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Shirin Sadeghi

Shirin Sadeghi

Posted: March 16, 2010 11:42 AM

Iran's Latest Fatwa: A Fiery Fury

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On this day every year for millennia, Iranians have started fires. Big bonfires and tiny ones made of tinder. Street blazes and backyard flickers.

They jump over these flames during the ancient fire festival, Chaharshanbeh Suri, ushering in the festivities of the Norooz Festival that marks the vernal equinox worldwide, and the New Year for Iranians and many other nations.

At times like this, when tensions are peaking in Iranian politics, today's fire festival gets more than heated as the public heads for the streets building bonfires, setting off firecrackers, and lighting up the night in defiance of the government's disapproval of the pre-Islamic tradition.

This year, amidst what has become a people's movement for fundamental change in Iran, authorities went one step further than their usual disapproval of all things Norooz, and the Supreme Leader outright banned the fire festival with a fatwa.

The fatwa states that the fire festival "has no basis in Sharia and is a requisite for much harm and corruption."

Irony aside, the Supreme Leader's edict attempts to once again denounce the fire festival specifically and Norooz in general because of their non-Islamic roots.

The fire festival is held on the eve of the last Wednesday (Chaharshanbeh) of the year, considered to be the unluckiest night of the year, and is rooted in Zoroastrianism, the state religion that preceded Islam in Iran.

Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, Norooz -- still the biggest holiday of the calendar year -- has been a bone of contention for the Islamic government.

Initial attempts to ban the holiday altogether were quickly scrapped, as authorities realized that it would be impossible to prevent Iranians from discarding thousands of years of tradition celebrating their New Year.

In the years since, regular attempts have been made to subdue the different traditions surrounding Norooz, either by discouraging the celebrations altogether, or encapsulating the events with Islamic elements, despite the fact that for Iranians, the holiday has become a secular celebration of unity amongst Iranians of all religions, ethnicities, and backgrounds.

The fire festival in particular has been tightly controlled during times of heightened political tensions -- all in the name of security -- because it is the one component of the Norooz celebrations that involves gatherings of the public.

Nonetheless, every year the fires do burn.

Not surprisingly, over the years, Iranians have come to associate these events even more strongly with the pre-Islamic Republic period and many relish the defiance of celebrating an event that is not government-approved.

Like teenagers out to challenge authority, Iranians take to the streets on this day and chant an old Zoroastrian poem as they leap over the fires they assemble with bits of wood and sometimes politically-inclined bits of paper:  "sorkhi-ye to az man, zardi-ye man az to".

The poem is addressed to the fire itself: "Your redness (sorkhi) for me, and my yellowness (zardi) for you." Symbolically, the poem is a sort of spring cleaning of the spirit, a new year's resolution of hope. It asks the fire to take that which is weak, unhealthy, and bad in a human being (symbolized by the paleness of yellow) and exchange it for the energy and health of its flames (symbolized by the warmth of red).

Today, despite the fatwa, government authorities have prepared for the inevitable public celebrations and non-state media have already reported daytime precursors to the night's events.

Once again, it seems, Norooz will prevail in Iran.