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Source: NY Times

Mar 13, 2024

Dancing and Jumping Over Fire, Iranians Use Holiday to Defy Rules

Large crowds packed the streets to celebrate the tradition of Chaharshanbeh Suri. Iran has banned dancing in public, which has also been a way to protest

By Farnaz Fassihi

Iranians have looked for opportunities in recent months to display defiance against the rules of the clerical government. In Tuesday night’s annual fire festival, many found a chance.

Across Iran, thousands of men and women packed the streets as they danced wildly to music and jumped joyfully over large bonfires, according to videos on social media and interviews with Iranians. The police said the crowds were so large in Tehran and other cities that traffic came to a standstill for many hours and commuters had difficulty reaching public transportation, according to Iranian news reports.

Dancing, especially for men and women together, is banned in public in Iran and has long been a form of protest.

In many places, the gatherings turned political, with crowds chanting, “Freedom, freedom, freedom,” “Death to the dictator” and “Get lost, clerics,” according to videos and interviews with participants. In the city of Rasht in northern Iran, a crowd booed security officers who drove by in motorcycles, videos showed.

A man in Tehran celebrating Chaharshanbeh Suri. This year, the celebration became another example of how many Iranians have moved away from the ruling clerics.Credit...Arash Khamooshi for The New York Times

Iranians were celebrating the ancient Persian tradition of Chaharshanbeh Suri before the coming new year, Nowruz, which is on the first day of spring. In a ritual on the eve of the last Wednesday of the year, people jump over fire to cleanse the spirit from malaise of the old year and take on the glow of the flames in preparation for the new year.

The dancing crowds were another example of how far a large part of Iran’s society, particularly the youth, has moved away from the ruling clerics. “The people are so happy, God willing the toppling of the Islamic Republic,” a narrator of celebrations in the city of Karaj said in a video published by BBC Persian.


Iranian women in Tehran celebrating. In cities across Iran, large crowds danced wildly and jumped over bonfires.Credit...Arash Khamooshi for The New York Times

The government crushed a nationwide uprising in 2022 that was led by women and girls who demanded an end to clerical rule. Since then, many Iranians have used religious ceremonies, popular songs and sports events to continue voicing their demand for change.

When the revolution toppled the monarchy in 1979, the new clerical rulers declared an Islamic theocracy and for years discouraged and even cracked down on Persian celebrations that predated Islam, including Chaharshanbeh Suri. But Iranians continued to celebrate the ritual, which they consider an inseparable part of Iranian culture.

“The celebration of Persian holidays and the exhibition of joyous gatherings have become inherently political, which is why we are also seeing antigovernment slogans” said Nahid Siamdoust, an assistant professor in media and Middle East studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “These festivities unite Iranians across the country and provide an opportunity for people to exhibit a sociality that is at odds with state-imposed culture.”

In some apartment complexes in Tehran and other cities, DJs played Persian pop songs as a packed crowd danced and sang along, according to videos on social media and BBC Persian. In other places, parked cars blasted music from speakers in an open trunk. Young women, their hair flowing in defiance of the mandatory hijab law, danced on top of cars and in groups.

Iranian men and women in Tehran. On the eve of the last Wednesday of the year, people jump over fire to cleanse the spirit.Credit...Arash Khamooshi for The New York Times

People circled the bonfire and held hands while singing “For Women, for Life, for Freedom” from the lyrics of “Baraye,” an anthem of the female-led uprising in 2022, videos on BBC Persian showed. The singer and songwriter Shervin Hajipour won a Grammy Award last year for the song. This month, Iran sentenced Mr. Hajipour to prison.

Singing his song on Tuesday was a way to show solidarity, said Narges, a 35-year-old in Tehran who asked that her surname not be used for fear of retribution.

There were reports on social media of sporadic clashes between the crowds and security forces. One video showed forces dispersing the crowds in the neighborhood of Narmak in Tehran by smashing the windows of a cafe where people had gathered to dance.

Every year, the celebrations lead to casualties because of unsafe handling of homemade explosives and fireworks. Iran’s Emergency Center said at least 14 people were killed and nearly 1,800 suffered injuries from burns, according to official media reports.

Farnaz Fassihi is a reporter for The New York Times based in New York. Previously she was a senior writer and war correspondent for the Wall Street Journal for 17 years based in the Middle East. More about Farnaz Fassihi

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