OPINION: How America erased my Persian identity

An image of a torch with a heart shaped tip, swirling with orange and yellow flames. The heart is in the colors of the Persian flag, but without the sigil.
(Tania Azhang • The Student Life)

This past Monday was Nowruz, the Persian New Year in the Solar Hijri calendar. Up to 300 million people of various ethnicities and nationalities celebrate it worldwide, but the celebration isn’t on most people’s radar. As an Iranian-American, I’ve had a complicated relationship with the holiday. I didn’t understand why I celebrated the new year twice. It mostly felt irrelevant to me when those around me didn’t even know it existed. 

Nowruz feels especially momentous for many Iranians this year, in light of the Mahsa Amini protests that rocked the country last September. 

Farsi for “new day,” Nowruz is celebrated annually on March 21. Iranians often commemorate the new year by decorating their tables with the Haft-Seen. The Haft-seen consists of seven items starting with the letter s, including sirkeh (vinegar), sikkeh (coin), seer (garlic), seeb (apples), sabzeh (wheat), samanu (wheat pudding) and sumac (spice). The table also boasts painted eggs for fertility, a mirror symbolizing reflection on the past year, flowers like tulips for good health and a goldfish for new life. 

Another new year celebration is Chahar Shambeh Suri, a festival on the last Wednesday of the year. The festival consists of adding wood to create bonfires, and taking turns jumping over the roaring flames during sunset. Chahar Shambeh Suri represents purification and vitality. The celebration is thousands of years old and a symbol of Persian national identity, preserved through the Arab Invasion that threatened to wipe away Persian culture.  

I remember going from bazaar to bazaar in Tehran with my grandmother, her nails digging into my wrist so she wouldn’t lose me in the sea of people shopping for the new year. I was always most excited to buy the goldfish. After I immigrated to the United States, we didn’t set up a Haft-Seen for several years, no longer seeing the point as we struggled to assimilate with American culture. 

The protests also sparked a revivification of Persian diasporic identity for Iranians abroad. I witnessed this change in my own household, as my father — who stopped speaking Farsi to me after our move on the grounds that it was a “useless” language — began to tell me stories about his childhood and early adulthood in Iran. 

He spoke to me about the culture of poetry and literature and the rebellious spark evident in the people against the tyrannical regime. However, the stories that stood out most poignantly to me were about the days he spent in Cafe Shooka, a famous cafe in Tehran where artists, poets and everyday people would congregate. It’s where my parents met, and the idea that my story began in a cafe where Iranian culture flourished against the tyranny of the state moved me beyond words. 

The community that formed around Cafe Shooka wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the owner, playwright and poet Yarali Pour Moghadam. He was a father to many of the young boys occupying the cafe, including my own father. Moghadam passed earlier this March. The cafe is to be sold, and the shopping plaza it resided in to be converted to apartment homes by the government. I’ll never be able to visit. 

Although the protests have revived Iranian identity for many of us living abroad, it has also brought to light how little we are recognized by the government and our local communities. The U.S. census has still failed to create a Middle Eastern category, meaning that many Persians are forced to indicate “white” despite our lived experiences not aligning with that of white people. At the Claremont Colleges, I struggled to find even a modicum of a Persian community, which proved especially difficult as I witnessed the brutality with which the regime was dealing with the protests. 

Nowruz this year for me feels heavy with grief for what my countrymen are suffering and with mourning for a life that feels increasingly distant. As the years wane on my immigration from Iran to the United States, any interaction I have with my Iranian past feels more and more fragmented and illusory. Photos of my parents in Iran, childhood home videos and Yarali Pour Moghaddam’s death, all remind me that my past is actively being erased. The fissure in my life will never mend. 

What gives me hope is the videos of my people jumping over the fire, as they have done for thousands of years, through invasion and tyranny. Our hearts catch fire, and we fan the flames. 

Tania Azhang PZ ’25 is an A&C editor at TSL. An American Studies major at Pitzer, her interests are American history, media, literature and politics.

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