Nowruz: Celebrating Spring and a New Year
by Susan Leem, associate producer
On this first day of spring, Persian families around the world are greeting each other with “Sal-e No Mobarak!” and “Happy New Year!” in celebration of the holiday of Nowruz, a day of beginnings. Translated as "new day," the solar-based holiday marks the first day of the first year of the Bahá’í calendar and the falls on the vernal equinox.
The holiday has wider cultural and national significance for modern Iranians who often celebrate with family and friends by sharing meals together, cleaning their homes, buying new clothes, and performing contemporary expressions of ancient customs. Rooted in Zoroastrianism (the prophet Zoroaster himself is credited with creating this festival) in pre-Islamic Persia, Nowruz is also celebrated in surrounding geographic regions influenced by the Persian empire in the countries of Iraq, Turkey, and Afghanistan.
"Everyone lines up, and, one by one, each person jumps over the piles and sings, 'zardi-ye-man az to, sorkhi-ye to az man,' the special song means ‘my yellowness is yours, your redness is mine.’ Iranians believe, people give pain and negativities to the fire, and receive the warmth, the health and strength from the fire.”
The traditional haft-seen table is an important part of Nowruz celebrations. Iranians prepare these settings in their homes by gathering seven items that start with the letter “s,” which have positive meanings: the spice sumac for sunrise, seeb (apples) for beauty, and sir (garlic) for health, among others.
Goldfish also make an appearance on the haft-seen table. They are symbols of new life and the end of the astral year associated with the zodiac sign Pisces. They are sold in markets along with other Nowruz accoutrements.
Sabzeh is sprouted wheat grass, symbolizing rebirth and renewal of nature. On the thirteenth day of the celebration, it is customary to throw these sprouts away into running water, as the sabzeh is thought to collect negativity and illness in the household while it grew there. This purging represents purification and new beginnings.
A Soldier in Afghanistan Bows Her Head on 9/11/11
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
At Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, a U.S. soldier bows her head during a prayer on a solemn, tenth anniversary ceremony of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. (photo: John Moore/Getty Images)
At Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, a U.S. soldier bows her head during a prayer on a solemn, tenth anniversary ceremony of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
(photo: John Moore/Getty Images)
Lessons on Friendship from an Afghani Refugee Family
by Heidi Naylor, guest contributor
In 2001 my husband approached me about hosting an Afghan refugee family of four. I was hesitant. But my reservations — lice, tuberculosis, loss of solitude — seem petty and insulting now. In the end, they were outweighed by his enthusiasm.
So our family arrived one evening just before Memorial Day, exhausted from long travel. We stood outside nodding, smiling, shaking hands. Akbar wore a dark suit, Rahima a blouse and skirt and heels, the children ribbons and a bow tie and shined shoes. We had pizza and soda and very few words.
The next day we bought a Russian-English dictionary. We couldn’t find one in Dari, the family’s native tongue, but they’d spent years in Moscow so we found common words through a language belonging to none of us. Spasíba, pazhálusta, ímya, lagushka. The children laughed with our kids and our dog in the backyard. They needed no book, and before long were translating for their parents.
Over the weeks our English developed an accent, and we took to pantomime. One evening my son said he was going to take a shower. He mimicked the spray above his head and pretended to shampoo himself. I smiled. “Kid, I speak English!” Akbar watched with growing pleasure, finally erupting in laughter.
Rahima cooked succulent, beautiful meals with lamb and cumin, raisins and cilantro. We searched for her preferred rice and found a species of basmati I still buy for pennies per pound from an Asian grocer. Its burlap bag features an inked-on label: “Once taste eat for ever.”
Rahima made me tea four times a day, despite my discomfort at her servitude. She asked if I’d like one shovel of sugar or two. We laughed over the confusion of “kitchen” and “chicken.” She taught me to cook the okra I’d never liked in a way that was savory and “deshilous.”
One day we discovered our youngest sons were born within ten days of one another, on opposite sides of the Earth. Sistera, she said, pointing shyly at me, and she has introduced me in that way to her friends every since.
As our common words increased, we began to linger over dinner. We sprinkled our tea with cardamom, bit into Rahima’s crunchy lemon cookies, and listened as Akbar spoke of the Taliban and its terrible grip. “I want carpet,” he said, gesturing toward our Persian rug. “I want car, home for children. Television. Taliban no good,” he said, “no what you want…” He searched, settling on the Russian: svabódny. No liberty. Everyone was silent. I poured more tea. He looked around the table at his children, his sweet shy wife, our children. “Politic,” he said, like you or I might say “robotic.” He slapped his palm on his thigh. “I wery like.”
Our Christian religion requires fasting one Sunday each month, so I fixed breakfast for our guests and explained why we couldn’t join them to eat. Rahima asked, “One month?” — no doubt thinking of the Ramadan fast her religion requires. Well, no. But the practice, fasting in faith and devotion, was another thing we’d found in common.
After several weeks, their English improved to where they found jobs at a thrift shop and auto auction. They moved into an apartment nearby, the next step on the way to citizenship. And then, Nine-Eleven.
My husband was traveling, and I feared for his safety. I cried with the nation, watched in disbelief as footage revealed Muslims across the globe dancing in the streets. I phoned our friends and learned they’d also spent the day glued to the television. That evening the kids and I dropped by, and Rahima prepared a tray of tea and cookies. We chatted: work, new friends in the apartment complex, the start of school, the horrific attack. The talk was quiet. Their graciousness and loveliness were immediate, familiar, genuine. Our kids ran and shouted together in the grassy square outside the window.
