First Person| I was raised for a majority of my childhood without any of my Muslim relatives around. Nonetheless, Ramadan holds so much significance for the religious people in my family in Iran; I was delighted to finally be able to celebrate it with them in 2001. During that time, Ramadan happened in the same month as the famous south west Asian spring celebration called No Rooz.
This was truly a unique experience for an Arab because my family are Shiite Muslims that are related to the Imam Hossein (PBUH). This means that we celebrated Ramadan, No Rooz, and the Ashura together in the same month. This rarely happens and those experiences have led to many unique stories that I am often asked to share.
A truck followed by a parade of people whipping themselves
I was getting a great education in Iran on the life of a famous Muslim that I am related to named Imam Hossein (PBUH). However, I had no idea that the celebration of his martyrdom in Karbala, Iraq was so intense. Mourners walked through the streets of Iran and used sharp metal on the end of chains to beat their backs in rhythm. Despite the rivers of blood streaming out of their backs, these devotees would walk around doing this for hours on end.
The parades were usually following a slow moving truck that contained a person using a megaphone to shout out messages to the followers. To say the least, the Ashura parade was graphic in nature, but was an extreme display of devotion by those that participated.
Where Iranian fairy tales come from
The No Rooz spring celebration in Iran was a total shock to my American eyes. I had no idea that something like that could exist in a place I associated with conservative Islam. To me, No Rooz was like the celebration of fairytales from the past. The decorations and activities for kids were all about keeping imaginary bad things from happening.
While I was having fun with the playful aspects of No Rooz, in many ways, the No Rooz celebration was cut short to make room for Ramadan. Since giving to the poor is an aspect in No Rooz and in Ramadan, my family was happily forced into double production due to the doubled up holiday that year.
The world’s largest cooking pot
There are a great deal of special foods that my family cooks after sundown during Ramadan. Of course, like most people in Iran, they serve a giant pile of dates, big plates of samosas, and plenty of my father’s famous Persian stews served over rice. However, instead of having a big celebration at home, my family has other duties.
As some of the wealthier people in the community, my family works overtime during No Rooz and Ramadan buying truckloads of food to cook in giant human-sized pots. These pots of delicious food are then packed up and sent to the homes of those in need. This tradition is called zakat and it is mandatory for wealthier Muslims.
Devotion in action
Overall, I had a great time observing Ramadan with my family in Iran. While the No Rooz did not last for the entire duration of Ramadan, it was a nice way to see extreme devotion in action. Over those weeks, we worked constantly. However, these doubled up holiday duties provided me with insight on how to organize and manage relief to large groups of people.
Many years later, during Hurricane Katrina, I was on the phone with friends helping them to create their own strategies for food preparation and distribution to victims of the storm. In other words, Ramadan and No Rooz force the spoiled middle class people of the world to learn a thing or two about how to help on the ground level. For this reason, I am thankful that I had the opportunity to spend this rarely combined Ramadan and No Rooz season of thanksgiving with my family in Iran.