and enjoy. It was a large outdoor event, which is something I always love. They had a DJ, traditional Persian exhibitions, musical performances and dancers, some activities for children, and food trucks.

There was also a Haft-sîn display, which is traditionally displayed at Nowruz and is an arrangement of seven symbolic items whose names start with the letter sînin the Persian alphabet. This was my first time seeing such a display, and I found it fascinating. 

There was a brilliant performance by the Le Daf Ensemble, which consisted of a group of eight women dressed in traditional Persian attire playing dafs. A daf is a large Middle Eastern frame drum. Seeing women playing dafs was a real treat for me because usually, we see only males playing frame drums.

Unfortunately, I just caught the end of the performance, which is too bad because what little I did get to experience was fantastic, both musically and visually. And although we didn’t get the chance to attend, there was a sold-out concert, headlined by Mojgan Shajarian, at Royce Hall.

There was a variety of interesting exhibitions, including displays of art (traditional Persian drawings and paintings), an exhibit that showcased specific decorative items having to do with Nowruz, and a unique presentation that featured Barbie dolls dressed in beautiful, traditional Persian clothing, which I found quite charming because it integrated both Eastern and Western influences with modern day pop culture.

As for the food, my favorite food truck there served up a unique and delicious fusion of Asian, Mexican, and American food. They had sushi with a Mexican twist and wraps that were a combination of Mexican and Asian cuisines. Best of all for me, there were plenty of vegetarian and vegan options. 

Since we only caught the end of the Nowruz festival at UCLA, we decided to head down to Irvine to attend the Nowruz festival at UCI a couple of weeks later. I was also pleased to learn that UCI is home to the Dr. Samuel M. Jordan Center for Persian Studies & Culture. The festival at UCI was smaller than the one at UCLA, but since we got there early, there was a lot more for us to see this time.  

At the festival entrance, there was a miniature papier-mâché representation of the Freedom Sculpture. Located in Century City, the sculpture is a stainless steel gold and silver monument inspired by the Cyrus Cylinder. It was created by artist and architect Cecil Balmond and commissioned by the Farhang Foundation.

What I love most is what the sculpture represents, which is religious freedom, cultural diversity, and inclusiveness, as these ideals are extremely important to me.   

There was a lively performance by tradition ensemble the Sibarg Ensemble. After the show, I talked to Mahtab, one of the musicians. She plays the santoor, which is a hammered dulcimer or a string instrument with strings stretched over a trapezoidal shaped box. 

Mahtab told me she started out playing the xylophone, but around the age of 15, she switched to the santoor. Curious, I asked her why she switched, and she told me that not only were there already many others learning the xylophone, but she wanted to learn more about her Persian heritage, so she felt it was important to learn to play a traditional instrument from her own culture instead. 

Mahtab, who lives in Texas, plays both traditional and modern music, and like me, loves to fuse the two musical styles together. She hopes to collaborate more with musicians who play Western instruments and already has performed with a violinist and flutist to much success.

As a singer/songwriter who is passionate about the blending of traditional and modern instruments and music, I was incredibly touched to hear that Mahtab also yearns to do the same. I let her know that her efforts were very much appreciated and how happy I am that she’s bringing her incredible culture and music to modern audiences.

There was also a lovely Persian tea ceremony with Iranian tea and a beautiful spread of tasty desserts. As someone who loves desserts, as well as exploring foods from different cultures, I was thrilled. And best of all, it was free. In charge of the ceremony were two women dressed in traditional Iranian attire. I had an interesting chat with one of the ladies, who was happy to explain how each of the desserts was made.

One of the desserts I sampled was the jalebi, also known as zulbia. A popular dessert in both Iran and the Indian subcontinent, jalebi is made by deep-frying maida flour batter in pretzel or circular shapes, which are then soaked in sugar syrup.  I found the Persian version to be lighter and flakier than the Indian version, to which I’m more accustomed.  I also had the tea, of course, and it was so delicious that I had a second cup.

Walking around the festival was a group of women in beautiful traditional attire. I was instantly captivated by their elaborate, colorful dresses and stopped to talk to one of the women. Her name was Robin Friend, and she is the director of the Institute of Persian Performing Arts and has a Ph.D. in Iranian languages and cultures from UCLA. A sought-after performer and teacher, Robin told me that she made the traditional attire she was wearing with modern fabric but using a traditional pattern and techniques.

Noticing all the gold coins on their headdresses and vests, I asked Robin about their significance. She told me that in the Persian culture the coins represent luck and prosperity and that women wore them to show their wealth and standing, so although the headdresses and vests can get quite heavy, the more coins a woman wears, the better.  

I mentioned to Robin that I had just tried a Persian dessert that was very similar to a dessert from India. Robin went on to share with me how both Persian and Indian cultures are indeed similar and have many things in common, including a cuisine that uses exotic spices and a celebratory musical style. Also, both societies greatly value personal accomplishment, higher education, and success.

Attending not one, but two Nowruz festivals this year was not only a lot of fun but a great way to learn more about Iran and its people. I am grateful for the Farhang Foundation’s efforts to share Iran’s rich heritage so that others can experience their beautiful culture here in America.

It’s my hope that other cultural organizations will follow the Farhang Foundation’s lead so that we get the opportunity to learn about their traditions and heritage, too.