15th North American Zarathushti Congress Houston: A Report

Houston: It was a spectacle of light, colour and movement that unfolded onstage as the fifty actors walked through their steps and captivated an engrossed audience in the huge ball room of the Intercontinental Hotel on the West Loop.

For the uninitiated, the spectacle was a history lesson that covered a time over the millennia that spanned the birth of one of the world’s oldest religions, the vast spread of the Zoroastrian Achaemenid Empire by 480 BC from Eygpt to Greece to the Hindu Kush mountains, with their ceremonial capital in magnificent Persepolis and the rise of the Zoroastrian religion and culture in pre-Islamic Iran with, its zenith in the reign of Darius I.

As the voice of Kaemerz Dotiwala boomed overhead in clipped British accent in mighty narration of The Silk Road, the vast vistas onstage showed how the Zoroastrians, under pressure and harassment from the Islamic rulers of Iran to convert and not practice openly, slowly shrank as a group and migrated from the 10th century onwards to the salt deserts, in particular Yazd and Kerman which are still centers of Iranian Zoroastrians, and other lands, notably Gujarat, in order to survive as a distinct religious group. It depicted how Zoroastrianism spread into northern China, with some temples remaining till the 12th century, influencing elements of Buddhism, before fading there.

"We have been preparing for this event for the past year and a half," said Roshan Sethna, co-chair of the organizing committee of the 15th North American Zarathushti Congress which took place from December 29 to 31 as the other co-chair, Jasmine Mistry nodded in agreement. "All the kids who performed are from the Houston Zoroastrian community," Mistry added, which is an amazing statistic when you consider that the local community includes only about 500 people. The rehearsals were held in the Zarathutsri Heritage and Culture Center on West Bellfort on the southwest side.

The entertainment committee that produced the stage show, as well as the Mini Congress for the youth, was headed by Varishta Kaikobad, a local school teacher who teaches dance and is also a Docent at the Museum of Fine Arts . In total, six committees worked diligently over 18 months to pull off the NAZC for which the Zoroastrian Association of Houston formally bid on. The previous Congress was held in Toronto in 2008 and the next one will be in New York City in 2012.

Almost 550 people registered for this year’s Congress, of which 60% were from cities other than Houston . Even though the communities in southern California and New York are larger, " Houston is one of the most active," said Sethna who also helped organize the 2000 World Congress held in the Bayou City, "and is well known for its hospitality."

With a meticulous eye, the Congress had a packed programme the entire three days, with activities, speeches, lectures, demonstrations, dances, a fashion show, exhibits, vendor booths and a Parsi Gujarati play, Vari Baanna Paachhal Thi (written by Nozer Buchla) presented on the night December 30. The closing ceremony culminated in a New Year’s Eve dinner and dance. Each attendee received a canvas shoulder bag with the NAZC’s emblem and literature inside, including a beautiful, color, spiral-bound souvenir booklet of the event, the participants and the numerous advertisers who supported it.

The second floor exhibit room featured ancient (some 200 years old) cultural artifacts, books and embroidered textiles lent for the event by members of the local Zoroastrian community. Just outside of it, along the spiral staircase landing, about a dozen vendors lined up their booths, offering services, jewelry, framing and artwork.

But the crux of the Congress was summarized by the messages presented by the speakers and the tone was set by the Keynote Speaker, Dr. Niaz Kasravi, a Zoroastrian from Iran who spoke about Zoroastrianism of the future: Preserve, Perfect, Progress. A Phd in Criminology from the University of California , Irvine , the petite Kasravi came to the US when she was 10 and currently works as a Senior Manager for Law Enforcement Accountability at the NAACP in Baltimore . She is very passionate about issues that influence the Zoroastrian community and for her the philosophy of life is not just about strict rules.

"We need to be open and accepting as a global community," she told the audience. "If we choose to be exclusive, it will hurt us." Kasravi views intermarriage with other groups as the only way for the community to survive.

It was a recurring theme throughout the Congress as the speakers spoke about Zoroastrian identity, food, contributions, history, the current situation in Iran , the challenges facing the Diaspora. By their own estimates, about 100,000 Zoroastrians live across the globe, the bulk in India (60,000), mostly in Bombay ; another 15,000 in Iran and then the rest spread over North America, Australasia, the Far East, UK and Pakistan (2,000), mainly Karachi . "Many of them are migrating from Bombay now," said Sethna, so the community once again in its history is becoming scattered.

Of course, the economic power, and with it some political clout, of the Zoroastrian community far eclipses its sheer numbers, a foremost example being the Tata family in India. However, even as they grow in these areas, literature and the arts, like the late rock singer Freddy Mercury, the conductor Zubin Mehta and renowned chef Jehangir Mehta (who spoke at the World Zoroastrian Chamber of Commerce meeting that preceded the Convention the day before), the topic that was foremost on the minds of the Conventioneers was how to make their numbers grow.

And they fall back to nurturing their younger generations through immersion in Zoroastrian values and beliefs as well as promoting them forward into leadership roles, which they can attain at a fairly young age, like Kasravi or Mehta, and become mentors and role models for those that follow. Bearing that in mind, the daily Mini-Congress was geared to this wide demographic (teens to 40) and nearly 260 youths participated in one way or the other.

Among them were Zeeba Kayani, the Youth Chair for the NAZC; Eric Engineer, who led the Youth Career Connect session and Jim Engineer a co-chair of the WZCC Chicago Chapter and heads his own public relations company. Eric is a Dallas-based venture capitalist and is chair of the WZCC in Dallas. "I moved to Houston in 1991 and my mom was a single parent," Kayani explained. "Since we spent so much time at the Center, in a sense the community has raised me."

For these three, they accept that the future of their community will be for them to move forward and their pride in the religion, culture and beliefs was very apparent, even as some expressed a more secular view. But they realize that the community’s existence will depend on its flexibility. "Several years ago, I raised the whole issue of inter marriage and asked what was so wrong about it," recalled Jim. "I was quickly hustled off stage. Now, this notion isn’t raising the same objections."

Still, a lot of work needs to be done to mingle the Iranian and Indian branches, believes Kasravi, although much inroads have been made. Part of this may be cultural, as differences have grown over the centuries, but certainly part of it is a struggle for which direction the community heads into, according to Jim. Regardless of the outcome, it was apparent and heartening to see the single-mindedness, discipline and sense of purpose that pervaded the NAZ Congress, from young to old.

Originally published in the Times of India