Nod to Nowruz: Afghan Student Association co-hosts College’s first Persian New Year celebration


Tuesday, March 19, the College of William and Mary’s Afghan Student Association collaborated with members of the Iranian student community to commemorate the opening of the new year according to the Zoroastrian calendar. Remarkably, this event marks the first time in the College’s 331-year long history that the 3000-year-old holiday of Persian New Year, known in the Iranian language of Farsi as Nowruz, is being celebrated in any sort of official capacity.

The first thing guests were greeted with as they walked into Sadler’s York Room was a table spread. This table is known as the Haft-Sin, and it features “haft,” or seven, symbolic items that start with “sin,” or the “s” sound, in order to usher in good tidings for the new year. These items typically include greens known as sabzeh, which embody rebirth; pudding called samanu, to represent affluence; dried fruit called senjed, to symbolize love; garlic, or sir, to stand for medicine; red apples, called sib, to welcome beauty and health; sumac berries, or somaq, to signify the sunrise; and vinegar, or serkeh, to manifest age and patience. Nodding to the spread in front of her, Sarah Mahooti ’25 recalled setting up a similar table with her family in years past.

“When I grew up, the prep would start with sabzeh on the table, which is the greens that were grown,” Mahooti said. “We would try to sprout those ourselves every year. It didn’t always go super well, not everyone in my family has a green thumb, but that would be the start of the preparations. Then we’d make a bunch of Persian food for dinner, and it was a great time.” 

Additionally on the table were other traditional treats, including walnut cookies called nan-e gerdooi, raisin cookies called shirini keshmeshi, garbanzo cookies called nan-e nokhodchi, dried dates and pita bread. Also present was a pistachio egg-white nougat known as gaz, which gets its name from the Gazangabin tree it comes from that provides its characteristic gooiness. 

Nowruz actually lasts for 13 days, beginning with the organization of the Haft-Sin on the Spring equinox and ending with another tradition known as Sizdah Be-dar. This involves throwing out the sabzeh, as a gesture for leaving bad luck behind in exchange for a year of good fortune. 

“I’ve heard that in Afghanistan it’s different, but in Iran, on the 13th day, we have Sizdah Be-dar, which is like, you take the sabzeh and you go to a river and have a picnic and throw the sabzeh in the water to symbolize the new beginnings,” Lauren Jebrailo ’27 said. 

This idea for the Nowruz event was first broached by Jebrailo and Professor of History and International Relations Peyman Jafari, whose Modern Iran class Jebrailo took last semester. They contacted President and Founder of Afghan Student Association Koachai Samim ’24, who helped make the project a reality by reaching out to Student Assembly for funding, reserving the event space and advertising on Instagram. 

Samim received approval from the College for ASA in Spring 2023. She created the group as a means to connect with like-minded students on a campus that previously had no such space. 

“I found that I lacked a community on campus,” Samim said. “There didn’t seem to be a lot of Afghan students, and if there were, it was hard to get in touch with each other or to get us all to celebrate our shared culture and customs. So, I decided to go ahead with creating this organization on campus.” 

One challenge Samim encountered upon creating ASA was finding students interested in joining it, since the task involved gathering together people who have not had an official organization under which to unite. 

“I would say in founding the ASA, challenges would be finding other students on campus who identify as Afghan and are interested in coming together to talk about our shared history and culture,” Samim said. “I find that that is very difficult still, because I think there might be some sort of stigma around being Afghan, or maybe they aren’t super willing to be in a space with other Afghans.” 

Since then, Samim has committed to the ambition of not only finding students with similar backgrounds, but also sharing Afghani culture with the rest of the campus community.

“Our main goal is to bring more awareness to our culture and our history, and just to share who we are as a people with the rest of the William and Mary community,” Samim said. “I know that where I’m from in Northern Virginia, there are a lot of Afghans and a lot of people are quite familiar with our culture, but I found that at William and Mary, maybe a lot of people haven’t met someone who’s from Afghanistan before, or maybe don’t know much about the history and what’s happened there in the last decade or two.”

In Afghanistan, along with setting up the Haft-Sin, a Haft-Mewa is also prepared. This is a dish made up of seven fruits, which may include apricots, oleaster, black raisins, apricots, golden raisins, walnuts, pistachios and almonds. Samim also explained that there is regional variation within the country as to how such Nowruz customs are observed.

Samim identified the former absence of an associated identity club as a reason for why an event like this Nowruz celebration hasn’t been held before at the College. Even though there is yet to be an Iranian student organization, Jebrailo said she intends to form one before next year, and Mahooti is already thrilled to see the progress marked by this Nowruz gathering. 

“I’m so happy,” Mahooti said. “Last year, to celebrate Nowruz, I had to bully a friend of mine into driving me 40 minutes to the only Iranian restaurant nearby.”

One of the main goals of the event, besides celebrating the season, was to provide that opportunity for members of the community to find each other. From there, ASA can grow and those interested in forming an Iranian student group can sew the social seeds necessary to make that happen. Jafari communicated how pleased he is to see this social-level engagement.

