In Iran, a Street Demonstration That Both Sides Stay Away From

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Behrouz Mehri / AFP / Getty Images

An Iranian couple jumps over a bonfire during "Chaharshanbe Suri" in the Darakeh mountains north of Tehran on March 18, 2008.

For days, state-run television in Iran declared that, for their own safety, citizens should stay home and keep children indoors on the evening of March 16. And indeed, the streets of Iran did erupt into flames. But the opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not organize it. Tuesday evening was the beginning of Nowrooz, the two-week-long traditional Iranian New Year celebration, which for more than three millenniums marked the beginning of spring in the Persian world. The popular holiday, celebrated with bonfires and, more recently, illegal fireworks, is so hoary it predates the three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — a fact that the mullahs who rule Iran are quite sensitive about. One ayatullah, Nasser Makarem Shirazi, called the first day of Nowrooz a "superstitious act and baseless. Pious and sensible Muslims will stay away from it."

From the time the sun set Tuesday evening, Tehran was filled with the sounds of small explosions and the smell of smoke. Police and Basij militia presence throughout the city was as high as it has been at any point since last year's controversial presidential election, but for the most part, the law-enforcement officers remained cool, with some officers even joining crowds around bonfires and chatting with the attendees. Some small scuffles broke out when Basij arrived to break up impromptu block parties.

The explosions continued well past midnight, although the state did what it could to keep Iranians from attending the festivities, including airing Hollywood blockbusters such as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull on television. None of those tactics worked; the streets were filled with people who for one night seemed to ignore the recent proscriptions of the ruling religious establishment. Said an attendee who asked to remain anonymous: "This isn't something that the government can take away from us. We've been doing this for 3,000 years. They should just accept it." ]

The holiday is so sensitive that the opposition doesn't want to be anywhere near accusations that it is fomenting unrest during its celebration. The so-called Green Movement leadership actually asked its followers not to target the day for protest, as has been done with Muslim holy days and the anniversaries of important dates in the Islamic revolution led by the late Ayatullah Khomeini. The blowback would be worse for opposition leaders like Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi if they were seen as promoting demonstrations during a festival from the days before Iran converted to Islam. No one wants to be called un-Islamic.

Yet the first day of Nowrooz has always been irresistible to Iranians, because it is tied not to Muslim piety but to Persian pride. Its roots are in Zoroastrianism, the world's first monotheistic religion — the country's national faith before Islam — one in which fire is revered as a symbol of purity. Apart from the theocracy, most Iranians in and outside the country, irrespective of their religion, celebrate the ancient rites. The Tuesday-night event itself is known as Chaharshanbe Suri (literally "Wednesday Party," because dusk brings the new day in Iran) and was originally intended as a ritual to ward off evil spirits and negative energy collected in the previous year. That purification is done by leaping over a series of small bonfires.

In recent times, however, the ritual has evolved into an opportunity for people to set off illegal fireworks, some of extremely dubious quality and reliability, creating what many residents of Tehran liken to a war zone. Some older residents even compare the night and the anxiety it brings to the eight-year-long war with Iraq when Saddam Hussein's air force intermittently and indiscriminately bombed Tehran. Says a Tehran taxi driver in his 60s: "People used to enjoy themselves on this day. This is supposed to be a family tradition, but it's not safe for women and children out here. This is a very dangerous night."

Concerns have arisen about public buildings, including government-controlled banks, being targeted for arson. Sporadic explosions began on Monday night. "This is nothing," said Setareh, a 25-year-old graduate student in English studies, the night before the festival. Tuesday, she predicted, "will feel like you're in Gaza." Police in Tehran have attributed several deaths over the past few days to faulty fireworks.

In the past 31 years, the rulers of the Islamic Republic of Iran have attempted to diminish the public's attachment to these holidays. Last week, the Friday-prayers leader in the seminary city of Qom, Ayatullah Reza Ostadi, said Chaharshanbe Suri "is no different from other days, and, given that the outsiders of the establishment have heavily invested in this day, we must turn our backs on it." Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei echoed those sentiments, issuing a statement on his website Sunday in which, in reference to the celebration, he wrote that it has "no basis in shari'a [Islamic law] and creates a lot of harm and corruption, [which is why] it is appropriate to avoid it."

Police and Basij erected roadblocks and conducted car searches in much of the capital over the weekend. Last week, Tehran Governor Morteza Tamadon announced that 500 individuals involved in the illicit trade of fireworks had been arrested. "Tradition showcases the beauties of a culture," said Tamadon, adding that "the fire ritual offers nothing but ugliness, fear and worry ... With decisive action, we will try to wipe the problem called Chaharshanbe Suri from the mind of society within the next two years." That is unlikely to happen.