Jumping through Fires

David Nasser

Chapter 1
The whole world was on fire.

Watching my young son stare wide-eyed into the flames on a cool March evening, I remembered how huge and awesome the same sight seemed to me when I was his age. The whole world looked like one giant inferno. My father stood beside him in the driveway, the light flickering on their faces. Dad is not a tall man, but his military bearing makes him seem taller than he is. When I was my son´s age, I thought Dad was a giant. His gray mustache and dark eyes emphasized his Iranian features ("Not Iranian," he would say, "Persian!"). I expect that night reminded him of many others like it when he celebrated a cultural tradition going back more than three thousand years.

"Jump, Rudy! Jump!" Dad said. Rudy wanted to do it, but hesitated and held his hand up, arm extended, fingers outstretched.

"Hold my hand, Papa."

With a wide smile my dad reached down and grabbed his grandson´s hand. Another world ago, I held that same hand and jumped over a small bonfire like this one, shouting the same ancient Zoroastrian chant Rudy was now yelling as he leaped into the air: Sorkhie to az man, zardie man az to. ("Your redness is mine, my yellowness is yours.") The tradition holds that when you jump through the flames, they burn away all the bad things that have happened during the past year, all the sickness and misfortune, and replace them with good health and the promise of new beginnings.

There are hundreds of Middle Eastern families in Birmingham, but we were probably the only family crazy enough to keep the tradition alive in this part of the world. Each of us wore at least one article of clothing that was red, set up a row of bonfires on our middle-class suburban driveway, and ran toward the flames.

What must the neighbors have thought? "Honey, come look! The Iranians are out on their driveway again. Are they trying to set their kids on fire?" In all the years we´ve done this, it´s a wonder the police or homeland security have yet to be called.

Celebrating Chaharshambe Suri, or Red Wednesday, by jumping through fires marks the Persian New Year. It happens the night before the first day of spring on the Western calendar. Around the world, hundreds of millions in the Middle East and elsewhere--Muslims, Jews, Turks, Kurds, and other--light bonfires at dusk and feed them all night, welcoming the new year and celebrating the revival of nature. The next day they dump the ashes in a river or at a crossroads, symbolizing the removal of all the sickness and bad stuff the fire had absorbed from everybody who jumped through it the night before.

Our condensed celebration did not include the usual dancing or fireworks. This was the little league version--the most we could do without frightening the soccer moms who drove by in their minivans. This was an adventure, deeply rotted in heritage. Our festivities were for Rudy and our daughter, Grace, and the rest of the family, even if they didn´t think much about what is represented--jumping from the old year into the new.

When you´re a child like Rudy, or like I was, you can´t see through the flame. You jump on faith that there´s something safe and solid on the other side. You jump because others have jumped before you and made it, and, most importantly, you jump holding on to a hand you trust, knowing that as long as you hang on, everything will be all right. That hand has always led you to safety, so it wouldn´t possibly lead you to harm now. Watching Rudy and thinking about my own nights of jumping through a row of fires seemed a lot like the trials of revolution, religion, and redemption that I have journeyed through in life. They have all been scary, but in reflection, I see now that I was never alone. Through it all I have always been held.

The story I know best begins in Iran, where my father was an officer in the army of the Shah of Iran (shah meaning "king"), and my mother came from a long line of distinguished public officials. That´s where I first remember the bonfires--men and women dancing together in the street, a rare sight in Muslim Iran--and my father´s warn, calloused hand holding tight to mine as he yelled, "Jump, David! Jump!"

But one day the bonfires of a new year´s hope and renewal went out, and the fires of death and destruction ignited.

The consuming flames of a revolution brought an end to many things, including permission for Red Wednesday ceremonies. In 1979 the ceremonies were canceled by the new regime that had come to power in our country. Although it was a cultural celebration without any religious meaning, the new leaders banned it on religious grounds. Then they systematically set out to destroy everything and everyone that didn´t meet their standards of a radical Islamic state.

Including me.

One bright winter day, my sister, Nastaran, and I were chauffeured to school as usual. Instead of going through the regular class schedule, however, all the students were called to as assembly. We left our classrooms and tramped down the hallways to the assembly area. I remember feeling grateful to be out of class. I hoped that whatever we were attending would take as long as it could because the longer the assembly, the less schoolwork we would have to do. So there we stood, the whole student body in uniform, elementary through senior high.

It became apparent this was no ordinary break from class when, as we filed into the assembly area, we saw armed soldiers standing in front of the large auditorium. As soon as we were all in place, one of them yelled "Attention!" He reached into his pocket, pulled out a sheet of paper, and read three names aloud. My sister and I were on the list. I knew the other name as well. He was the child of the most influential military officer on our base. His father was a pilot like mine. I hoped our fathers had not been killed in a helicopter accident as we walked to the front.

The soldier who read our names returned the piece of paper to his pocket, and with the same hand pulled his pistol out of the holster. He took a step toward me and leveled the gun at my forehead. All I could see was the underside of his starched shirtsleeve running from wrist to elbow. The pistol hovered inches from my skull, smelling of machine oil and gunpowder. After a couple of seconds, the barrel started to shake. I lifted my eyes and looked into the eyes of the soldier. He looked terrified. I was terrified. Everyone was terrified. The only thing scarier than a man with a gun in his hand is a man who looks unstable enough to use it.

Standing only a few feet away, I heard him whispering prayers from the Qu´ran. And then: "I´m going to end your life, but it´s not because of who you are. Or because of who your father is. It is for the sake of Allah."

Suddenly I felt the principal´s hands grip my shoulder, pushing me away. She stood between me and the pistol, turning herself into a human barricade. "Do not do this!" she said to the soldier. Her voice was full of authority. "This is not a day for killing children. This is not the day." The pistol went back in its holster. The assembly was dismissed, and as if nothing had happened, the entire student body was sent back to class. Nastaran took my hand, and without permission we ran home as fast as we could.

Out of breath and still too surprised to be in shock, we burst into our house and told my dad what happened. I knew my father would know what to do. He always knew what to do. I had visions of my father tearing into the soldier who dared come against his son. Oh, if that soldier only knew whose son he messed with.

As my words tumbled out, tears welled up in Dad´s eyes and ran down his cheeks. It was the first time I had ever seen my father cry. I didn´t know he could. When I finished, he pulled my sister and me close. He picked us up, put us on his lap, and said quietly, "That man with the gun is not going to hurt you. We´re going to escape. We´re getting out of Iran."