Persian New Year haunted by pandemic

By Marina Villén

Tehran, Mar 20 (efe-epa).- With reduced family gatherings and other traditional customs altered by the coronavirus, Iranians are celebrating the Persian New Year with the hope that the pandemic, which has killed 1,400 people in the country, will come to an end soon.

The threat of Covid-19 has permeated Nowruz festivities, which mark the coming of spring, a celebration that can be traced back 3,000 years.

Normally, this non-Islamic celebration sees people travelling around the country to meet friends and family. It is a time of gift-giving, new clothes and food.

This year, 1399 in the Persian calendar, much of that has changed as people seek to avoid contracting the new coronavirus, which has infected around 20,000 in Iran.

President Hassan Rouhani in a speech called for unity to overcome the coronavirus pandemic and thanked the country’s healthcare workers for their efforts on the frontline of the crisis.

Although officials have not placed restrictions on the movement of people, they have encouraged the population to stay at home.

“This year I’m met with just two of my children and their partners. I know that we’ve been recommended to isolate, but it’s very hard not to celebrate Nowruz with family,” Zahra, 55, told Efe.

She said she had skipped buying new clothes this year as she would not have time to “show them off.”

As always – and as is tradition – she made fish. Another ritual she could not pass up with the typical Haft-sin decorative mantelpiece, which brings together seven items beginning with the Persian letter pronounced “seen.”

An apple and garlic are two such items on the display, each representing a wish for the coming year, such as good health or prosperity.

There are fewer people on the street, fewer Haft-sin stalls and traditional Nowruz flowers. If last year they were omnipresent, this year they’re hard to come by at all.

Sales have dropped for both decorations and clothing. The bazaars, usually packed in the last few weeks of the Persian year, were sparsely populated.

“Our business froze considerably, so did most others and our sales are a fifth or sixth of what they normally are because nobody is leaving the house,” Hosein Chizari, 24, who works at his family toy store, said.

“Look at the street, there is no atmosphere, they’re all scared,” he added.

Zahra won’t be visiting the sacred city of Mashhad, which is also her hometown. She normally would have travelled back to spend time with her parents and sisters.

The most religious Iranians would often visit Mashhad and the Imam Reza shrine at this time of year, but they have been closed as part of Covid-19 containment measures. Supreme Leader Ali

Hosseini Khamenei was due to give a speech at the holy site but the event has since been scrapped.

“I think any travelling increases the risk of contagion and, in addition, it may not be easy to travel due to the controls of the authorities,” the woman added.

Authorities have deployed troops and placed them at the exits of cities to take temperature checks of travellers. The roads are covered with the banners and signs that read “home is safer” and “postpone your trips until the day we defeat the coronavirus.”

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