Here's something you don't see every day in downtown L.A.'s depleted Skid Row: an extravagant and colorful panorama of fruits, flowers, candles, spices and sweets surrounding a mirror and an abundance of goldfish; in other words, the traditional haft sin altar symbolizing the values of life and creation according to Persian tradition.
Standing as security next to this opulence is 58-year-old Sly. He's been homeless for three years following his release from prison, and is currently living and working at the Midnight Mission, the organization that provides services for the denizens of Skid Row. He plays on the Mission's basketball team, rocks open mic night and volunteers.
On Friday, the Midnight Mission and the local Iranian community united on 6th and San Pedro for its second annual Nowruz, Persian New Year, celebration. Many Iranian immigrants empathize with the sense of displacement and loss felt by the Skid Row homeless since at some point, having exchanged a life of persecution for the freedom of the States, they were bereft not only of their home and possessions but also their identity. For decades now they have worked hard and succeeded in shedding their immigrant label to become contributing members of American society. The Persian New Year presented the perfection opportunity to give back to a society that so graciously welcomed them.
Marked by the first day of spring on March 21, Nowruz (literally “new day”) is an ancestral festivity of life. And to commemorate this spirit of revival and spiritual awakening, hundreds of volunteers hurried about serving meals to over 3,000 hungry homeless and destitute men and women, many of whom are sick or mentally disabled. (One of whom apparently did not win the lottery, as evidenced by his T-shirt simply stating “I did not win the lottery.”)
But despite the grim and heartbreaking sight of L.A.'s underclass, there was cause for celebration as the men and women who have probably never associated with an Iranian before danced to a traditional music ensemble performing folk and modern songs in kaleidoscopic customs. Decked out in a scarf of the Iranian flag, the charismatic music legend Ardalan Mofid sang to a cheering crowd of Skid Row residents a passionate rendition of the Iranian National Anthem (twice).
Although it was only the second year the event took place here, author, journalist and Iranian native Homa Sarshar hopes this tradition of collaborating with the Midnight Mission will continue for years to come. “We want to thank our host city for having us here for over 30 years,” says the founder of the Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History in Los Angeles, mentioning the city's history with Iranians. She commends their combined efforts to raise $80,000 in funds to help the Midnight Mission in providing recovery programs, therapy, shelter, hot meals, education and employment services, all free of charge. “We had only expected to raise enough to last the 13 days of Nowruz. We are grateful to have exceeded that amount.”
Sarshar and Mofid were not the only beloved Iranian celebrities in latex gloves and plastic aprons ready to be of service. Joining them was the debonair actor and playwright Hooshang Touzie whose most recent role was next to Ben Affleck as Iran's deputy minister of Islamic guidance in the Oscar-winning film Argo. “We are lucky to take a step for someone else after working so long for our own personal gain,” he said.
Touzie and his wife, academy-award nominated actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, are pretty much the Iranian Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (sans litter of ethnic adoptees).
While you normally would not associate the circumstances of Iranian-Americans with those living on Skid Row, (unless you count living Beverly Hills adjacent), they are, as Sly puts it, “our neighbors and it's important that all people unite.”
While many Iranians live and socialize in more affluent areas of West Los Angeles — Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Bel Air, Westwood — downtown is where they've professionally thrived. For over three decades they have set up shop and businesses, selling everything from fabrics, clothing, electronics, jewelry as well as renting offices and running restaurants. Needless to say, Los Angeles has been kind to the Iranian diaspora marking this charitable collaboration with the Midnight Mission an appropriate venue for helping their less fortunate neighbors.
“This city has given me a lot and I want to see people thrive,” says Andy Madadian, the music icon who teamed up with Jon Bon Jovi back in 2009 for a compelling cover of “Stand By Me” in solidarity with the young protesters back in Iran demanding the removal of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from office.
It could be the traditional jumping over fires (which was not part of this year's celebration — maybe next year?), the cash gifts to family members, or the fact that Nowruz is celebrated by all Iranians that makes this holiday so cherished and revered. Whether you're Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Bahai, Zoroastrian or from the feuding 310 and 818 area codes, you indulge in the mutual pride and love of a shared legacy.
To honor this sentiment, instead of a religious text on the traditional haft sin altar, there sat a copy of a book of poems by the Persian poet, Hafiz who if he were in attendance would insist for all to “Let's get loose with Compassion, Let's drown in the delicious ambience of Love.” And party like it's 1392.