Page last updated at 09:04 GMT, Friday, 20 March 2009

Divided views on Iran's new year

Naruz festivities in Dubai
Iranian man jumps over fire to purge his sins before Nowruz begins, Dubai

By Ali Asghar Ramezanpour
BBC Persian

Since the 1979 revolution, Iranian officials have taken two differing views of Nowruz, the Iranian new year, which starts on Friday - they have either rejected it or they have tried to co-opt it.

Conservative Islamists and some clerics have usually scorned and even repudiated the two-week festival as a throwback to pre-Islamic Persia, others have regarded it as a time-honoured tradition.

Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, in his first post-revolution speech, declared Nowruz would not be celebrated as long as the world suffered from injustice.

Ardalan Attarpour, a journalist in Tehran, said some people who used to cherish the arrival of spring and the marking of new year, interpreted Ayatollah Khomeini's message as an attempt to downplay Nowruz.

Nowruz Facts
Nowruz means new day and marks the first day of spring
The secular holiday falls on the March equinox
On the eve of the festival people symbolically purge their sins by jumping over bonfires


Although most ruling clerics have since tried to streamline Nowruz with Islamic values, especially Shia beliefs, Hussein Bastani, a political observer in France, believes hard-line clerices have always valued religious celebrations more than traditional ones.

Mr Bastani says they have instead branded Nowruz and its traditions as superstitions.

Ayatollah Khomeini's successor, Ayatollah Khamenei, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, both religious conservatives, have tried to trim down the two-week Nowruz on productivity grounds, but they have faced a general popular resistance.

Whenever Islamic occasions coincide with Nowruz, the religious leaders in Iran tend to congratulate people on those Islamic events first.

Ahmad Ahrar, a journalist and political commentator, compares this dual view of the clerics towards Nowruz to a similar hostility of Arab invaders of Persia 14 Centuries ago, though they were compelled to adopt a less stringent stance after facing Persians resistance.

The festival marks the beginning of spring. People traditionally clean their houses and buy a new clothes in preparation, to symbolise a fresh start.

During the holiday, people are expected to visit one another, which is usually reciprocated.

On the eve of Nowruz a festival of fire takes place when people purge themselves of sins by jumping over bonfires.

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