Growing Up Ismaili: Celebrating Spring with Navroz Mubarak

Courtyard of Atlanta Khane

            Navroz Mubarak! Congratulations on the New Year! No one is surprised when I tell them that Spring is my favorite season. Blooming flowers and warm weather are only part of the reason. Growing up in Atlanta, the celebration of Spring (Navroz) was my favorite way to celebrate my pluralistic roots. My upbringing within a progressive, eclectic sect of Islam contrasted traditional notions of being a practicing Muslim. While I have chosen spirituality over religion, I can see that many of my foundational values are rooted in growing up Ismaili.

            Ismailis mark the beginning of Spring in a blend of Islamic traditions. My family, living in Georgia, adapted our own practices. If the first day of Spring fell on a school day, my sister and I were allowed to skip class! Before leaving the house to join the festivities, we made an enormous effort in getting dolled up. My sister and I might have had a new festive shalwar kameez to wear, depending on the finances. We spruced up our everyday look with fancy hairdos and ornate jewelry to complement our outfits’ embroidery, sequins, or tassels. Sometimes we adorned our clothes with tiny purses made of metal, lined in satin and sown together and clipped with a bold clasp. The whole family perfumed itself in exotic smells. Then, still, early in the day, we packed the car with the blended aroma of Dad’s aftershave and the lady’s floral perfumes. As we headed to Jamat Khane (what we called our house of worship, our church) for the beginning of festivities, we would listen to a pre-recorded religious lecture over the sound system.

Dressed up for a Song

Thankfully, getting to Khane during the daytime meant avoiding the Decatur traffic. Hundreds of other cars had already filled in the parking lot. After grumbling about parking and pulling into an always far away spot, my family entered through the courtyard gates. We were well-coifed and a bit frazzled from the ride as we approached the red brick building, our holy place. At the foyer, I turned in my shoes for a numbered token. Upon entering the vast hall, the ladies on the left, the men on the right, I found a place to sit on the plush pink carpet with dark blue borders. I breathed in the smells of Oudh and looked around to peek at the long table separating the genders. At the front of the hall,  a congregation member sang religious songs. The songs there, ginans or qasidas, came from the vast global roots of the Ismaili community. The recitations could be in Farsi, Gujarati, or Kutchi.

Namaz on Navroz

            After the singing, and on this day alone, there was a typical namaz; this is what most people imagine when they think of Muslim prayers: people stand up, bend down, and repeat the moves a few times. After the prayer ceremonies, food and drink were served in the outside courtyard. A fair-like atmosphere pervaded the grounds. Younger people could sometimes expect an `eidi` a cash gift for simply smiling and shaking hands with an elder. That first day of Spring was usually the only day I wanted to go to Khane. Celebrating Spring was a stark contrast to my other recollections of attending Khane.

Sunday School on Friday Night

            For some unknown reason, the most vital day to congregate was Friday evenings, after a long week of school or life. Being involuntarily taken to Khane on Friday nights was the bane of my high school existence. I grudgingly dressed for Friday nights and then suffered in the backseat through excruciating rush hour to arrive and be grumpy for more classes. My version of Sunday school happened on Fridays. I dutifully attended the Religious Education Center, REC, taught by a community of volunteers who all seemed to know my parents. Though it was better than forced prayers in the main hall, I could not suppress my desire to poke holes in history or doctrine. I attended REC while debating and disagreeing in most of the class. One classmate was impressed with my brain, and the others were just annoyed with my questions.

Who is driving her?

            After the ceremonies or REC was over, I headed to the Khane library. If caught by a family friend on the way there, I socialized a bit. When it was finally time to leave, my parents knew to find me in the library. When my parents were ready to go on most Friday nights, they sent me to search for my sister in crowds of people. I appreciated the brick peek-a-boo fence and flower patches between the laps or two along the courtyard outside. In my meanderings outside, I eavesdropped on volunteers and cringed at comments. Invariably I overheard people’s lives being examined and judged. A few steps into the parking lot, there was yet another version of the same game. At every turn, people were wondering: Who is driving the new beamer? Beyond that, over tea, `what does your son do now?` Or the eyes watching for what insignia or emblem is hanging off your keys? The community practiced, constantly, the subtle one-man upmanship.

Hungry Yet?

            Fridays sometimes ended well. When we returned home or went to my grandma’s house after Khane, we delighted in what my parents bought in “nandi.” Within the prayer hall, separating the male and female sections, was a low-lying table with various plates of food. The dishes were of all colors and represented a world of cuisines. They were all brought in by the diverse congregation. Nandi was the term used for these food offerings that were auctioned off after ceremonies. The proceeds went to Khane funds. The act of sending part of your home-cooking grows from the importance of an abundance mindset. You GIVE away a portion of your lovingly made meal to Khane. The by-products were two-fold: the revenue for Khane and the opportunity for Jamaat members to eat something different. The best surprises were when someone sent in an East African dish of mandazi and bharazi. The prices could get high on a special occasion day. With his foodie tendencies, my Dad always seemed to find it worth the cost. Many nandi dishes simply could not be bought anywhere else.  

Diverse and Growing

            Spring nandi sometimes included arrangements of flowers and fruit. The luxurious day was a celebration of new life, the very essence of Spring. Explaining the background of the Ismaili lineage was always a bit complicated. A long-winded book, The Ismailis, covers some history and doctrine, if you are curious Still, I can see how the sect I was raised in reflects on my life now. Of course, food, travel, self-growth, and entrepreneurship are essential to me. I came from a thriving, diverse community that was both enjoying the past and diving into a full American tomorrow. What I accepted from this past and those parts I rejected are more evident now. My spirituality is freed from the dogma of religion. Underneath it, the Ismaili spirit of pluralism, community effort, and self-growth are my foundation.  

A reflection