For many Brits, the humble picnic is something we enjoy but don’t think too deeply about. It’s an activity for soaking up the sun — sipping tinnies, eating olives and crisps — with bonus points if you settle somewhere with a great view. Recently though, I’ve been thinking about why picnics matter a bit more to me than to the average Brit.
I am a second generation Iranian born and raised in London. I went to Iran once, an experience I will cherish for the rest of my life, because working in the media means it’s too risky to be able to come back. Like many people born in a country that is not their native country, I often feel like I’m in limbo, I don’t know exactly where I fit in society. It makes me confused as to my identity.
Through therapy, I began to think about the times in my life when I felt a real sense of belonging. One of the most obvious is Sizdah Bedar – an ancient Persian celebration of nature that dates back thousands of years. Sizdah Bedar takes place on the thirteenth and last day of Nowruz, the new year for many Iranians, Kurds and other Central Asian countries. On this day, Iranians pack their bags and head to a park, forest or even a coast for a picnic.
“The day is full of amazing food spread out on Persian rugs ranging from grilled meat to rice mixed with nuts and berries that look like jewels”
The day is full of incredible dishes spread out on Persian rugs, ranging from grilled meat, rice mixed with jewel-like nuts and berries and the most complete hot and cold mezze you’ve ever seen. Dishes include kotlet (meat and potato patties you eat with bread), tomatoes and pickles and kookoo sabzi (frittata full of dill, parsley and cilantro fenugreek). We empty our sabzeh (sprouts that we grow during the new year period), in a stream and young people tie a knot of grass to make a wish to find love, find a new job or have a baby.
Singing and dancing is a must, with men and women from different Iranian ethnic groups taking the stage to dance to their native music. The Azeris dance to a fast pace with an emphasis on footwork, and the Kurds dance in a line while holding hands with the leader holding a piece of cloth, something I loved to do when I was child.
As the picnic progresses, traditional instruments such as a whore the drum can come out to accompany singing and poetry, while everyone drinks tea or beer, depending on the mood. Adults would sit and tell old stories from years ago or from back home while I listened and laughed.
“Adults would sit and tell old stories from years ago or from my house while I listened and laughed”
But for me the best part of celebrating Sizdah Bedar was always making friends with other Iranian kids from all over London and playing games such as Vasati, which is similar to dodgeball and volleyball. Being able to spend time with kids who understood the parts of my culture that no one else could understand was exciting, and I loved speaking in confusing English and Farsi, bringing my two identities together.
Of course, Iranians go out of their way for their picnics, but it’s important to note that they’re not just for vacations. Consider Sizdah Bedar the ultimate picnic, with the rest of the year still getting the picnic treatment, but slightly less extreme. Any patch of grass (or ground) can get it, anytime and anywhere. Whether sitting on the side of a highway, late on a weeknight, or in odd places like a parking lot, Iranians will be there with a sofreh (cloth) on the floor, enjoying food and company.
I’ve always found these cultural quirks fascinating, but there was a time when younger, less confident people found them just as overwhelming. I was terrified of passers-by watching and judging us, and the thought of bringing a white friend would have knocked me unconscious.
“Since I grew up and a little wiser, I savor these moments”
God knows if anyone really didn’t care what we were doing, but the fear of someone saying something mean was always there. However, since I’m older and a bit wiser, I savor these moments and honestly, they feed me.
Not knowing where you fit in culturally is hard to navigate, but I feel blessed to have these spaces to feel part of a community. There’s a comfort in that kind of familiarity that can only be gained by being around people who speak your language.
When I visited Iran in 2016, the sound of Farsi and the sight and smells of traditional food everywhere I went felt like a big hug. It kills me that I probably won’t see him again and that’s something I’ll have to learn to live with. But at least I can savor the next best thing. Sitting around a sulfur somewhere, eating the many delicacies my mother cooked and playing games with my family and friends, I feel at home during Sizdah Bedar celebrations.
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