It started with ghormeh sabzi. In 2016 Arya Ghavamian began cooking the Iranian stew in his tiny New York apartment and inviting his friends over. One of them, Mani Nilchiani, would bring his setar, a traditional Iranian lute—and these dinner parties would often turn into intimate concerts. At times they would host more than 40 people in the small place. Sometimes Ghavamian would invite people he had just met while photographing the streets.
“It was always essential to me to share an Iranian gathering and Iranian food with people who are not from Iran,” says Ghavamian, a filmmaker who grew up in and around Tehran. In 2018 he and Nilchiani, a musician who also grew up in Tehran, took the party public to celebrate Nowruz. At their first party, hosted at the barroom Home Sweet Home in New York, more than 250 people from different cultures and backgrounds showed up. The night featured live music by Anbessa Orchestra and Nilchiani’s own band, Tan Haw. After its success in New York, the project, which is now called Disco Tehran, went abroad: They hosted bigger and bigger parties in Paris, London, Berlin, and Mexico City. Last year, after a pause due to COVID, more than 1200 people attended the one in Paris.
Nowruz, or “new day” in Farsi, falls on the first day of spring at the exact time of the equinox. It is a celebration of new growth. “Nowruz has certainly been the most special time of year for me,” says Nilchiani. In the nights leading up to the food-heavy holiday, he looks forward to eating sabzi polo ba mahi, or herb rice with fish, and during Nowruz, he gets “seriously excited” about Iranian cookies, one of his favorites being qottab, a tiny sweet pastry stuffed with walnuts, almonds, and cardamom. In recent years he’s felt a growing awareness around the holiday. “I’d like to think Disco Tehran has something to do with that.”
I am not Iranian, but Nowruz has become an important holiday in my life—my partner, Alfie, is Iranian Lebanese, and over the past few years it has become a celebration that I do not miss. I spoke with Ghavamian and Nilchiani about this holiday, Iranian cuisine, and other traditions that Disco Tehran celebrates.