Shadia: Celebrating Persian new year in CdM

'Twas the night before the last Wednesday of the year — pretty much Tuesday, bear with me.

It was a night when families and friends gather 'round the fire, sharing food, drinks and desserts, welcoming in the new year with open arms, happy thoughts and warm wishes.

They sing and dance. And they jump over the fire, which is believed to inhale away the yellow color of illness and sadness and replace it with the red color of flames, which symbolizes health and wellness in all aspects.

Sounds ancient and non-Western, doesn't it?

It is.

And it all went down Tuesday night at Corona del Mar State Beach, and I was in the middle of it. And judging from the City Council's Tuesday decision to remove the storied fire rings, it could be the last celebration I attend in CdM.

Chaharshanbeh Soori, or the Festival of Fire, is an ancient Persian tradition that dates to the Zoroastrian era. The festival takes place the night (Tuesday) before the last Wednesday of the year — that's how they say it — leading to Norooz, which is the beginning of the Persian spring new year. Yes, it's a bit complicated, as Middle Easterners can be (ahem).

This year, Norooz begins around 10 p.m. Monday.

Tuesday is the first day of the spring new year, and the celebration goes on for 13 days. Chaharshanbeh Soori, as it was explained to me by friends, allows Persians the chance to prepare for the new year, letting go of all the bad and welcoming the good. It's a cultural holiday, and all Persians celebrate it, regardless of their religious affiliation.

Persian families roll out what's called Sofreh Haft Seen, a dining room table full of seven items that start with the letter 'C' in Farsi. Some of those items are Persian rice and whitefish, coins, garlic and sprouts.

Although I've been to Norooz picnics and celebrations in the past, this was my first Chaharshanbeh Soori.

The council's decision marked the end of the Mashadi family and friends' 22-year-long tradition of celebrating Chaharshanbeh Soori at Corona del Mar State Beach.

I parked next to Morteza Mashadi and his brother, Majid, their respective wives and children. I watched as they greeted friends and pulled wood and pots of food out of their car. I decided, "They seem nice. I'll talk to them."

I know Farsi, so I greeted them that way. "Saalom (Hi)," I said. "Cheetori? (How are you?)" — and that's all I needed to start the conversation.

I introduced myself and told them it was my first Chaharshanbeh Soori, and as we walked together closer to the beach, there were other family members and friends doing the same thing: starting fires, sitting around it and greeting each other.

I talked to the wives of the brothers, Samira and Katauon. The latter asked me if I was married or if I have a Persian boyfriend because of the necklace I wore (I don't), and they told me more about their tradition. None of that was surprising. I'm Egyptian, and I understand our kind of women.

I originally planned on walking around and talking to more people, but the Mashadi family made me feel at home.

"Sit, Mona, sit," Morteza said.

I "Taarof'ed" a little. "No, thank you. I'm OK standing," I replied.

"Come on, sit," Majid said. I Taarof'ed some more.

"I'm really OK. I sat all day today at the office."

"Sit, Mona," Morteza said again.

I sat.

What is "Taarof," you ask? I'll tell you.

Taarof is a Middle Eastern tradition that is difficult for Westerners to understand. It also exists in Egyptian and all Arab cultures. I asked my mom what you call it in Arabic, and the closest thing we could come up with is "Ozoom." Growing up, you watch your mothers and fathers, uncles, aunts and friends do it. And you just do it, too.

Basically, say you're at a restaurant and you're getting ready to pay for your meal, and the owner says, "Don't worry about it. This is your restaurant." If you didn't know better, you'd say, "Oh, OK. thank you." Then you walk away.

Word to the wise: Don't walk away. Because in reality, the owner isn't serious about you walking away without paying. It's the nice thing to do, aka Taarof/Ozoom.

I wasn't serious about not sitting down, but I was Taarofing. And because I'm Americanized, and I don't have the patience to go back and forth, I sat after the third request.

Taarof/Ozoom can take a while.

You should see my mom and aunt Taaroofing/Ozooming each other at a restaurant when it's time to pay the bill. This doesn't always mean that the person Taarofing you isn't serious about it. It's just a thing we do.

OK, back to Chaharshanbeh Soori. There were foods like soup, tea and nuts, and also music, dancing, and crossing and jumping over the fire. I did it too.

But the family had to turn off the music at the request of Newport Beach police officers, who said no one is allowed to play music. The officers were nice, though, and they even spoke in Farsi.

But before the music was turned off, Morteza said, "Show us your skills, Mona!" I Taarof'ed, of course. What did you expect?

Then I shimmied my shoulders with the other women to the music.

A friend of the family said, "Are you sure you're not Persian? There's some Persian there."

In fact, I'm Persian. An honorary Persian.

Muslims don't believe in past lives, but I kind of do a little (shhhh!). I was Shahrazad in my past life. I still tell stories in this life.

Norooz Mubarak. Or, to translate, have a blessed Norooz.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for the Huntington Beach Independent. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

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