Eastern Promise

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State Magazine, May 2008

Words: Johnnie Craig  Photography: James Goulden & Shawna Scott

Belly dancing and cream cakes: State helps to celebrate Persian New Year

You can just imagine the gossip-mongering; “Did you hear, there’s another one of those mad parties going on… some place off the Naas Road in Dublin 22, it’s all that thump-thump-thump music and strange dancing. Oh, and there’s there’s the usual gang of young fellas, all dressed in white, sitting in a group, passing around some substance or other.”

Well, it’s perfectly true: it’s a party in an upstairs room at the Red Cow Complex; it’s a Persian New Year celebration, where a DJ is providing floor-filling dance music; and a group of smartly-attired young men are indeed passing something around – they’re sharing a freshly peeled orange.

This is Dublin’s own version of Nowruz (‘New day’ in Old Persian), a celebration marking the first day of spring and the beginning of the Iranian calendar – and, before you ask, it’s now the year 2567. As religious ceremonies go, it’s a bit of a curiosity in Ireland, as it predates anything on our Christian calendar, having been celebrated by Persians for at least 3000 years.

While it would be an exaggeration to say that the Red Cow has been transformed for the occasion, it’s at least unusual to see the traditional, ornately decorated ‘Haft Sin‘ table set up just inside the doorway of the function room; it comprises seven symbolic foodstuffs, all of which begin with the letter ‘s’ in Persian, signifying ‘the seven creations and holy immortals’ protecting them. From the word go, it looks like a party that caters for the finer senses. All around the hall, there’s an alluring fragrance of musk and chocolate.

The event’s poster advertises an 8.30 start and State duly arrives on the dot, only to find the party is already well underway; the floor is reverberating with beats, kaleidoscopic lights illuminate the faces of happy revellers on the dancefloor, while the tables lining the room are adorned with fresh fruit and cakes. We are warmly welcomed and shown to a corner table festooned with such culinary delights; within minutes, a woman from another table arrives offering tray of similar goodies, her smile and generosity a warm invitation to join in the festivities.

Even an event like this, because it’s in a venue like this, could always look like a typical Irish wedding reception or 21st birthday party – but the vibe is entirely different. For one thing, people are dancing, laughing and making merry before more than a few drops of alcohol have been consumed; and for another, the music may be loud, but it’s getting everyone from toddlers to dodderers on to the dancefloor. The difference is that it’s Persian, a divine mixture of western dance beats and traditional Persian music, whose appeal transgresses the generations amongst tonight’s guests; and to preserve authenticity, the discs are being expertly spun by the Iranian-born, Swedish-based DJ Crush.

The atmosphere is very much that of a close family celebration; there are many families here but there are also introductory handshakes and kisses aplenty going on all around the room, as Ireland’s disparate Persian community finds itself a focal point.

On the floor, State watches entranced as the men dance energetically using mainly their hands and shoulders, while the women counter using their entire physique; young teenagers are dancing alongside their elders without the remotest self-consciousness or embarrassment; on the sidelines, many non-Persian Irish guests look on shyly, a little intimidated by the styles. It’ll be a couple more visits to the bar before they’ll brave the floor.

The event’s organiser Sam Tamaddon, a young Tehran native who moved to Ireland 8 years ago, is buzzing all over the room, ensuring every last guest is having a good time. While there are 300 guests here, he admits he’d hoped more of Ireland’s 2000-odd Persian community would come but he’s not disappointed. “Once they hear from their friends and family that it was a great party and was organised by a Persian, we’ll have a bigger party next year,” he says. “I’m not doing this for profit, I want to start proper Persian nights. The problem is that the age-group of most Persian people here is 30-35, they have families; if they were in their 20s, I could do this once a month.”

Nevertheless, when even the elderly are creating mayhem on the dancefloor, this style of event must surely have a future beyond the confines of the Persian community. Actually, how is Nowruz celebrated at home? “We do parties here, we do mega parties over there,” he explains. That doesn’t fit with many people’s expectations of a Muslim country, State suggests, and he agrees. “What you hear from the media is not true at all. I’ve a good few friends who love to go to Iran and I’ve brought them – Swedish, German, Irish friends – and they love it. It’s different than you hear.”

A straw poll taken before tonight indicates that many people think ‘desert’, ‘austerity’ and ‘terrorist’ when you mention Iran; in fact, it’s one of the richest countries in terms of wealth and agriculture, in the world. Mention the country’s ultra-conservative President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Sam says emphatically, “we don’t like him either.” Iran has a rich and vibrant culture, cuisine to dine out for and it’s drop-dead gorgeous to look at to boot – and when you see how generous, warm and family-orientated Persian people are close up, you wonder just how Iran ended up being ranked as being the country to have ‘the most negative influence on the world’ in a BBC poll earlier this year. Its music is pretty spectacular too.

There a huge cheer as DJ Crush makes an introduction in Persian, and an excitable Circus Maximus forms around the dancefloor; enter an extraordinary bellydancer. For non-Persians like us, she is a mesmeric vision of exotic perfection; flowing black hair, a torso which performs muscular miracles before our eyes and a figure magnetic to virtually all male gazes in the room. As she makes her way from table to table, stopping to dance with some young girls for a time, one lad takes it upon himself to showboat in front of her. He’s all hands and shoulders and bravado as he moves in a manner which, to the untrained eye, could look like a mating ritual. This isn’t lost on his Polish girlfriend either, and she maintains an unflinching stare at her man’s profile until the bellydancer moves elsewhere – at which point she issues the cosmic dancer with a swift kick to his shin.

“She’s half-English, half Persian,” Sam says of the bellydancer. “I knew she was good but not that good…”

There’s a brief swap-over at the decks as Crush makes way for Italian “easy house music” DJ, Dr Flamer who, ironically, contrives to calm things down on the dancefloor. As soon as his two flesh-baring dancing girls begin gyrating at the front corners of the stage, in a style which is more Tallaght than Tehran, it becomes a polite spectator sport for the guests; but soon, cheesy house mash-ups of Donna Summer and Gloria Estefan ensue, encouraging an all-age conga to snake around the room, finally summoning Irish partygoers to the dancefloor.

It’s noticeable, even at this late hour, how young Persian men aren’t falling around drunk; one particular guy’s dancing would ordinarily suggest intoxication but he’s had little more stimulating than a cream bun and a cucumber from his table’s fruit bowl – he’s simply having fun.

“We drink to enjoy, not to get sick,” Sam smiles. “The young people respect their elders, that’s the main thing. I wouldn’t misbehave in front of my dad, I wouldn’t disrespect him at all.”

Looking around the room as we depart, Sam’s last comment says it all about tonight; enjoyment, love, respect, family, all the ingredients required for a special occasion, are all here. It’d be another cultural step forward for Ireland if Sam Tamaddon and his friends really could successfully put on a Persian-themed night for all of us more than once a year. Happy New Year.

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