How A Persian-American Love Story Got Its Start In Harlem

May 9, 2014
Originally published on May 9, 2014 6:02 pm

Editor's Note: On May 10, Iran Davar Ardalan, a senior producer at NPR, will be the recipient of an Ellis Island Medal of Honor in New York. The annual award is given to "American citizens who have distinguished themselves within their own ethnic groups while exemplifying the values of the American way of life," according to the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations. Ardalan's grandfather traveled from Iran and arrived on Ellis Island in 1919.

My family's love affair with America blossomed at Harlem Hospital in 1927. That's when my grandmother Helen Jeffreys first set eyes on my grandfather Abol Ghassem Bakhtiar. Helen was a nurse at the nursing school affiliated with Harlem Hospital, and Abol was a doctor on the surgical staff.

Abol took Helen on a number of dates to Coney Island and mesmerized her with his poetry readings from the Shahnameh, a 10th century epic recorded by Persian poet Ferdowsi. The Shahnameh chronicles the journey of a nation seeking justice and yearning for freedom of expression, with mythical and pre-Islamic historical rulers as its heroes and heroines. But it wasn't just the poetry Helen fell in love with; it was Abol's resilience, his resolve and his fortitude. He had made the great journey to the shores of America from a remote village near the legendary Bakhtiari tribe in Iran to realize his dream of becoming a physician.

Abol was known as the "Persian" on staff at Harlem Hospital and worked alongside Dr. Aubre Maynard, one of the first African-American residents. Maynard, who was in charge of the residents, went on to become the chief of surgery at the hospital. In 1958, his surgical team saved the life of Dr. Martin Luther King after he was stabbed in the chest at a book-signing. My mother emailed me a six-page letter written by Dr. Maynard in 1984 praising Abol not only for his scholastic excellence but also for his friendship and lack of prejudice during heated racial times.

"I tell you this to let you appreciate the background of your father's time at Harlem Hospital," Maynard writes. "I wish you to know that I was always grateful to your father who proved my staunch supporter in the many instances of racial prejudice that beset my path in the Harlem Hospital of formative years. ... To him, racial bigotry was the accursed shame of American life, the Achilles heel."

On Oct. 21, 1927, Helen and Abol were married, much to the chagrin of the New York judge who felt that at 22 years of age, Helen was too young and impressionable to marry a 50-year-old foreigner. Nevertheless, he married them after asking Helen to produce her Idaho birth certificate. Helen's mother, Nell, meanwhile, fainted when she heard the news of the nuptials. In 1931, Abol and Helen went back to Iran and helped open one of the first private hospitals.

Helen returned to the U.S. in 1939 with my mother and two of her other children. During World War II, Abol and Helen were forced to live separate lives on two different continents for many years, ultimately leading to divorce. Abol then married a young Bakhtiari woman named Bibi Turan and had 10 more children. Helen's love for Abol and Persian culture continued despite his new family.

Helen obtained a degree in public health and volunteered to return to Iran in the 1950s as part of President Harry S. Truman's "Point Four" program. The rural improvement project sent American experts in agriculture, health and education to work in villages in less developed countries.

Traveling in the remote mountains of Chahar Mahal in her own jeep, Helen worked with the nomadic Bakhtiari tribe helping women learn about the importance of health care. In 2008, our family learned that years prior, the tribe dedicated an entire region in the memory of Helen. My daughter, Samira, and mother saw Kuhe Helen, or Helen's Mountain, in November 2010. The United Nations has designated the area, home to a wide variety of animal species — including brown bears, leopards, wildcats and eagles — as a protected region.

The story of Abol and Helen could be a page out of a Persian epic. And although divorced, in January 1973 when Helen was dying of emphysema, she asked to be buried next to Abol in Tus, Iran, not far from the tomb of Ferdowsi, whom Ralph Waldo Emerson called the "Homer" of Persian poets.

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