“I was worried about feeling lonely, but it was totally the opposite”: How a Toronto woman celebrated Iranian new year over FaceTime

“I was worried about feeling lonely, but it was totally the opposite”: How a Toronto woman celebrated Iranian new year over FaceTime

Minoo Behzadi

In Iranian culture, the new year, or Nowruz, is all about connecting with family—a lot of family. The tradition is that you visit your oldest relatives first and work your way down. When I was a kid in Tehran, we would literally see hundreds of people—sometimes seven or eight visits a day, short stop-ins for tea and a chickpea cookie called nokhodchi.

My brother immigrated to Canada in 2001, and the rest of my family arrived over the next several years. I was 35 when I came to Canada in 2015. We wanted to be somewhere with more opportunity and stability than we had back home. My mom and dad liked Vancouver because my brother was already there and the weather was milder. But Toronto was where I wanted to be—this is where the job opportunities are. I’m also single and I wanted to be somewhere where I was going to be able to have a social life. In Toronto I’ve connected with a lot of friends from back home who I hadn’t seen since in years.

Last year, my immediate family spent Nowruz together for the first time since we’d come to Canada at my parents’ home in Vancouver. We had such a good time drinking tea, laughing about the past, watching TV. I remember my dad sitting on the couch one night. He wasn’t saying much, just listening. Later, he said that this was what he loved: just watching his family spend time together. At the time we had no idea that he wouldn’t be with us for much longer. My dad died last year; his health declined after surgery. He was 85.

My siblings and I were all supposed to gather in Vancouver this year to support my mom for her first new year without my dad. At least, that was the plan before Covid-19. Because Iran was one of the first countries outside of China to get hit with the virus, many people in the Iranian-Canadian community were following the story and grasping the urgency earlier than most. Toronto’s Tigran Nowruz Spring Festival, the biggest celebration of Iranian art and culture in the world, was cancelled back on March 5—early compared to most other large events around the city. A couple days after it was cancelled, I FaceTimed my mom and told her I didn’t think it was a good idea to fly. She understood, but I could see from her eyes that she was disappointed. We all were.

At that point, I still thought it would be okay to celebrate with my friends here in Toronto. But a lot changed over the next few days, and I decided to celebrate at home by myself. I did my food shopping five or six days time in advance to ensure I was able to get the items I needed. I bought a piece of salmon to make sabzi polo mahi, which is a dish of fish and herbs and rice baked in the oven. I also got the ingredients for reshteh polo, a noodle and rice dish that you eat for the first lunch of the new year. Usually, my mom is in charge of all of this. She’s an amazing cook, and she guided me through everything on FaceTime. I wasn’t able to get all of the herbs required for the fish, so she helped me figure out the best substitutes.

I decorated early too—almost a week in advance. I thought making my house feel festive was a good way to stay positive; plus, it gave me something to do during isolation The first thing you do to prepare for Nowruz is clean your home from top to bottom—you mop the floors, clear the cupboards, strip the beds. The rest of the decor is centred around the kitchen table. The table setting is called Haft-sin, which is basically an arrangement of symbolic items that start with the letter “s” in the Persian alphabet: garlic, apples, olive oil, a bunch of other stuff. We use hyacinth flowers to symbolize the coming of spring, and a mirror for self-reflection. And then you can add personal touches. I chose a family photo, a wooden chess and backgammon board that was my dad’s favourite and a small oil lamp. It doesn’t work anymore, but it has a lot of meaning: it was in my home during the Iraq War, back when we had power outages almost every night. It makes me feel connected to my family and to the idea that there have been times of struggle before, and we got through them

This may be an advantage for those of us who come from countries that have experienced war and instability. The Covid-19 crisis isn’t entirely unfamiliar. In Iran, you don’t see people buying out all of the toilet paper. They have been here before, and they know it’s best not to panic. In Canada, we are used to having so much that the idea of scarcity feels new and scary. But we also have so much to be grateful for. Here, we can trust our authorities, we have good health care.

I was so touched on Friday when Justin Trudeau took time at the end of his press conference to wish Iranian-Canadians a happy new year and to acknowledge how much our community has been through this year. Even though we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, a lot of people still want to make sure to honour all of the loss experienced with the Ukrainian Airlines crash. I don’t know anyone in my community who wasn’t affected by that tragedy. A lot of people included the number 176—the number of people who died—in their Haft-sin displays, or photos of loved ones who were lost.

The precise hour of the new year is determined by the equinox. This year’s was 11:49 p.m. Toronto time on March 19. My mom and I were on FaceTime in the lead-up, watching BBC Persia for the countdown. It was special to be able to be “together” even though we weren’t. After we hung up, she called my siblings and I chatted with family and friends. It’s funny because I had been worried about feeling lonely, but it was really the opposite.

Normally this is a time when people make wishes for themselves and their loved ones—health, prosperity, that kind of thing. This year, people were wishing for everyone: not just the Iranian community, but the whole world. I feel lucky that millions of people had the opportunity to celebrate hope and renewal when the world is going through such a difficult time. Nowruz literally means “new day.” More than ever, that’s something that gives us a lot of hope.