The North Star Project, 2013-2014 Report Number Forty-Four, Nowruz at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, by Marin Ekstrom
Despite the Gregorian calendar “standardizing” January 1st as the start of the New Year, its inception varies from culture to culture. In the case of Nowruz, which is primarily celebrated in Iran (although parts of Central Asia, South Asia, northwestern China, and southeastern Europe also observe it), the New Year is based on the spring equinox. The holiday traces its origins to Zoroastrian practices, and like many other spring holidays, features a variety of rituals to commence the rebirth and renewal associated with the season. The most iconic Nowruz tradition is the haft seen table, or the “Table of Seven S’s.” A table is covered with seven sacred items that all begin with the letter “S” in the Persian language: serkeh (vinegar), senied (dried fruit), sir (garlic), seeb (apples), sabzeh (greens), samanu (wheat pudding), and sumac (crushed berry spice). In addition, other popular haft-seen items include a mirror, an orange in a bowl of water, a bowl of goldfish, colorfully dyed eggs, hyacinths, candles, and sacred books (i.e. the Quran, the Shamaneh, the poetry of Hafez). The items have symbolic qualities attached to them that will bestow the family with happiness and fortune in the coming year. Another key practice is fire jumping. People make small bonfires and jump over them while uttering a special phrase; the flames in turn take away the bad things that occurred in the previous year. The festivities described only constitute a fraction of the rich cultural traditions associated with Nowruz, but luckily I got a taste of it when I visited the Freer and Sackler Gallery’s exhibition on this holiday.
The first display that I encountered was an exquisite haft seen table that was not only adorned with most of the ritual items described above, but also softly colored flower petals, wads of gumdrops and flowers, and whimsical figurines of traditional Persian folk characters. Although I took pictures, they honestly do not do justice to actually seeing the display in person. I could not stay there long, however, as many people, particularly Persian-speaking families, were crowded around it. In fact, there were youngsters, parents, and grandparents abound throughout the museum! I admired them for taking so much pride in their language and culture and sharing it with their children, all while taking the time to savor the simple pleasures of this springtime festival.
As I ventured on, I encountered another haft seen, which, while simpler and earthier than the other one, was still stunning. I entered a wing where various activities were being conducted. I observed a young man painting people’s names in the Persian calligraphy by utilizing stylized forms and colors to transform their names into works of art. Another stand featured the Falnama, or “Book of Omens.” The Falnama is an old tradition in which someone turns to a random page, and depending on what brilliantly illustrated story and series of texts he/she turns to, that will reveal his/her fortune. Lastly, I toured the exhibit Feast Your Eyes: A Taste for Luxury in Ancient Iran, which featured breathtaking metalwork and dishware from the early civilizations of Iran. All of the brought the cultures of Iran and Nowruz-celebrating countries to life, and it was amazing to partake in these festivities.
Picture Credit (What’s in Haft Seen and why?): figandquince.com
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For all of the North Star Project 2013 Summer Reports, see http://www2.css.edu/app/depts/HIS/historyjournal/index.cfm?cat=10
The North Star Project 2013-2014 School Year Reports: The Middle Ground Journal’s collaborative outreach program with K-12 classes around the world. We gratefully acknowledge North Star Academy of Duluth, Minnesota as our inaugural partner school, and the flagship of our K-12 outreach program. We also warmly welcome Duluth East High School and Dodge Middle School to the North Star Project.
Under the leadership of our North Star host teachers and student interns, The North Star Project has flourished for two years. For a brief summary, please see a recent article in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at:
Having re-tooled and re-designed the collaborative program, we are drawing on the experience of our veteran student interns, ideas from our host teachers, and new projects provided by our incoming student interns. This school year The Middle Ground Journal will share brief dispatches from our North Star Project student interns, particularly from those who are currently stationed, or will soon be stationed abroad. As of the time of this report we have confirmed student interns who will be reporting from Mongolia, Southern China, Shanghai, northeastern China, The Netherlands, Tanzania, Ireland, England, Finland, Russia, and Haiti. We also have students developing presentations on theatrical representations of historical trauma, historical memory, the price individuals pay during tragic global conflicts, and different perceptions of current events from around the world. We will post their brief dispatches here, and report on their interactions with the North Star students and teachers throughout the school year.
Hong-Ming Liang, Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal, The College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, MN, USA, 2013-2014 School Year
(c) 2014 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 8, Spring, 2014. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy.