Nowruz From Afar: What the Persian New Year Means to Me

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A first-generation Iranian-American, Candice Navi hopes to become more in touch with her Iranian identity. (Courtesy of Candice Navi)

I was born in Los Angeles, but the memory of Iran invokes a potent nostalgia for my parents and older relatives, who all completely uprooted themselves to escape religious persecution during the country's revolution in the late 1970s.

The Iran of today doesn’t align with my family’s stories about the Iran of 40 years ago.

Still, I dream of visiting. It's an aspiration that grows especially strong during Nowruz, the Persian New Year, which coincides with the start of spring.

But I may never be able to experience Iran for myself. Beyond the geopolitical complications, being a Jewish woman, and an artist, makes a visit especially risky.

So I live with the possibility that I may never go to Iran. I wish I could see where my parents grew up in Tehran, where all our customs, food, language, and the indescribable ways of our being originated.

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I have only recently begun engaging with my Iranian culture, in hopes of partially reversing my assimilation. My parents have proudly championed their desire to adapt in order to survive here as immigrants. I saw this throughout my upbringing in Los Angeles. My first name has no relation to my heritage. I have a Southern California accent and a laid back demeanor to match. I went to schools where there were just a handful of Persian students.

Navi's mother lighting Shabbat candles at their Los Angeles home. (Candice Navi)

Even though there are a lot of Iranian Jews in L.A., the coexistence of these two identities confuses people who are only familiar with contemporary politics in the Middle East. Perhaps they’re not aware of the thousands of years Jews have been in the region.

For most of my life, I have felt closer to Judaism than to my Iranian heritage. And my connection to Iran was limited to food and conversational Farsi.

But after college, I asked my parents to exclusively speak to me in Farsi. I’ve even been studying how to read and write it.

I love living in L.A. because Persian culture is so accessible, so embedded in the city’s landscape. I now seek out the work of local Iranian artists, I read books by Persian authors and poets, listen to cheesy Persian party music and watch Iranian movies at the indie theater a few blocks from where I grew up.

Like many Iranian households, Navi's home is draped with Persian rugs, a symbol of Iranian artistry. (Candice Navi)

And yet my memories are peppered with moments in which I was forced to realize I was different. I remember elementary school classmates making fun of my lunches, confusing the dill on my rice for ants. I remember strangers questioning if I was from L.A., asking things like, “No, where are you really from?” When I finally met more Iranians in college, they all jokingly referred to me as “white-washed.”

This is the struggle of a first-generation American: simultaneously belonging and not belonging.

Though I may never see Iran for myself, I have spent my adult life reclaiming my heritage and grasping for my family’s history, language, religion, and culture before it fades into the American abyss. During Nowruz and throughout the year, I want my heritage to be something I lovingly and proudly carry with me.

Candice Navi is a Graphic Design MFA student at CalArts, where her work often explores her Middle Eastern heritage. This piece is a part of a series she created about the Iranian matriarchs in her family.