Every spring, the tune of the Iranian national anthem can be heard on the streets of New York City, heralding the start of the annual Persian Parade. Now in its thirteenth year, the parade is part of celebrations for the new year, Nowruz. It celebrates the unique heritage, traditions and culture of Persia, and brings together hundreds of thousands of Iranians and Iranian-Americans, as well as the diverse range of people with links to Persian culture. This year, the parade will take place on Sunday, April 17.
Although the Iranian community is young in the United States — emerging out of the large groups of Iranians who left their native country following the 1979 Islamic Revolution — it’s a close-knit and expanding one, and the procession along Madison Avenue between 38th Street and 26th Street is growing every year, with around 160,000 people attending in 2015. The UN and US Congress officially recognize Nowruz, which is marked on the first day of spring. The White House has been sending out Nowruz messages since 1992, and has hosted Nowruz events over the last two years.
IranWire spoke to Betty Emamiam, director of communications for the parade, about its origins, and what it means to Iranians in the United States.
How did New York’s Persian Parade begin? What are its main aims?
Four families — the Akhamis, Assadis, Ghavamis and Rezzadehs —started the Persian Parade to promote Persian culture and heritage, and also celebrate the Persian holiday of Nowruz. They wanted to unite all peoples of Persian descent from multiple walks of life, ethnicity, and national origin, and to celebrate our shared heritage. It’s a platform to tell the rich and ancient story of the Iranian peoples and their contributions to human civilisation — past, present, and future. For the past 13 years, the Persian Parade has been all-inclusive across religious and ethnic lines, and we are proud to continue that mission of inclusion.
This is an annual time for renewal, reflection, celebrating with family, and “spring cleaning” our lives—literally and figuratively!
We have all different groups that come under one umbrella; it’s apolitical and unreligious. It's not just Persians; we have Kurds, Turks, and Azerbaijanis. Different marching groups come, from Iranian-Americans, the American-Iranian Bar Association, different Iranian organizations and American organizations. We have dancers, and people on floats, representatives from different parts of the country, and people doing traditional wrestling, Varzesh-e Bastani.
The Iranian diaspora is rapidly growing in the United States, and we’re honored to be able to share our rich culture and history with our neighbors in New York City.
The parade is not about religion and politics. But do some people try to turn it into a political event?
People do, but we don’t allow it. The groups that march in the parade have to sign a contract that there will be no religious or political chanting, whatever the cause. Sometimes people sign this, but when they march, and then go against this, the next year we refuse them permission. This is a peaceful, cultural celebration of our heritage. It’s completely neutral. It’s a platform to unite people. We are lucky to be able to do this, so we are not going to turn it into anything political or religious. But we haven’t had any serious issues. It’s a very family-oriented day.
To remain neutral on contentious religious and political realities over the last 150 years, and maintain an inclusive, celebratory tone, the Persian Parade Foundation displays the historical flag of Iran/Persia, which is a field of red, white and green with a centerpiece displaying a sun and golden lion.
How has the media responded?
The local media comes and covers it, as well as Persian-language media like Voice of America and BBC and a Persian channel in Los Angeles. I haven’t heard of any Iranian media covering it. Usually my family tells me they’ve seen it on the LA channel, UK-based channels or Toronto channels, via satellite. Most of the time it’s positive. To my knowledge, none of the state-owned channels cover it.
And what has been the response from officials?
About two years ago, one of the government’s representatives said, “Your parade is the only one I’ve been to that brings Muslims, Christians and Jews together, and they all march. And your spectators are so peaceful.” I laughed and said, “We are not a drinking culture, we are a tea culture.” The way we’re brought up, we’re such a formal culture when it comes to public and social conduct. You represent yourself first, then your family, then your community. So we expect nothing but best behavior. I tell people I don’t want my mother getting a call that I said something or that I misbehaved!
Can you tell us more about the educational component of the event?
Every float represents a part of history or a part of Iran. Every year we try to bring in more about who we truly are, brought out by people who march — for example, the Zoroastrians, the Jewish community, the Armenians. And people talk to people individually, one to one — on who we are, what we stand for. It’s not as if we’re part of the image that has been projected by some of the media for so many years. We talk to people about our rich history, culture, about the geography of Iran, our people, strong traditional values, our respectfulness.
A lot of our children are bi-cultural or multi-cultural, but they haven’t been to Iran. All they know is what they’ve heard through their parents. This gives them a sense of pride and a sense of connectivity. And they realize, oh, this is what Shiraz is about, this is what Isfahan is about; this is what Nowruz is about; this is our strong Persian literature by Rumi; it’s an education for them. For the older generation who are outside of the country right now, it’s like going back years, and they get a sense of connectivity too. We are saying: “here we are, and we’re here to stay.”
What have been the highlights over the years for you?
Every year when the New York police department plays the Iranian national anthem to kick off the parade. It’s on Madison Avenue, and you know you’re being recognized by this great city and this great nation. We’re grateful to the governor, the city of New York, Mayor De Blasio, the New York Police department, the New York fire department and the parks department for making it possible to celebrate our heritage with over 150,000 people. That’s a huge sense of pride for us. Even talking about it I get emotional. Look at how far we’ve come. For me, that’s the highlight.
Is there something in particular you’ll be celebrating or highlighting this year?
The parade celebrates the talents and accomplishments of Iranians, past and present. One of the people we’ll be celebrating is the much-loved actress Forouzan, who died in January. She was my aunt, and I am so happy that the Persian Parade wants to honor her — I'm grateful for that. She had such an impact on Iranian cinema, and transformed the way Iranian actresses were perceived. We will honoring her memory by placing a photograph of her on a float.
The 2016 Persian Parade starts Sunday at noon on Madison Avenue. Parade organizers invite IranWire readers in New York to join the procession and the family-friendly festival, which includes delicious food, in Madison Square Park afterward.