My Roots

by Shiva Jabandeh

Because I was born in the Netherlands, my parents tried to raise me to be as European as possible. Their roots were still very visible though. They didn’t live in the Netherlands long enough to adopt all the Dutch ways, and thankfully so. It’s a blessing to be raised multicultural. So, allow me to introduce you to the Iranian ways.


In Iranian culture, the word ‘no’ is pretty much non-existent. Whether you’ve been invited, or you come to our homes unannounced, you’ll never be rejected. In fact, you’ll be welcomed with open arms. You’ll probably end up staying for hours and hours. They’re always ready to add a plate to the table – extra food is prepared at all times, just in case.

When you visit an Iranian household, be ready to be stuffed with food. They will offer you more than just a cup of tea and a cookie. They offer you everything they have in their home, from fruit to sweets to even cooking a whole meal. However, there is this concept in Iran called ‘tarof’. It’s basically the custom of saying no a few times when someone offers you something, before eventually accepting it and saying yes. It’s almost rude to say yes, immediately. In Iran, they consider it ‘very European’ when you say yes on the first offer.

Their hospitality is also seen in their attitude towards people asking for directions. They won’t just tell you which way to go. They’ll walk you, or even drive you there themselves, just to make sure you get where you need to be. This isn’t always the case, of course. Sometimes, the possibility just isn’t there. But most of the time, they won’t let you wander around on your own.


Haft-sin is a symbolic concept in Iran. ‘Haft’ means seven, and ‘sin’ is a letter from the Iranian alphabet, comparable to ‘S’. In every home, a table is filled with growing ‘sabzeh’ (sprouted greens), ‘samanu’ (pudding like dish made of wheat and wheat flour), ‘senjed’ (Russian olives), ‘serkeh’ (vinegar), ‘seeb’ (apples), ‘seer’ (garlic), and somãq (sumac). We also add ‘sekke’ (coins), ‘sonbol’ (hyacinth), and a small ‘saat’ (clock). The table is usually decorated with a mirror, goldfish, candles, painted eggs, and a book of wisdom. This could be the Quran, the Bible, or even the Book of Hafez, who is a very famous poet in the history of Iran. All the different elements on the table have a symbolic meaning. For example, sprouted greens are a symbol of rebirth and growth, vinegar is a symbol of patience, eggs are a symbol of fertility, and the mirror is a symbol of self-reflection. Every household will have a table filled with these things in the upcoming twelve days of Nowruz.


The Iranian new year is called Nowruz. This is a huge part of our culture. It starts on the first day of Spring, which is the first day of the Iranian calendar. The Tuesday evening before Nowruz is called ‘Chaharshambe Suri’. The idea is comparable to New Year’s Eve, but the concept is completely different. Instead of fireworks, people jump over fires. This sounds crazy, but it’s so much fun. They design a row of multiple seats of fire, and people jump over them. Of course, there is a deeper meaning to it. They say jumping over the fire means you’re burning away sickness and bad luck of the past year. This way, space is created for good energy in the new year. My mom also taught me that the ancient Iranians used to worship fire. It was seen as the spirit of God. Jumping over the fire is also a way of calling the strength of that fire upon us.

Needless to say, there’s also a lot of dancing and eating. People take out their ‘tombak’, which is an Iranian drum, and others start dancing and singing. On Chaharshambe Suri, the most traditional dish is ‘ash’. Ash is a sort of soup. A few people make a huge pot and share it with everyone else. This is also thought through. It’s because the night of Chaharshambe Suri is mostly a very cold night. Nothing is better on a cold night than a good old bowl of ash.

But that’s only the Tuesday night before Nowruz. The 12 days following are weeks full of visitations, dinner parties, the lot. First, they go to the older people and kiss their hands. Then they go to the people who are younger, then they go to the people who are younger than them, and so on.

Each day stands for each month of the year. On the thirteenth day, it’s ‘Sizdah Bedar’. This is when everyone goes to the park with a lot of food and music (again). They also bring the sprouted roots from their haft-sin. As they picnic, they release the sprouted greens into moving water. You can’t touch someone else’s greens on this day or take the greens back home. That’s considered bad luck. As the greens drift away with the water, so is every bad thing in your soul.

Culture is something close to the heart. It’s something we grow up with and it’s different for everyone. There’s a piece of every individual in every culture, and it’s the best way to get to know each other. Although they’re very different, all cultures have elements representing the beauty of the people who live it. And in my opinion, we’re lucky to be surrounded by so many different cultures.