There was talk of the war in Iraq and concerns about loved ones back home, but there was more chatter about unseasonably warm weather and good food Sunday during a festival in Thousand Oaks marking the final day of the Persian New Year.
Thousands of Iranian Americans, some from as far away as San Diego and Orange counties, converged on picturesque Conejo Creek Park in Thousand Oaks for Sezdeh Bedar, the last event in a two-week celebration that started March 20 with Norouz, the new year.
"It is our biggest celebration and it's something we always do outdoors," said Pari Daneshina, president of a Ventura County Iranian club.
A crowd of similar size gathered in Irvine to feast, dance and catch up with old friends. There, too, tradition took precedence over politics.
"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 because it's culturally very strong."
In Thousand Oaks, parking lots surrounding the Janss Road park were jammed by noon, and scores of the estimated 15,000 attendees walked several blocks to reach the grassy expanse, where the aroma of sizzling meat kebabs and traditional Iranian setar music filled the air.
Crouched by a small charcoal barbecue where he was tending to skewers of beef strips and plump red tomatoes, Bijaa Yaghoobiaa said he supports the invasion of Iraq and believes Saddam Hussein needs to be removed from power.
"This man is very bad news and has been very bad to anybody and everybody around him," said the 45-year-old wholesale computer executive from Calabasas. "He's a waste of time."
Janice Boafo strolled toward a group of Iranian dancers with her 6-year-old son, Mecca, and friend, Sheila Honarbakht of Aliso Viejo. Boafo said she supports the U.S. troops but strongly 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, also from Calabasas.
Honarbakht, a 26-year-old children's clothing saleswoman who has several family members still living in Iran, agreed and expressed concern about how her fellow Americans view Iranians here and abroad.
"We hate Saddam and want him gone too," she said.
Many older-generation Iranians at the festival expressed strong support for the war while their younger counterparts spoke of attending recent peace rallies in Ventura and Los Angeles counties. And many people at the festival didn't want to talk about the war at all.
Carmit Zur, 24, of Los Angeles stood in the 85-degree weather and handed out literature from a nonprofit group that advocates a ban against toy guns for children. "They look very real and send the wrong message to children," she said but declined to comment on the war.
Some festival-goers -- many with large, extended families that have lived in the United States for decades -- sprawled on colorful blankets and napped throughout the day while others sipped noodle soup, played volleyball and swayed to the sounds of live drum music. Most planned to stay until sunset.
There was a large police presence in both Thousand Oaks and Irvine to handle traffic and parking but also to protect the guests from any possible trouble.
"Obviously, we were worried about anyone wanting to do them any harm," said Ventura County Sheriff's Capt. Bill Flannigan. No problems were reported in either city.
Times staff writer David Reyes contributed to this report.