The transmission and cross-pollination of traditions has gotten much faster than since the days of the Silk Road, but globalization and digitalization create their own challenges to comprehension, and opportunities for growth and change. For the past several years this has grown more and more apparent to me as I celebrate Nowruz in New York City, and check in with friends around the globe.
Although I seem to celebrate Nowruz in a different city every year, the traditions ground me in my community of loved ones, no matter how far flung we are. There’s the assembly of the haft seen table: the infuriating patient sprouting of the Sabzeh, the dyeing of the eggs, and the elusive quest for the most exquisite bowls and plates to style it all. The stories, too, are critical to the celebration, symbolized by the copy of Shahnameh on the table, but many more live in the mind as memories, particularly the fable of characters Haji Firooz and his sidekick Amoo Norooz.
Haji Firooz, the comical uncle figure, is one of the characters who oversees the new year’s festivities. He also has coal-black skin; some versions of the traditional story trace this back to the character’s watching over the eternal flame of the ancient Zoroastrians. Haji Firooz can be thought of as a mash-up between the West’s Santa Claus and Father Time characters.
But if globalization allows us to make quick connections among cultures, we must also accept that it forces us to make disquieting observations. For instance, Santa Claus himself is an evolution on the Dutch’s Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas). And Sinterklaas – as the legend goes – is attended upon by his faithful sidekick, Zwart Piet, or “Black Peter.”
Much like Haji Firooz is traditionally believed to be black because he has been darkened with soot, at least a segment of the Dutch believe that Zwart Piet is black because he must take presents down chimneys to deliver to children. But in a globalized world, this simplistic explanation in a children’s story is no longer sufficient. To many, it represents systematic oppression. If we are truly in a globalized world, goes the counter-argument, we should disband traditions that reinforce implicit hierarchies and biases, and that get fed so easily to children.
It remains interesting to me that two distinct cultures in separate parts of the world developed very similar characters for their new year celebrations (which, by the way, happen months apart). But in light of larger social issues, it’s impossible to not also see the troubling undercurrents. The protests against the portrayal of Haji Firooz in blackface remain minimal compared to outrage that has erupted in recent years over Zwart Piet. But the civilized world long ago wrote off blackface as a humiliating practice. What then justifies the perpetuated regard for outmoded characters?
Does it even matter what the intent or the opinion of the majority, any majority, is when it comes to matters of civil rights? Isn’t the whole purpose protecting minorities from widely held group opinions? This similarities of Haji Firooz and Sinterklaas remind us that we have more that unite us than we may realize. But the similarities between Haji Firooz and Zwart Piet remind us that there are still hiccups to overcome to truly enter a post-modern, post-racial, global society based on mutual understanding and respect.
Arts & Culture Editor
Abbas is a Design Strategist based in New York. You can follow him on Instagram @abbasjamali.