Where to start with this festival?
Do you head straight to the food, as so many were doing Saturday afternoon? Do you stop and admire the art and photos of classic Persian architecture just inside the entrance? Or do you go to the performance area, where you can learn traditional Persian dances or smoke hookah nearby?
Wherever you go at the 14th annual Mehregan festival in Irvine, there's something to admire and learn about a culture that many visitors said is misrepresented by the media and overshadowed by the hard-line politics of today's Iranian leaders.
"With our lunatic president people think we're all like this," said Yassmin Manauchehri of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"This is truly as close as possible to what the culture stands for," said Anoosheh Oskouian, a board member of the Network of Iranian American Professionals of Orange County. "It's like the Oktoberfest of other cultures, celebrating autumn."
The Mehregan festival is the Persian Festival of Autumn, one of the ancient Persia's most important holidays celebrating among other things, good over evil, love, knowledge and commitment.
This year's theme recognizes poet Ferdowsi, who more than 1,000 years ago began documenting all things Persia — considered today's Iran — from the heroes and kings to its artwork and literature.
Up to 25,000 people are expected to visit the weekend event. Iranian's also celebrate Norooz in the spring, the Persian New Year.
Parts of the festival are geared toward the younger generation, first- or second-generation Iranians who haven't been able to revisit their roots in the Middle East. Several universities including UC Irvine have set up booths for people to sign up for Persian clubs or community groups.
"You can experience the culture without the politics," said Sara Zare of Los Angeles. "The best people know is once upon a time there was a Persian empire. All they hear is stereotypes. [But] they're people, civilized people with their own culture, dance, food and so on."
Sunday's events will include several dance competitions showing the expanse of the culture, including traditional Afghan and Kurdish performers. There are also a dozen tents representing the different provinces of Iran, each with unique artifacts and clothes from that province.
The Mehregan festival runs from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. at Lakeside Lagoon Park, 8800 Irvine Center Drive in Irvine.