Understanding the Persian New Year Tradition That Involves a Goldfish

New Year, New Fish

Zahra Noorbakhsh wants to buy a goldfish for her haft sin, a festive table set-up for Nowruz, or Persian New Year. “You decorate it with seven things that start with the letter sin,” the Los Angeles comedian tells me as we stroll Westwood Boulevard, a.k.a. Tehrangeles, the commercial centre of the world’s largest Iranian diaspora community. Sin is roughly equivalent to the English letter S, and Noorbakhsh has her sib (apple), sir (garlic) and other essentials – though she says it feels incomplete without goldfish: maahi-e ghermez.

“Why?” I ask. “It doesn’t start with sin.”

She shrugs. Like most of the 300 million Kurds, Afghans and others celebrating today, Noorbakhsh doesn’t know much about the whys of Zoroastrian traditions. Only the hows – the most important “how” being that we ring in Nowruz at the precise moment the earth’s equatorial plane aligns with the centre of the sun: 2:58:27 p.m. in L.A. this year. With under an hour until the spring equinox, time is running out for goldfish procurement.

By now, most of the many Iranian-owned businesses in the L.A. area are closed. The only face inside the rug shops and bookstores is a portrait of the valorous-looking, fallen Shah. “Nowruz is the one holiday all Iranians can unite around, because it’s not religiously specific,” says Noorbakhsh. Luckily for us, Westwood’s famous Saffron & Rose Persian Ice Cream and a few other fragrant restaurants in Persian Square are keeping their doors open. But first, the fish.

July 1, 2019
Goldfish are used for a festive table set-up during the Persian New Year

In the window of a Persian grocer, Noorbakhsh spies a row of fishbowls, each with a single inhabitant, displayed alongside other haft-sin ornaments. Inside, she snatches one up. We squeeze through the cramped aisles to the end of a queue stretching from the front till to the back wall. Waiting among the other last-minute shoppers, she stares into the bowl curiously before tapping the shoulder of an old man with a basket of pomegranates and vegetables. “Excuse me, do you know what the fish is about?”

“It’s a symbol of life,” he says matter of factly.

She turns to me, newly satisfied. “Now we know.”

Her symbol of life bagged up, we follow the scent of grilled meats and spinach stew to a little courtyard, ringing in the ancient New Year with a group broadcasting early-morning celebrations in Iran over a phone. A countdown isn’t Noorbakhsh’s tradition, but given that we’re in Persian Square, just west of Beverly Hills, we do it anyway – “Eid-e Shoma Mubarak!

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