Sunday, March 19, 2017

Wishful Thinking

I like a good baklava. Layer after layer of light, crispy dough with pistachios and walnuts coated in orange blossom syrup, a heavenly sweet for special occasions. Of course nothing could ever be quite as good as a homemade baklava but I feel that perhaps the best one I ever ate was at the quirky Persian market on Castro Street, in 2008. It happened in March, as I was making my way through the aisle of jams and tea, shopping with fellow Iranian-Americans for the Norooz holiday, the Persian New Year celebration that coincides with the first day of spring. I have loved this mini mart for its colors and perfumes of home and for the amiable old-timers who man the register and holler your take-out order on the loudspeaker. I was checking my list, each item yielding a twin I could not leave behind, saffron for rice, yogurt for cucumbers, when a clerk turned the volume up on a television set affixed to the wall. We all turned to face the screen to watch President Obama wish us a Happy Norooz. We gazed openmouthed. It was very quiet until someone clapped and then we all put our baskets down to join in the applause. Another clerk walked through the aisles with a box of baklava. How sweet it was! How far we had traveled. How this message stoked our hopes for peace. Yes, that was the best baklava of my whole life, and Ziba joon and Mrs. Escandar would understand this one-time betrayal.

Norooz ceremonies are symbolic of the reawakening of nature, its rituals secular, dating back three thousand years. In the weeks prior to the new year, homes are swept clean, new clothes are purchased, seeds are germinated for sprouts, and a ceremonial table, the Haftsin, is set with seven symbols of spring and rebirth.

Year after year, a generation of Iranian-Americans like me, who arrived nearly four decades ago as teenagers, fumble through preparations for a holiday that falls somewhere between Valentine’s Day and Easter, trying our best to follow the customs lest we lose this hallmark of our homeland, too. Nostalgia hits us each spring and we are excited again, to get the tradition right. For the next eight years, President Obama continued to send a Norooz message, always quoting a Persian poet, even going so far as setting a Haftsin table at the White House, dictating a peacefulness we had thought unattainable. We listened, clinging to every word. Let me tell you, it blew our minds. For the first time, in a long time, overcome with a sense of belonging, we celebrated spring with new vigor.

This year, the vernal equinox, that moment when the sun crosses the earth’s celestial equator, making night and day of equal length will occur on March 20th, at 3:28 A.M. PST. I’ll set my alarm for 3:25, allowing myself four minutes to crawl out of bed and acknowledge the moment before going back to sleep. When I was a child, regardless of the hour, my parents gathered us around the haftsin table just before a radio broadcast of the countdown to the spring equinox followed by the Shah’s new year wishes. Throughout my childhood I expected something magical to happen when the clock struck spring, and afterwards, it really did feel dreamy to see my family in such good spirits, beautiful in their new clothes.

Spring comes earlier to my home in California. Already, the neighborhood trees are in full bloom. Recent rainstorms have lifted us from a five- year drought and the hills are bright green again. Ah, Spring, you never give up. You insist on coming back. I see you emerging from the cracks in the sidewalk, from the tight buds on the branches, making me tipsy with your heavy scent of hyacinth. I stand at the kitchen sink to wash the breakfast dishes and hear your song before I see you prancing for your mate. This tiny patch of earth where you flower is my garden and I ought to run out there to greet you but I shrug and turn away. This spring, no matter how much I try, my devotion to the season’s festivities has waned. In a brute reversal of goodwill, our delicate peace is threatened and the message so far has been menacing. Even so, I go to the Persian market to restock my pantry with pistachios and cardamom and I look back to the screen wistfully.