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Local Iranian-Americans are springing into the new year with traditional flair; Festivities are celebration of holiday and heritage


More than a decade ago, Iranian-Americans celebrating their new year at a Baltimore park attracted curious onlookers -- and several fire trucks.

Their 2,000-year-old holiday ritual involves jumping over fire, symbolizing the leaving behind of the sicknesses and the worries of old year and leaping into the health and prosperity of the new. But the local fire-jumping quickly fizzled.

Until this year.

With fire permits in place, local Iranian-Americans leapt over fires as part of the new year celebrations that started Tuesday, continue today on the actual holiday and first day of spring, and will end April 4.

"This was the first year I could get permission [to fire-jump] -- this means life for our new year," said Majid Jahangiri, a NASA engineer who lives in Columbia and heads the Iranian American Cultural Society of Maryland.

"The significance right now is that, through these many years of political problems [in Iran], people are trying to keep these cultural events alive."

Coincidentally, this year also marks the first year since 1979 that Iranian nationals have been granted government permission to celebrate the so-called Festival of Fire. It previously had been banned by the Shiite Muslim rulers, who called it superstitious and anti-Islamic.

Such changes, which some called repressive, propelled many to leave Iran several decades ago. Today, as many as 15,000 emigres live in the Baltimore region, Jahangiri said.

The community is active and prosperous -- 95 percent of Iranian-Americans have bachelor's or higher degrees, according to Jahangiri -- and the flurry of activities surrounding the holiday, called Nowruz, reflect that.

Tuesday brought the Festival of Fire to Oregon Ridge Park. For children, whose parents help them over tiny flames, there also is a ritual similar to Halloween in which they mask their identities and bang a metal cup and bowl to get goodies.

Last night, there was a lecture at Towson University by an Iranian scholar. At the University of Maryland, College Park, dancing, music and food marked new year's eve.

Today's observance of new year's is a family-oriented day that resembles American celebrations of Thanksgiving: Each family assembles a ceremonial table -- called Haft-Sinn -- adorned with symbols such as garlic, apple and sumac berries. Goldfish represent life and sprouted wheat reflects rebirth. Close relatives gather to give thanks and share special dishes, often fish.

"The new year, when I was growing up in Iran, that was a time when people were the most happy," said Manzar Rassouli-Taylor, a Baltimore painter who has lived in the United States for 24 years.

"We got up early, put on our dresses -- and everything had to be new -- and our relatives came and we ate so many candies," she said, laughing. "I remember getting sick."

As the countdown to year 1378 wraps up just before 8: 45 p.m. tonight -- the start of the vernal equinox -- Iranian-Americans will tune into a Farsi-language radio broadcast via satellite from Los Angeles, or Tehran via Israel, and share the moment with their countrymen worldwide.

Many Iranian-Americans maintain close ties to their homeland, as much from nostalgia as a desire to ensure that their children develop connections to their ancestors.

Several schools -- including ones in Towson and Columbia and several in the Washington area -- are run by the Cultural Society to teach youngsters Farsi and introduce them to other children of Iranian descent.

Jahangiri's children receive gifts both for American and Iranian holidays. Rassouli-Taylor's 10-year-old daughter, Leida, who danced last night at College Park, loves to dress in traditional robes and learn her mother's culture.

Says Rassouli-Taylor, "I look back, after living here 20-something years, and I see how rich it is, all these traditions."

Pub Date: 3/20/99

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