Red Wednesday

Red Wednesday

A full two decades after I reformed, the urge came back to set things on fire. Not arson, per se, but a pre-programmed drive to start fires on one particular night of the year—and to jump over the flames. I made six or eight pyres of thinly chopped firewood in my back yard, formed pathways with a few dozen votives, and spent the rest of the afternoon chasing after golpar.

“Gol what?” No one had heard of the fragrant Persian flower. How was it possible that this dried herb could exist only in Iran and Sweden? Exasperated, I called my mother. “I’m making my pomegranate-vodka drink for Red Wednesday, and I can’t find golpar anywhere,” I said. My mother seemed to understand the connection. “I’m sure I included some in that box of spices I made for you,” she said. The box was meant as a survival kit for my American wife, but because everything was labeled in Farsi, it bore a certain offhand statement. I found it buried in the garage, and sure enough it contained the largest stash of golpar this side of the Euphrates.

By nightfall, my backyard was ablaze, and we were jumping: twenty of my new-world friends, their kids, and my own grade-school daughters—their first Red Wednesday. By their age I would have counted down the days, negotiated the size tumbleweed I was allowed to ignite, and come morning of the Tuesday before the Iranian New Year, fire would be all I could think. Eddie, our pediatrician friend known for his seat-of-the-pants quirkiness—he once showed up with a shop vac and two reels of hose to suck out a dead mouse from my heating duct—looked a bit worried. Andrew, a kindergartener, was unstoppable. Four-year-old Ari was possessed.

“So why are we doing this?” said Eddie, stirring his drink.


March 19 marks Chahar-shanbeh Suri (Red Wednesday), the fire-jumping ceremony preceding the vernal equinox, the start of the Iranian New Year. On the night before the last Wednesday of the year, Iranians hold up their pagan past to their Islamic realities. This isn’t unique to Iranians in Iran; the same impulse takes hold of expats in Houston, Virginia, Vancouver, London, Frankfurt, and also in Southern California where a half-million California émigrés exert their pre-Islamic identity more eagerly than most. In Iran, in recent years, the event has acquired a political edge: Iran v. the mullahs. The Islamic Republic frowns on the ritual that predates it, that hearkens back to the nation’s ancestral Zoroastrian religion. Occasionally, when Islam’s lunar-based commemorations run into Iran’s solar timescale, the mullahs ban the outburst. Once, when the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan aligned with the vernal equinox, they deemed the New Year itself unIslamic. How to fast and feast simultaneously?

On my family’s first spring in America, a year after the shah was deposed and the Ayatollah’s Islamic order walled us off from our past, Red Wednesday loomed tauntingly. In preparation for Noruz, New Year’s Day, my mother had started sprouting a thin layer of lentils in a quiche platter. By Red Wednesday, she began to assemble the New Year’s table—a ritual offering of seven primordial S’s. Sprouted seeds—sabzeh—was one. Vinegar, garlic, sumac, apples, wheat paste, and the fruit of lotus trees completed the group. “Can we have a fire tonight?” I asked my parents. They exchanged uncertain looks. “Sure,” said my mother.

I went into the garage, scavenged for anything that could burn, then made a heap on the manicured lawn of our townhouse. When it got dark, I set my junk on fire and started jumping. Your redness of me, my pallor of you, I chanted over and over until our neighbor Bob rushed down with a fire extinguisher. “What’s going on?” he asked. My parents wore blissful smiles, aglow in nostalgia. They cradled one another around the waist and looked on as their son threw himself into the roaring fire. “It is our custom,” said my father, “because next week is the new year.” Bob was utterly befuddled. He noted that the eucalyptus trees all around us were extremely flammable, and “Anyway,” he said, “it’s illegal to start a fire outdoors in a non-designated area.”

A designated area for fire? Who had ever heard of such a thing? Year after year, the fires came back, and panicked neighbors were quick to summon 911. Firemen in heavy, decked-out suits rushed to save our lives only to find us leaping—men, women, children, grandmas and grandpas. But why? they wanted to know. Why? And we tried our hardest to come up with a convincing answer. It was empowering. We were inviting the dead back. The fire imparted life and took away sickness. We were throwing the year’s troubles into the fire, starting anew. Because the mullahs don’t like it hadn’t occurred to us yet.

The last time I jumped was in college, but by then the question had begun to confound me too. Removed from its autochthonous context and confined as it had become to remote fire pits along Southern California beaches, I came face to face with the absurdity of the event. Why start a fire; why on this day; why jump; and what did that damn chant mean? Immigration’s bipolarity had caught up to me, and I couldn’t go on. Four thousand years of jumping ended with me.


Eddie’s questions are often rhetorical. He loves irony, and what better irony than to invite a pediatrician to a family-style fire-jumping ceremony? But he was waiting for an answer, and I was trying to formulate something clever when my daughters interrupted. “How do you say the chant again?”

“Your redness of me, my pallor—”

They cut me off. “No, how do you say it in Farsi?”

I was taken aback. Getting my kids to say a few things in Farsi usually involves bribes. Here, for the first time, they were asking to speak it without provocation. I recited the chant. They practiced it a few times in front of me, then tore off to try it the way it was done in the land of their ancestors—forever, presumably.

I turned to Eddie, the question having answered itself. “We do this because we’ve always done this,” I said.

“And the drink?” he said.


My Little Kvetch

My Little Kvetch

Recently, I walked into a bookstore and asked to be shown the short-story section. I should be honest and say, it had never occurred to me until it spilled out of my mouth that such a distinction should even exist. But I’d said it, and the gray-haired bookkeeper looked back at me blankly. “Short-story section?” he repeated like I had used an odd Yiddish term for prose. And so began my indignation that a form as distinct as poetry should be slotted in the catch-all section fiction. Since then, I’ve been on a quest to discover, purchase, and blare about great short-story collections.

