Once you arrive in Iran you will defiantly face people –mostly in group- smoking Peganum Harmala which is known “espand” in Iran. This is the seeds of a plant of the family Nitrariaceae and is cultivated in arid regions. Though, it is native from the eastern Iranian region west to India.
No matter you are crossing the street, behind the red light or in the middle of a marriage ceremony, you would see someone standing with a weird metal container in their hands which a cloud of smoke is raising from that! The smell is not like wood or paper smoke but a smells like joss stick or special fragrant herbs.
In fact, what seems bizarre to you is a centuries-old tradition that lasted despite all disapprovals and disapprobation of elites. Most of them who believe that Peganum Harmala smoking is nothing but superstitions.
Truths behind Peganum Harmala smoking
The truth is Peganum Harmala smoking is a combination of scientific and superstitious ideas. However, its validity or accuracy is not of concern to the current Iranian society. They continue to smoke espand and don’t care if the action is based on truth, science or not. They do it because their parents, their grandparents and their ancestors did it since they remember on the same occasions that they smoke espand.
Today, no matter we are religious, Muslim, Christian, Zoroastrian or atheist, almost all of Iranians, especially in provinces, smoke espand. We smoke Peganum Harmala in occasions such as:
Burial ceremony, after wedding party, when mums deliver their babies and come back home from hospital, during some religious ceremonies including Ashura, etc. mostly because it is taken as a neutral attitude. I mean smoking espand is neither harmful, nor useful to anyone.
Having said that, the major use of espand smoking is when people think there is a feeling of jealousy or envious of others around them. It is a very common belief which says burning Peganum Harmala is a charm against “the evil eye” among Iranians.
So how did Peganum Harmala smoking started to in Iranian lifestyle?
Honestly, it’s a tough question. In fact, nobody knows the answer. Some believe that Peganum Harmala smoking was brought to the country from neighboring countries like Afghanistan or Uzbekistan. Others think that Peganum Harmala smoking used to be one of the Zoroastrian rites after which, people got purified. As a result, the second group considers the Peganum Harmala as a mean for purifying people. And since Iranians used to be Zoroastrians, they import this specific culture into Islamic ceremonies when they converted to Islam.
Furthermore, Persian literature has always been one of the principle sources of knowing Iranians, their culture and society. In this case, the practice of burning esfand seeds to avert the evil eye, black magic and inauspicious is widely attested in early classical Persian literature. It means that Peganum Harmala smoking has been a part of Iranian’s culture and traditions since ancient times.
There are tens of conflicting and absurd claims about espand smoking. You could probably find lots of them on internet and Wikipedia. Thus, we won’t repeat them again here. We’d like to mention truths that are more important than beliefs of writers who have no precise idea about Iran. All we are trying to say is that espand smoking is the commonality of lifestyle between riff-raff and educated Iranians!
Last words about espand smoking
Therefore, all of these social groups across the country do smoke espand in some sad or happy ceremonies and even I could say they enjoy doing it! Thus, if during your stay, your gaze falls upon a person who has a smoking container whether in the street, or alongside an Iranian family during a ceremony, don’t consider it as a backwardness. This is just like coloring Easter eggs for Iranians!
Lastly, in the case, your Iranian friend takes the esfand container, revolves it around your head and starts murmuring to themselves, read it as a positive, good sign… it means you are so important to them because Iranians do smoke esfand for beloved ones and those who are dear and close to them.