By Khalida Sarwari
The outfits were lavish and colorful, the smiles were unwavering, the jokes were flowing and the cake was bountiful and sweet. Beneath the veneer of lighthearted fun that the West Valley College Persian New Year celebration has come to personify over the years, the warm breeze that passed through the Campus Center on Monday afternoon carried a solemness, a palpable uneasiness.
The observation didn’t go unnoticed by Renee Paquier, one of two organizers of the annual event and chairwoman of the administration of justice department at West Valley College. She admitted there was visible reticence among the crowd of 400-plus people who were mostly Iranian-Americans, one of the largest refugee populations in Santa Clara County.
“Within the people that attended, I felt they were more reserved this year,” she said. “But, I also felt they were happy to be a part of a happy celebration.”
Paquier was right; the mood at the March 13 event was convivial for the most part. The Beshkan Dance Academy swayed in brightly colored dresses to folkloric music. Iranian-American comedian and actor Maz Jobrani delivered a lengthy stand-up routine that delighted the younger guests—if perhaps alienating some of the older members of the Persian-American community, whose calm demeanor belied their inability to fully comprehend some of his puns and punchlines.
Young and old noshed on chocolate cake, posed in front of the “Haft Seen” display (a traditional Nowruz table setting that includes seven items starting with the letter “S” in the Persian alphabet) and wished each other “Sal-e Naw Mubarak,” or “Happy New Year” in Farsi, the official language of Iran.
Nowruz, which translates literally to “new day” in Farsi, is a secular holiday that marks the first day of spring and the beginning of the year on the Iranian calendar. It is celebrated on the Vernal equinox, which occurs on March 20 this year. While originally a Zoroastrian festival, the holiday now is celebrated and observed in Iran–where it is an official holiday lasting for 13 days–and many other parts of the world, including regions of Afghanistan, Azerbaijan and China.
Parnya Baradaran, a recent UC-Davis grad who resides in Santa Clara, came to the event with a group of friends to support her friend, a dancer for the Beshkan Dance Academy. While she was entertained by Jobrani’s political jokes, many of which touched upon the Trump administration’s recently issued travel ban on visitors from six Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, she preferred instead to discuss the lighter aspects of the event.
“I love Persian dancing. I’ve done Persian dancing four or five years myself,” she said. “It gives me a good feeling just seeing young people being involved in the community. For me, it’s very inspiring to see that at the end of the day, we’re all in this together and we’re here as a community.”
Parvaneh Shirazi, a San Jose resident with three adult children ranging from 27 to 40, placed the winning bid for a burrito-and-coffee breakfast date with West Valley College’s president Brad Davis. “I want to help students,” she said. Her $550 bid will go toward a scholarship fund for Persian-American transfer students, Paquier said. The event raised nearly $1,000 for the scholarship fund.
Shirazi, whose family immigrated from Iran to the U.S. in 1972, said she is throwing a party at her home later this month to celebrate the holiday with family. And that’s the way it will go for many other Iranian-American families, whose celebrations undoubtedly will be tempered by the climate of fear and anxiety created by the travel ban. Paquier said it was on her mind when she was planning this year’s event.
“I think it felt imperative, not only having the cultural experience with the dances and the poetry, but also to bring someone in that talked about his own experience, but to do it in his own fashion,” she said. “It was the first time we had a comedian come in and talk about these types of issues. We felt it was the right time and an important time with what’s going on politically and culturally to bring him in.”
Born in Tehran, Jobrani and his parents moved to California when he was 6 years old. He was raised in Marin County and earned his undergraduate degree from UC-Berkeley. His upbringing is a regular part of his comedy routine, as is his experience as an immigrant in the U.S. His is a conversational style of comedy that runs the gamut of cultural and religious differences and his interracial family to lately, President Donald Trump and, of course, the travel ban.
“This is interesting actually; some Iranians actually voted for (Trump),” he declared from atop the stage. “I’m sure some of the Iranians here might’ve even voted for him, because they wanted fewer taxes and they ended up with fewer relatives,” he said, eliciting laughter from the crowd.
“That’s fine, no problem. They’re calling home, right?” He paused briefly, pretending to hold a phone to his ear and putting on a thick Persian accent. “Grandma, you can’t come, but I saved three percent on my taxes this year!”
It’s been said that laughter is the best medicine. If that is true, the Iranian-American community and their friends got a nearly two-hour-long dose of it at the March 13 Nowruz event. At the least, it served as an escape from the dour headlines.
“The mood is different right now,” Paquier said. “People are frightened. It’s scary that we’re at a time again where people are looking at you differently because of the culture that you represent.”
Reflecting on the event a day later, Paquier said she wished more people could look past the headlines and educate themselves about the Persian culture.
“Don’t judge us based on what you’re hearing in the media about what our culture is,” she said. “I think this fear that people have is amped up, whether it’s our people or other people. It’s such a beautiful culture and it pains me that people don’t know, that they have no clue how beautiful our culture is.”
Ultimately, that’s the point of the Nowruz event she’s taken upon herself to help organize every year, Paquier said. “It is so important to put on this event to give non-Iranians this one brief glimpse of how amazingly beautiful our culture is.”
The Persian New Year event was sponsored by the West Valley College associated student government, the president’s office, financial aid office, administration of justice department and the student equity and success office.