“I’m just really glad that the students have taught each other and that they can also do something beyond the [Modern Iran] course, just more culturally and on their own level,” Jafari said.

Mahooti expressed the significance of having this kind of cultural community in college, especially for students who do not have as much contact with their heritage at home. 

“Only my dad is Persian, so as a second generation immigrant, I feel like I’m kind of losing the culture sometimes,” Mahooti said. “Like, I don’t really speak Farsi, so it’s nice to be able to interact with other people and kind of still feel engaged even when I’m not at home.”

Looking forward, Pendaar Pooyan ’24 said he hopes students like Mahooti get the permanent space for kinship and support that being in an identity group on campus provides. 

“I think the most important thing about having an Iranian student organization is emotional catharsis, because I’ve had so many times, especially as an IR major, where I’m dealing with something that is about Iran,” Pooyan said. “For example, I’m doing my honors thesis in Hispanic Studies about exile in the case of Venezuela, and it’s emotionally charged for me because exile is so familiar to Iranians, and you don’t have that place to unwind. I hope for the younger Iranian students here that they have that space to decompress that I didn’t have.”

In addition to Iran and Afghanistan, other peoples who celebrate Nowruz include Tajikistan, the non-Iranian Kurdish places in Iraq, Turkey, and Syria, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tatarstan, Crimean Tatars in the Crimean peninsula, the Pashtun and Baloch parts of Pakistan, Shia muslims in Kashmir and certain Muslim orders in Albania. Another notable group is the Parsi people in India. 

Farhad Narielvala, a Parsi-American originally from Mumbai, India and living today in Toano, Virginia, heard about the event from Jafari. He pointed out that one Nowruz custom unique to Parsi culture is visiting a fire temple to offer prayers and thank God for the previous year before commencing festivities for the next one. With that said, he explained the history behind the shared holiday.

“Parsis were originally the Persians that migrated to India and the rest of the world to avoid persecution back in the seventh century A.D., so the Parsis are very much connected to Nowruz, just as any Iranian is,” Narielvala said.

Narielvala has been a member of the William and Mary community for a while, as he has two children who have studied at the College. This has given him the vantage point to appreciate just how much representation for Nowruz-celebrating groups in the area has improved.

“This is the first time we’ve actually celebrated Nowruz with people on a larger scale,” Narielvala said. “We do celebrate Nowruz, we’ve got a few Parsis that live in and around the Richmond area in Virginia, and we try to get together now and then at least once in six months, but nothing compared to this. This is much better.”

Mahooti added that attending such events can be just as helpful to members of the campus community who do not identify with any of the aforementioned groups. She observed that, compared to mainstream sources of information, these occasions highlight Middle Eastern culture in a way that more truly exhibits the beauty, humanity and reality of its lived experiences.

“I feel like people are intimidated by Middle Eastern culture, because of how it’s portrayed in media, so it’s nice to see what it actually looks like on a practical level without the weird objectification that can happen if you’re talking about the Haft Sin from a ritualistic level in a history class,” Mahooti said.

Julia Zhang ’27 agreed that this year’s Nowruz celebration was helpful. She noted that as someone who used to be unfamiliar with the holiday, she walked away feeling welcomed and more knowledgeable.

“I walked in, and a lot of people came up and introduced themselves, and just seeing the recreations of what you can do in that room was really cool, and also having a handout with all the information,” Zhang said. “I was reading this over and over again, because it was so cool to see all the photos, and it was very well made and very informative.”

Pooyan imparted the significance of the event within the greater political context of what has been going on in Iran lately. He pointed out that the progress towards solidarity in Williamsburg, coupled with the troubles in Tehran, combined to lay a lot on the minds and hearts of those in the American-Iranian community.

“For many of us, this day is emotional because many of our relatives are back home in Iran, suffering because of the Islamist regime, where they cannot truly practice Nowruz freely, and so this is a very bittersweet occasion,” Pooyan said.

Jafari emphasized that the very purpose of Nowruz as a time for rebirth offers a particularly salient message of hope amidst it all. 

It’s the beginning of spring, and for me, it’s also a reminder that after winter comes the spring,” Jafari said. “There is always light at the end of the tunnel, and there is always renewal, even in bad times. And honestly, it hasn’t been a good time for people in the Middle East in the last years. So I often think about what is happening, the casualties that are falling currently in Gaza, for instance. I think it is important to remind ourselves of the importance of remaining optimistic.”

As a whole, Mahooti judged that this year’s Nowruz celebration was an undoubtable achievement.

“It’s tradition. It’s bringing people together. There’s food, which is always a huge plus,” Mahooti said. “It’s made me feel at home in a way that I haven’t felt at home on campus before. So I’d say it’s successful.” 

Similarly, Samim looks forward to many more meetings, activities and projects, seeing this year’s Nowruz celebration as just the start of what’s yet to come. 

“This truly is wonderful,” Samim said. “I mean, you have so many people that are not Iranian or Afghan coming here today to celebrate, and they’re just hearing the music and having a good time dancing and enjoying all the food. It’s just a really memorable experience and I’m excited to see where we go in the next year and see how much bigger and livelier our events get.”


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