Every year, I spend the first half of March hunting for the perfect hyacinth. A staple of the Persian New Year, Nowruz, hyacinths are notoriously hard to control. They’re painfully unruly, always leaning to one side or another, refusing to stand up straight, even when you tie a ribbon around them. Yet they smell like heaven and while their stalks are forever recalcitrant in the directions that they take, each of the tiny flowers that graces those stalks screams of symmetry, beauty and perfection.
With Nowruz fast approaching, I’m not the only one hunting for hyacinths. So too, every other Iranian is on the lookout. Our new year is marked by the first day of spring. It is strongly rooted in Zoroastrian tradition and originated over 2,500 years ago. In short, it’s a big deal. Cards are sent; gifts are exchanged; school is out; a few lucky prisoners are released (at least temporarily), and family vacations north to the Caspian and south to the islands are commonplace.
Like everything this year, however, Nowruz will be different for all Iranians, both inside and outside of the country. I, for one, will be following the news intently as I cook the traditional fish and dill rice dinner to celebrate, knowing that this year’s celebration may very well be tainted by the suffering of my people half-a-world away. I expect it will be hard not to burn the rice or forget the saffron, as I will undoubtedly be consumed by Twitter, Facebook and BBC Persian radio.
Since the disputed June elections in which incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proclaimed victory, the opposition, pro-democracy Green Movement has made it a point to come out into the streets in protest on important national and religious holidays. And there is no holiday dearer to the hearts of the Iranian people than Nowruz. This year, many of my friends in Tehran will not be taking vacations. Instead, they’re planning to take to the streets yet again, in bold defiance of the warnings of the regime and the pleas of their parents.
The last date of significant protest was just over a month ago on the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. Despite the fact that the regime had banned all foreign media and slowed down standard means of immediate communication, including Internet, phone and texting services, the foreign media reported that the opposition turnout was weak as compared to previous protests. This may very well have been the case, but with essentially zero outside media access, no one can be 100 percent sure.
Still, the arrests before Revolution Day last month surely dissuaded many opposition protesters not already in jail from pouring into the streets and risking beatings and unlawful detentions. I personally know of several opposition activists who stayed home as a result of the intimidation, and I can’t say that I blame them. Still, no matter how few or many pro-democracy demonstrators show up in the streets for Nowruz the Iranian opposition has far from died. Rather, it has merely been pushed underground, but it is germinating like a stubborn hyacinth, taking on a course and a life of its own, teeming with the sweet smell of a freedom to come.