My most surprising find has been Natasha by Latvian/Canadian David Bezmozgis. David’s comedian rhythm and keen sense of irony are beautifully paired with his hopelessly lost Eastern European characters. But these are much more than “immigrant” stories: there’s never a hint of loss or longing. As charmingly different as they are, David’s characters are instantly recognizable, their dilemmas are universally understood.

The debut author Megan Mayhew Bergman’s collection Birds of a Lesser Paradise is delightfully satisfying for vastly different reasons. Megan’s stories stride along emotional boundaries so loaded and tense, one senses a trapeze artist at work, attempting the impossible and getting away with it. Love and mortality are often at stake; our lost human connection to the earth and to animals always lingers in the background. It’s a tender work by a new writer.

Finally, ever since I read Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book the Haggadah has been on my radar. A recent article in the New York Times about the release of the New American Haggadah brought me to Nathan Englander, one of the editors, and his new collection of shorts What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. What does this have to do with the Haggadah? Nothing, only that I find it exciting to discover that a single author has such wildly different interests. Reading What We Talk About, you could never guess that someone so defining of current literature could edit a two thousand year old text. Nathan’s snappy, efficient prose has that unmistakable stamp of authority and craft. His characters are supremely vivid; each quiet gesture means something; everything and everyone serve a grand purpose. This is a collection as much to be enjoyed as to be pored over as a handbook on the form. It also makes a convincing case that we do, indeed, need a new bookstore section!

Old-School Terror

Old-School Terror

Not long ago, it was understood that nations obfuscated their motives, and terrorists openly lashed out against perceived injustice. There was never any doubt which group had hijacked a passenger plane, blown up a London restaurant, or been responsible for the kidnap and massacre of Israeli athletes. Heads of state, for their part, never let on that it was they who orchestrated the fall of such and such government or the installation of a ruler to their liking.

In a few short decades, the trend has reversed. We might look at the 1981 Israeli bombing of a sovereign nation as the turning point. No one now faults Menachem Begin for ordering an air strike against Osirak, Saddam Hussein’s French-built nuclear reactor. But in its day, the assault outraged world leaders and was condemned unanimously by the United Nations Security Council. By 2007, Ehud Olmert’s decision to level Bashar al-Assad’s nuclear facility elicited a completely different reaction. The United States admitted to having prior knowledge of the bombardment, Syria’s Arab neighbors gave it their tacit approval, and only North Korea, Syria’s supplier, was left crying foul.

Of course, the chutzpah isn’t unique to Israel. In the United States, the administration sold the idea of WMDs in Iraq with such conviction that to have found none left no other reason for the invasion but one: blatant opportunism. It was a minor setback compared to shooting down an Iranian passenger jet in 1988, killing the 290 on board, and then decorating the captain of USS Vincennes, the carrier in the Persian Gulf from which the strike was carried out. Disregard for a nation’s integrity continues in Pakistan where, every several weeks, the U.S. accidentally strikes the wrong target. Recently, when in the course of spying, a drone was lost over Iran, President Obama asked for it back.

On the other hand, terrorism, once driven by limpid objectives, now operates under a cloaked rationale. Was it mere coincidence that within months of the Persian Gulf fiasco a Pan Am 747 was blown up over Lockerbie? Tehran didn’t endorse the attack, and ostensible ties to Libya made no sense. We were baffled. By 2001, the shift was complete. In fact, it took massive detective work to identify Osama bin Laden as the mastermind of 9/11. As an act of terrorism, 9/11 was a radical departure from old-school terror: no one understood—or yet understands—the reason, the demand, the hope. Terrorism had always involved a barter, do this or else; now for every explicit state-stamped onslaught, a hundred mysterious, seemingly random, sacrificial counterstrikes are waged.

For nostalgia’s sake, I would like to return to the order of the 1970s. In this fantasy, world leaders would connive their way through politics, and we would recognize it as statecraft. Certainly, Israel would not be discussing a bombing raid against Iran in the New York Times Magazine. Instead, Mr. Netanyahu would pay lip service to Iran’s sovereignty and vehemently deny having anything to do with the Stuxnet worm, the assassination of Iran’s nuclear scientists, or the spy pigeons found near Natanz nuclear facility. Terrorists, too, would revert back to their previous selves. They would stop being so frustratingly abstract. Each group would have a website with a link to its demands. They would keep a running post of their attacks and spell out the horror they would unleash until their goals were met.


Choosing a Title

Choosing a Title

A decade in the making and five months from publication, the memoir finally has a title that resonates. I’ve tried a dozen so far, and each time, I’ve rushed to change the title page of the manuscript to see the lone emblem sit there uncomfortably. Self-assured ones got time in physical print; they peered back from their hallowed place atop a stack of sheets as though strutting their candidacy. Each new title proclaimed, I am the one who captures your exact cause. And when they fell out of favor and there were no heirs apparent, they clung to their venerable post like a king who had already been overthrown but didn’t know it yet. The last one, Something to Declare, was almost right: there is a declaration in this story, both literal and figurative, but it was the latter connotation that mattered to me. With We Heard the Heavens Then, I initially took an aloof stance. I wrote it on a note card first. I let it lie around the house with a bunch of other could be’s. Several times, apropos of nothing, I tried it on my wife and kids to see their reaction. Then it made it into an email, casually dropped in a list of others. I tried not to make too much of its meaning. So what that its cadence was pleasing or the fact that I liked its shape. But the first time I gave it time on the title page, it spoke to me: revolutions arise from tragic romance, from huge aspirations, and I truly believe the opposing sides charted in this memoir shared the same divine call to action.