Chahaarshanbeh Souri in Emeryville
By Bahman Azimi
The site for celebrating Chahaarshanbeh Souri could not have been better selected. A section of the Emeryville Marina bound on one side by inlet waters, and on the other side by the San Francisco Bay was where the festivities took place. Being there almost felt as though you were on an island, except the parked cars reminded you that you are connected to land by the access road.
Standing at the edge of the water and looking toward the Golden Gate Bridge, you could see Alcatraz Island in the foreground. (If you are not familiar with this area, you can get a glimpse of the view by watching the movie "The Rock" starring Sean Connery.)
The event started at 7:00 pm but, if you arrived a little earlier, you could see the sunset, which was simply breathtaking that evening. The orange sun was setting into the Pacific Ocean right behind a silhouette of the Golden Gate. A few patches of clouds were lingering in the sky, which by now had turned purple, red and orange.
I parked my car in one of the parking lots, which was almost full, and started walking toward where the action was. It was not difficult to find the place. A crowd of about 100 to 150 people had already gathered. It was a family affair. I could see two, sometimes three generations in the crowd. Grandparents were sitting on logs turned into benches around the fire and were chatting. Kids were playing and eyes were scanning the crowd for a familiar face.
The flames were reaching several feet high. The fire was burning in a neatly stacked, stone-lined fire pit, about ten feet in diameter, and raised three feet from the ground. The pit is a permanent fixture in the marina park, and was not specially erected for our Chahaarshanbeh Souri. The event was organized by the Society of Iranian Professionals in the San Francisco Bay Area.
I stood by the fire, not too close, as the flames were too hot. It was not a cool night, unusual for this time of the year. On one of the park benches, a few yards from the fire, a huge deeg (pot) of aash (soup) attracted people like bees around a flower. For a while someone was in charge of dishing out the aash. Later on anarchy took over and it looked like everyone was helping himself. The scent of piaz dagh mixed with the smell of burning wood triggered some childhood memories. It also made me rather hungry.
I was soaking up the sight and the sounds when I was interrupted "Fandak daareed?" I turned to the voice. It was a young girl of about 15, holding two bottles, another girl standing one step behind her. I told her I didn't have a lighter. Being the curious type, I asked why she needed it, when there is a large fire in front of us which could set anything on fire, much less a cigarette. She said she is not using it to light up a cigarette. She wanted to open bottles of beer. Fascinating! Who says they don't teach kids anything in schools these days?
"Is that BEER in those bottles?" I asked her. She gave me a stupid look, and turned and looked at her accomplice to confirm her feeling. I did feel stupid. To redeem myself, I asked my friend next to me for a lighter and passed it to her. Skillfully, she opened both bottles with it and gave it back. She offered to share her bottle of beer with me, and I remembered my mother's words about not sharing a drink with strangers, and refused. The girls looked at each other again, by now convinced they were dealing with a dork and walked away. Oh well.
It was time to gobble up some of that aash. I tried to wait in line leading to the deeg. I couldn't find a line. What was I thinking? This is an Iranian crowd for crying out loud. I elbowed, kicked and forced my way through the crowd close to the aash, and got some objectionable looks along the way, only to find out it was all gone. Too late. The distraction with the girls cost me the aash. No problem. I dug into my pocket and retrieved the emergency supplies: a bag of tokhmeh (roasted, salty, sunflower seeds).
I strolled around the fire and exchanged pleasantries (fadaat besham, mokhlesam) with some people I knew, found myself a quieter spot and stood there gazing at the fire and occasionally watched the crowd. Some kids were stealing the show trying to warm up (or burn, as it mostly turned out) marshmallows stuck at the end of twigs they had just detached from the trees nearby. You can tell when kids are having fun. They scream for no reason, and run, not walk, from one point to another barely three steps away. There was a gang of them, and I wondered if they knew each other. It didn't seem to matter. They were poking the sticks in the fire, at each other, and in the dirt on the ground. One kid tried to barbecue a piece of Styrofoam from a broken cup. That did not go too well with her elder who quickly grabbed it from her.
To my left, a seemingly jealous woman who had noticed some girls eyeing up her handsome husband, said to him in a deliberate, loud voice "Bahram, these girls are looking at you." Her husband took a couple of steps, came closer to her and objected, whispering "Do you have to get so loud?" To which she cynically replied in full volume, "I am saying it loud so the girls would hear it." Oh dear, I thought. I was in the middle of a marital conflict and this could get bloody. I moved to the other side of the crowd around the fire.
A smaller fire burned for those who could not control their urge to jump, even though the notices announcing the event had asked folks not to jump over any pile of fire. A few people, kids and adults, jumped over the fire and chanted "... man as tow, ... tow as man", or some mutated version of it. You could forgive them for that. They had either not been born in Iran, or been away from it for too long. A woman cautioned her companions who were jumping over the fire be careful. "A couple of years ago someone's skirt caught on fire here when she was jumping over," she said. To which a young boy in his infinite wisdom replied "I am not wearing a skirt. I'll be fine."
At around 9 o'clock some of the young ones started with the fireworks. No one seemed to mind it, even the organizers of the event. It was either that or they felt this crowd is out of control, so why even try. I am new to California. Isn't fireworks illegal in this state? One of the adults called a young boy over. I thought he was going to reproach him for playing with fireworks. He grabbed the fireworks from the kid's hand and held it up over his own head and fired a few more rockets into the air. So much for adult supervision. There crowd cheered and clapped.
People who arrived late started parking on the side of the access road, by the fire lanes, close to the fire and the crowd. Emeryville police showed up in two or three police cars. Some of us hard-core Chahaarshanbeh Souri party animals stood confident. Others, perhaps first-timers at this particular location, started to feel nervous and began gathering their belongings; they rounded up the young ones and prepared to leave as they sensed trouble brewing.
Murmur started in the crowd as some were trying to guess at what the police presence meant. Some blamed it on the consumption of alcohol in public, others on use of fireworks. It turned out it was neither. Keyvan Jalali, one of the organizers of the event, gave the police officers the same spiel he had last year and the year before, starting with a brief history of Chahaarshanbeh Souri, the importance of it in the Iranian culture, and ending with an assurance that he does have the fire department's permission. And the police left, but not before asking for the illegally parked cars to be moved from the fire lanes.
By 10 o'clock the flame was dying and no one was putting any more logs in the fire. The crowd, although had decreased in number, did not lack enthusiasm. The party was still alive. Beer was being poured and passed around from a keg wrapped in a black plastic bag, strategically stored in a dark spot away from the fire and the accusing eyes. I was beginning to yawn more frequently and my supply of tokhmeh had ran out. The tokhmeh was extra salty this time. I shouldn't have bought it from a pet supplies store. It was time to go home.