Iranian Americans gathered by the thousands in Irvine and Thousand Oaks on Sunday to celebrate the Persian New Year -- an annual tradition that participants vowed to enjoy despite war in the Middle East.
"This is a day of celebration," said Reza Goharzad, a Los Angeles writer who was among an estimated 15,000 who gathered at William R. Mason Regional Park in Irvine. "We are not ignoring the war, but Iran has had its invaders -- from Genghis Khan to Saddam Hussein -- and this celebration has survived."
A crowd of similar size gathered in Ventura County, where thousands converged on picturesque Conejo Creek. Police reported no trouble at either event.
In Irvine, the gathering has been a spring tradition for more than 15 years, attracting Iranian families from throughout Southern California for feasting, dancing and catching up with old friends.
Among those enjoying the day was Mohammad Bahmani, who owns a gas station in Anaheim. Members of his group were among the more outgoing celebrators, clapping hands and dancing to the beat of Persian music. "This is what new year is all about," Bahmani declared.
All the same, he acknowledged the shadow of concern cast by the war.
"I was just in Iran four days ago visiting my family," Bahmani said. "People are so worried about the war that I couldn't feel the new year."
Others had similar feelings, noting that anger against Hussein remains strong after a bloody war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s.
"Because of the war, Iranian Americans are in a duality right now," said Hossein Hosseini, a member of the Network of Iranian-American Professionals of Orange County. "We believe that Saddam is getting just what he deserves.... Yet we also are concerned for the Iraqi people, the civilians who may be injured."
Farrokh Shadab, a Fountain Valley pediatrician who helped found the Iranian Cultural Center of Orange County, said he supports the war as a means to "eliminate fanaticism and fanatics in the Middle East." He blamed the U.S., in part, for making concessions to Islamic leaders to help combat the spread of communism and then leaving "these anti-communist fanatics like Saddam alone, unchecked."
Some expressed opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. At the Thousand Oaks gathering, Janice Boafo said she supports U.S. troops but disagrees with the decision to go to war.
"We built that monster [Saddam Hussein] by giving him financial and political assistance, and I believe there were other ways to take him out instead of invading Iraq," said Boafo, an escrow specialist from Calabasas.
Despite concerns about the war and welfare of loved ones in the Middle East, there was plenty of chatter at the two celebrations about ordinary things: the unseasonably warm weather, good food and age-old new year traditions.
For many young women, the occasion holds a promise of marriage. It is customary at the beginning of the new year to knot two blades of grass together. As the grass grows and the knot comes apart, it's a sign that marriage is likely.
Shiva Naby, 17, of Yorba Linda said she would rather not participate in that tradition because it's too soon for her to think about marriage. But Cassandra Atchison, a 28-year-old single mother from Crestline, had no such reservations. "I'm ready!" she said.
To a degree, participants said, the Mason Park gathering is a victim of its own success. In past years it has drawn as many as 30,000 people, forcing families to park at nearby schools and churches and then lug heavy picnic equipment half a mile or more. As a result, many Iranian Americans in the Los Angeles area have elected to attend celebrations elsewhere.
Times staff writer Holly J. Wolcott contributed to this report.