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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Celebrating New Year, Iranians Resist Regime

ISFAHAN, Iran -- All day and all night, the main street of this city was packed over the weekend with shoppers jockeying to buy last-minute gifts and sweets as they hurried to get ready for the celebration of the Iranian New Year, called Nowruz. Behind his cluttered desk inside an antique shop, Sayed Ali Zargabashi watched with great satisfaction as the crowds spilled off the sidewalks.

"People are not listening to the regime," said Zargabashi, 63. "They are emphasizing and embracing the traditional celebrations. People want the best they can get. Their eyes are open now."

After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the ruling ayatollahs sought to stamp out many traditions like Nowruz, a celebration with some Zoroastrian links that stretches back thousands of years to the pre-Islamic era, to mark the arrival of spring. The celebration is considered by many here the most Iranian of holidays.

The ayatollahs tried, and failed.

Now, nearly three decades later, some people say the increasingly enthusiastic embrace of Nowruz and other ancient traditions represents a resistance against the country's more conservative religious rulers.

A few days before Nowruz, for example, Iranians poured out of their homes to celebrate Chahar Shanbeh Suri, igniting fireworks and jumping over small fires set in the streets, a traditional practice intended to bring good health in the new year. Several years ago, the government decided it could not stop the practice, and set up special parks where the fires could be set.

This year's celebration -- a time for family gatherings -- has proved especially vexing for the religious leadership as it occurs on Monday, the same day the faithful are expected to mourn the death of Imam Hussein, a figure whose defeat in battle centuries ago became a defining moment in Shiism, the dominant Islamic sect in Iran.

Some clerics said in interviews that it was acceptable to observe the new year, but because the celebration was occurring on the 40th day after the anniversary of Imam Hussein's death, people should not show joy -- which in itself prompted giggles from some as they hurried to get ready.

"I think these days, there is a silent resistance in Iran, especially among the middle class," said Hamidreza Jalaipour, a sociologist. "They are resisting not politically, but socially and culturally."

Like most conflicts in a society as complex and layered as this one, the contemporary story of Nowruz is not one-sided or exclusively about resistance. It is also about accommodation. While Iran's religious leaders have followed a policy of confrontation with the West over their nation's nuclear program, they have, however grudgingly, ceded to the public's insistence on retaining, even bolstering, traditions not founded in Shiism.