Last year, an American professor of Persian culture and civilization, William Royce, told me the story of his trip to Iran four decades ago, after graduating from Princeton. He recalled getting an invitation to a "Chaharshanbeh-Souri" ("Festive Wednesday") celebration, which he enthusiastically accepted. Once he showed up at dusk, however, there was no party. He was appalled to learn that Chaharshanbeh-Souri — the celebration of the last Wednesday of the Persian year — is actually observed on Tuesday night: Its festivities start at dusk by the fire and continue into the night.
Chaharshanbeh-Souri is an ancient tradition celebrating the past year and looking forward to the next. Iranians gather around lit bushes on this Tuesday evening, jumping over the fire in preparation to welcome the new Persian year, the first day of spring. While jumping over the fire, they ask the fire to take their "yellow" — a symbol of fatigue of the year gone — and present them with its "red" blaze in return, symbolizing the passion of a fresh start.
Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iranian administration did not beat around any bushes to show its disdain for people jumping over burning bushes on the last Tuesday night of the Persian year. “Chaharshanbeh-Souri has no rationality,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said. “These things are not worthy of a Muslim,” Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi warned.
However, many Iranians have ignored these warnings despite the government's best efforts to discourage people. To this day, the administration refrains from using the real name of this tradition, and simply refers to it as "the last Wednesday of the year."
A group of Iranians, mostly living in the capital, ignore safety warnings issued by authorities ahead of the occasion, and consider their resistance a political move, as seen by a few isolated events in 2009, during which pictures and posters of the supreme leader and the sitting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were set ablaze. There have been instances where the gatherings — albeit attended by smaller crowds —have become violent.
The rationale of Iranian officials is that people's safety would be endangered by the sometimes rough festivities, so they issue warnings ahead of the last Tuesday of the year, warning organizers that loud events might be stopped or that they might even be detained for putting their own and others' lives at risk.
As the years went by, Iranian officials tried to control the celebration rather than fight it. The harder the government pushed, using its security forces, the more people resisted. In the mid-90s, celebrating Chaharshanbeh-Souri increasingly became similar to street fights with loud explosives, leading to injuries, some of them quite grave, along with reported cases of deafness and miscarriage due to the explosive noises. Teenage boys started making explosives in their basement or backyard.
Ehsan is a victim of one of these covert operations. Now 22, he has minimum control of his left hand and can barely use it. At age 11, in making a "bomb" in his garage with two of his friends in preparation for Chaharshanbeh-Souri, the half-made explosive detonated in the palm of his hand, blowing his hand off. A top-notch surgeon performed a successful operation, but the nerves were damaged beyond repair. In a phone interview, he told me he did not regret his actions. "We were rebels," he said.
Some Iranians, particularly the younger generation, share Ehsan's belief and consider such actions as symbols of standing up to the unfair mandate of being silent and solemn on Chaharshanbeh-Souri.
Iran's Emergency Medical Service, a government agency, announced 148 injured from this year's Chaharshanbeh-Souri, 97 of whom have been transferred to hospitals and 51 others treated on the spot. The death of an 8-year-old girl in Tehran due to injuries from an explosion was also confirmed.
Lili, a 34-year-old English instructor who lives in a Tehran suburb, tells Al-Monitor that she throws a party in her apartment every year. While we were on the phone, she got another call from her husband, who wanted to confirm the number of guests. When Lili got back to me, she said her husband was buying vodka for the party, and she's just confirmed that "two 1-liter bottles of Smirnoff would suffice."
I circled back with Lily on Wednesday, but she was way too hungover to talk. She just conveyed that everyone had "a blast."
For the first time this year, the state-owned IRIB scheduled the first episode of the widely-popular puppet show "Kolah-Ghermezi" ("Red Hat") for the last Tuesday night of the year, instead of the first day of the new year. The 48-minute show aired at 9 p.m., the height of feast time in Iranian culture — also the time when those who party start drinking and dancing. Some speculated that this was planned as a disruption.
The government gave up its rigorous efforts to entirely obstruct the festivities about a decade ago, instead adopting a pragmatic approach of distributing and selling safe fireworks and arranging gatherings in crowded squares, where people can — within limits — enjoy the festivities and even jump over a fire. For the majority of the youth, and the middle and upper class, this is an unattractive, dull option. Elham, a 22-year-old student living in Shiraz, tells Al-Monitor that she and her friends would rather "jump over a candle than attend such tacky, organized gatherings."
Jumping over a candle is an image a lot of Iranian Instagram users posted throughout the evening, interpreted by some as a rant against the restrictions placed on people's joyous non-Islamic traditions.
Meanwhile, Siasat-e-Rouz (Policy of the Day), a conservative Iranian newspaper, published an article calling on authorities to allow people to freely have fun during tough economic times. This stance is a far cry from the norm of conservative papers, whose contributors have generally shown their dislike of such festivities.
Conservative news website Ghods Online spends plenty of time focusing on what they call "creating a danger-proof culture for Chaharshanbeh-Souri," urging everyone to participate in spreading the word.
In an interview with Mehr News Agency, Ahmad-Reza Radan, deputy commander of Tehran's police force, summed up incidents during this year's festivities. Radan said noise complaints had gone down this year, and there were only a few isolated incidents of individuals creating noise in their vehicles. Those vehicles, according to Radan, are held by police until the end of Nowruz (New Year) holidays, 16 days from Wednesday.
The Islamic Republic's ongoing attempts to control Chaharshanbeh-Souri festivities have modified over the past three decades. The Iranians' spirit and the regime's focus, however, remain unchanged throughout all these years. The root of the feast seems too deep for any person or power to clip its stems.