Burning away bad vibes
The tinge of smoke drifts down narrow streets and through alleyways that connect apartment buildings with the small produce shops and grocery markets that carve out their existence in the irregular spaces between. Small boys rush by, laughing as they push and jostle one another. The gathering darkness, however, seems to hold no alarm. Men walk by with round loaves of fresh bread, gaggles of young women move slowly past the shops. A cat snoozes on the tin roof of a ground floor apartment porch. Two old men in black coats and caps sit on chairs, talking quietly. One leans in towards the other, holding his bag of bread firmly. Spring in Azerbaijan is here.
As we forge ahead to our flat the smell of smoke thickens. More children run by, determined. There is a growing sense that these highly energized children are headed to the same place we are. Our pace quickens. Ahead, a bright bonfire snaps and crackles in the soft evening air, its orange glow leaping off the walls of the public courtyard. With no wind the flames lap aimlessly as the smoke twists in great curls.
For the third time in as many weeks the fires of Charshanbey Festival light up the night in lead-up celebrations that pull everyone toward the ancient holiday of Norooz, the immensely popular feast beginning on the first day of spring and marking the first day of the Persian calendar. Charshanbey means fourth day, or Tuesday, in the Persian week. At these Tuesday night bonfires locals gather together to leap over the purifying flames. All that happened the previous year, all the mischief, foolishness, all the misfortune gets “burned” away with each bound. While admittedly a sport for the younger set, anyone can join in on the jumping, though tonight we see no seasoned takers. These grown-ups smile and socialize as their next generation is tested by fire.
Leaping the “Tuesday Fire”
I snap a picture setting off a feeding frenzy. Children fly to me like gulls after tossed bread. In a mixture of Russian, English and Azerbaijani they cry out for their picture to be taken. I am happy to oblige them. Each jumps and then flaps about me, craning their neck to look at the image on the digital camera. “Good! Good!” they exclaim and line up to dart through the flames yet again.
As the fire burned low and the children tired, we made our way through the courtyard, past the swing sets and slides, past the mulberry trees, and beyond the reaches of Charshanbey heat and smoke. The voices of the night’s excitement receded in the darkness behind us. Away from the fire, our soft merino Woolx kept us toasty warm. When next Tuesday, charshanbey, comes round again the fires of Norooz will be the biggest, the excitement of this spring ritual the greatest. Back in our flat, sipping hot tea, we find ourselves as eager for it as our Azerbaijani neighbors.