Jumping over fire, and other ways to celebrate Persian New Year

Four small fires burned outside an Ottawa convention centre earlier this week, awaiting the flame jumpers eager to celebrate Iran's festival of fire, Chahars hanbe Soori.

The scene transported organizer Shay Ayoubzadeh back to his childhood in Iran.

"It almost brings tears to my eyes. [It takes me] back about 40 years, back home where we [had] such a happy time and good time. It all brings back childhood memories," he said at the Tuesday night event.

As people leaped over the flames at the Infinity Convention Centre in Gloucester, expressions of fear and joy swept across their faces.

The fire-jumping event is held annually just before the start of Persian New Year, or Nowruz, which marks the start of spring in Iran and for a number of other cultures around the world.

The young and the old shouted a Zoroastrian purification chant asking for health and luck for the new year.

"It feels good, it feels like you're having a new start, and feels kind of thrilling," said 12-year-old Yasmine Shariat. "I'm excited, but I can't get it out of my mind that your clothes could catch on fire."

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Worth the trouble

Ayoubzadeh organized a few celebrations in Ottawa for the Iranian New Year, including:

  • A Nowruz dinner and dance gala being held at the Infinity Convention Centre on Saturday, March 23.
  • A Nowruz celebration at the University of Ottawa's Alumni Theatre on Sunday, March 24.

The 13-day festival starts the day of the vernal equinox, around March 20 or 21 each year.

It's not easy to organize a fire festival in Ottawa. Ayoubzadeh needed to get a special permit from the city, valid only for half an hour, for Tuesday's fire-jumping event.

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It was a much different experience from his childhood in Iran, when he and his siblings would run around their neighbourhood in Shiraz for days to collect wood beforehand.

"As soon as the night arrived, we set seven or even 10 fires that [were up] to three feet high," he said. "Believe it or not, no incident [or injury] has ever happened that I've seen," he said.

Miriam Katawazi/CBC

Despite being burned during the celebration as a young girl, Maryam Jafari, now 63, jumped the flames in Ottawa Tuesday night with a big smile on her face.

"This is a tradition of a celebration of fire," she said.

"My kids are born and raised here in Canada. This is how I teach them about my culture, this old, ancient culture. It's a celebration of getting together, and the start of the new year."

Miriam Katawazi/CBC
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Miriam Katawazi/CBC
Miriam Katawazi/CBC