Soon they moved to a larger city, seeking better employment, as any American is likely to do. We’ve visited them across the country; their children have grown and are pursuing further education, poised to better themselves and, as they do, make further contributions, again like so many Americans.
Before they moved away, I drove Akbar to the Immigration and Naturalization Service office to take care of some paperwork. Taped to the clerk’s window was a notice: “Warning!! If you have more than 180 days of unlawful presence in the United States it is our strong recommendation that you do not leave the United States for any reason.”
This was odd to me, but it was no more strange than the questions on Akbar’s application seemed, since I’d come to know him, though I understand their necessity: “Are you wanted for extradition for a crime you have or have not committed? Are you wanted for questioning or as a material witness? Are you or have you ever been engaged in espionage? Do you advocate the overthrow of the United States government by force or sedition?” (One woman thought a moment and answered, “force.”)
I did my best to explain each question. We smiled a bit. There was some patient, acquiescent laughter, and Akbar checked his answer in a box. In this way we tried to give the official behind the glass a clear picture of Akbar and his family. Some reliable notion of who they’d come to be.
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On Playing Soldier and Being a Soldier
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Benjamin Busch, a former Marine Corps infantry officer who served two combat tours in Iraq, writes a challenging essay for NPR on the nature of war games — with toy soldiers, in video games, on the battlefield:
"When I was a boy, I was given plastic army men. I arranged them in the sandbox behind our house, and I killed them. I voiced their commands and made the sounds of their suffering. I imagined their war — and I controlled it. But I lost those magical powers as a Marine in Iraq.
We know children are immersed in digital interactivity now, and the soldier of today has grown up on video games. It is becoming a new literacy of sorts. Playing and risking your life are different things. In the video war, there may be some manipulation of anxiety, some adrenaline to the heart, but absolutely nothing is at stake.
I honestly don’t like that Medal of Honor depicts the war in Afghanistan right now, because — even as fiction — it equates the war with the leisure of games. Changing the name of the enemy doesn’t change who it is.
But what nation or military has the right to govern fiction? Banning the representation of an enemy is imposing nationalism on entertainment. The game cannot train its players to be actual skilled special operations soldiers, nor is it likely to lure anyone into Islamic fundamentalism. It can grant neither heroism nor martyrdom. What it does do is make modern war into participatory cinema. That is its business.”
Photo courtesy of Benjamin Busch
He trusts God to keep him safe. And I’m here just in case that doesn’t work out.
—Religious Programs Specialist 2nd Class Philip Chute, a self-declared atheist who is charged with protecting Navy Chaplain Terry Moran, a Seventh-Day Adventist who is ministering to Marines in Afghanistan.
Michael M. Phillips’ Wall Street Journal article "A Chaplain and an Atheist Go to War" gives unexpected insight into some of the strange pairings of battle and the tension of war in all its humanness. Well worth a read.
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Portraits of Women from Kandahar
Trent Gilliss, online editor
The Behind the Veil project from The Globe and Mail got its start with Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s endorsement of “a law that, among other things, allowed some men to demand sex from their wives.” What’s come of it is a compelling six-part series of multimedia reports exploring Afghani women’s issues, which they’re rolling out over the next week.
The timeline and reporter’s notebook are helpful and give you a glimpse of what it’s like to be a female journalist reporting in restrictive conditions. But, watching ten women from Kandahar, ranging in age from 15 to 50, share their perspectives on their lives and the changing state of society is the real highlight. The overwhelming idea, despite the texture of the many ideas shared, is the basic need for safety and security. Without that sense of protection, all the aspirations and hopes for women’s rights and education falls prey to pragmatism of carrying on a daily existence.
Winning without the Juice
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
I’ll admit it. I have a love-hate relationship with sports. I spent most of my high school and college years training. Wrestling ruined me; wrestling saved me. I have a soft spot for the power of sport forging relationships and understanding in ways that no other brokered therapy session ever can.
Brushing aside the Roger Clemens hearings, I happened upon this New York Times video report and charming slide show about Shamila Kohestani, once captain of the Afghanistan national women’s soccer team who is now attending a private high school in New Jersey on a soccer scholarship. She’s trying to catch up in her schooling to prepare for college. And she’s playing competitive basketball for the first time — an observant Muslim in long sleeves and leggings. What a great lesson in modesty and fortitude, compassion and graciousness for her teammates.
For me, this story evokes a particular memory of a former teammate, Dean Mielke. Affectionately called MilkDud, he was the only one of 13 ranked wrestlers who had a losing record at the time — zero wins and 18 losses, all of them by pin. For six continuous months, four hours per day, he got pummeled on — even by the lighter weights.
But he stayed. He didn’t quit. And eventually he endeared himself to everybody, ergo the nickname. Once, in a tight team dual, we needed him not to get pinned and give up six team points. “You’re a wraaaccckin’ machine,” we told him. “Don’t get pinned. Fight off your back no matter what.”
He spent almost six full minutes with his shoulders levitated centimeters from the mat with
his his mouth covered by his opponents’ armpit and chin in his ribs. At the final buzzer, he jumped up, arms in the air, and a huge grin on his face. He was defeated by 13 points, and he was proud of himself.
When I think back to that season and all the championships and victories, I only remember one thing: MilkDud’s victory. Yeah, I’m misty writing about it, and that’s why I tear up every time a team comes together in a movie or an athlete prevails during the Olympics.
Thanks, Dean, for the lesson. I’m a better father for it. Shamila’s teammates will be the better for knowing her too.