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

Helen and Abol Ghassem's marriage photo, New York City, 1927. i i

Helen and Abol Ghassem's marriage photo, New York City, 1927. Laleh Bakhtiar/Helen of Tus hide caption

itoggle caption Laleh Bakhtiar/Helen of Tus
Helen and Abol Ghassem's marriage photo, New York City, 1927.

Helen and Abol Ghassem's marriage photo, New York City, 1927.

Laleh Bakhtiar/Helen of Tus

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.

  • Helen and Abol (couple on the right) at Coney Island, circa 1927.
    Hide caption
    Helen and Abol (couple on the right) at Coney Island, circa 1927.
    Laleh Bakhtiar
  • Abol Ghassem Bakhtiar circa 1900, dressed in traditional Bakhtiari garb. Abol's mother died when he was born in the late 1800's. During his childhood, he overcame both smallpox and tetanus. His father, Haji Hassan was often away, leading caravan journeys to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. The caravan carried objects to be blessed in Mecca for people who could not afford to make the pilgrimage themselves.
    Hide caption
    Abol Ghassem Bakhtiar circa 1900, dressed in traditional Bakhtiari garb. Abol's mother died when he was born in the late 1800's. During his childhood, he overcame both smallpox and tetanus. His father, Haji Hassan was often away, leading caravan journeys to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. The caravan carried objects to be blessed in Mecca for people who could not afford to make the pilgrimage themselves.
    Laleh Bakhtiar
  • In Iran, Abol attended the American Missionary School headed by Dr. Samuel Jordan, one of  the most influential Americans in the academic sphere of Iran. Dr. Jordan attended Princeton Theological Seminary and was ordained as a minister in the summer of 1898. In November 1898, Jordan and his wife, Mary Park, arrived in Tehran.
    Hide caption
    In Iran, Abol attended the American Missionary School headed by Dr. Samuel Jordan, one of the most influential Americans in the academic sphere of Iran. Dr. Jordan attended Princeton Theological Seminary and was ordained as a minister in the summer of 1898. In November 1898, Jordan and his wife, Mary Park, arrived in Tehran.
    Laleh Bakhtiar
  • Abol Ghassem Bakhtiar attended Columbia University in New York City in 1920. After three years he moved to South Dakota to take part in a special accelerated pre-med program. On the way there, he joined a carnival and was introduced as the Persian Lion. He challenged anybody to wrestle him for a dollar a minute. In 1926, he graduated from Syracuse Medical School.
    Hide caption
    Abol Ghassem Bakhtiar attended Columbia University in New York City in 1920. After three years he moved to South Dakota to take part in a special accelerated pre-med program. On the way there, he joined a carnival and was introduced as the Persian Lion. He challenged anybody to wrestle him for a dollar a minute. In 1926, he graduated from Syracuse Medical School.
    Laleh Bakhtiar
  • This is Helen's graduation photo from Riverside Nursing School in Los Angeles, circa 1925. Helen was born in Weiser, Idaho on December 24, 1905. Her mother Nell Mackey McRoberts was of Irish-Scottish descent.
    Hide caption
    This is Helen's graduation photo from Riverside Nursing School in Los Angeles, circa 1925. Helen was born in Weiser, Idaho on December 24, 1905. Her mother Nell Mackey McRoberts was of Irish-Scottish descent.
    Laleh Bakhtiar
  • Helen and Abol marriage certificate. New York City, 1927. Though the couple had agreed not to tell anyone about the marriage, Abol couldn't help but phone a friend. He "started to cry on the phone," Helen later remembered. "Why are you crying?" Abol's friend asked. "Because I am so happy," Abol replied.
    Hide caption
    Helen and Abol marriage certificate. New York City, 1927. Though the couple had agreed not to tell anyone about the marriage, Abol couldn't help but phone a friend. He "started to cry on the phone," Helen later remembered. "Why are you crying?" Abol's friend asked. "Because I am so happy," Abol replied.
    Laleh Bakhtiar
  • Abol, Helen and their seven children in the city of Masjid Suleyman, Iran. Circa 1945. My mother Mary Nell Laleh Bakhtiar was their youngest child born in Tehran in 1938.
    Hide caption
    Abol, Helen and their seven children in the city of Masjid Suleyman, Iran. Circa 1945. My mother Mary Nell Laleh Bakhtiar was their youngest child born in Tehran in 1938.
    Laleh Bakhtiar
  • Helen in a village outside Tehran in a public health project to train nurses. She was a Public Health Nurse with President Truman's Point Four Program, circa 1951.
    Hide caption
    Helen in a village outside Tehran in a public health project to train nurses. She was a Public Health Nurse with President Truman's Point Four Program, circa 1951.
    Laleh Bakhtiar
  • Helen on a Point Four mission in Iran. On January 20, 1949, during his inaugural address, President Harry Truman said, "I believe we should make available to peace- loving peoples the benefits of our store of technical knowledge in order to help them realize their aspirations for a better life."
    Hide caption
    Helen on a Point Four mission in Iran. On January 20, 1949, during his inaugural address, President Harry Truman said, "I believe we should make available to peace- loving peoples the benefits of our store of technical knowledge in order to help them realize their aspirations for a better life."
    Laleh Bakhtiar
  • Iran Davar Ardalan was born in San Francisco on April 1, 1964 (baby in the photo).
    Hide caption
    Iran Davar Ardalan was born in San Francisco on April 1, 1964 (baby in the photo).
    Laleh Bakhtiar
  • Iran Davar Ardalan (center front row) and her family at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, April 5, 2014. Two of Abol and Helen's children appear in this photo – Davar's mother Laleh Bakhtiar and her aunt Parveen McNair.
    Hide caption
    Iran Davar Ardalan (center front row) and her family at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, April 5, 2014. Two of Abol and Helen's children appear in this photo – Davar's mother Laleh Bakhtiar and her aunt Parveen McNair.
    Ken Rochon/The Umbrella Syndicate

1 of 11

View slideshow i

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."

Abol joined Harlem Hospital for his residency in 1927 during the Harlem Renaissance. He began working alongside renowned African-American surgeon Aubre Maynard. In this staff photo Abol is standing behind the man in the dark suit. Dr. Aubre Maynard is second from the left in the front row. i i

Abol joined Harlem Hospital for his residency in 1927 during the Harlem Renaissance. He began working alongside renowned African-American surgeon Aubre Maynard. In this staff photo Abol is standing behind the man in the dark suit. Dr. Aubre Maynard is second from the left in the front row. Laleh Bakhtiar/Helen of Tus hide caption

itoggle caption Laleh Bakhtiar/Helen of Tus
Abol joined Harlem Hospital for his residency in 1927 during the Harlem Renaissance. He began working alongside renowned African-American surgeon Aubre Maynard. In this staff photo Abol is standing behind the man in the dark suit. Dr. Aubre Maynard is second from the left in the front row.

Abol joined Harlem Hospital for his residency in 1927 during the Harlem Renaissance. He began working alongside renowned African-American surgeon Aubre Maynard. In this staff photo Abol is standing behind the man in the dark suit. Dr. Aubre Maynard is second from the left in the front row.

Laleh Bakhtiar/Helen of Tus

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.

You can share your ancestral story using #EllisIslandHistory.

Comments

 

Discussions about race, ethnicity and culture tend to get dicey quickly, so we hold our commenters on Code Switch to an especially high bar. We may delete comments we think might derail the conversation. If you're new to Code Switch, please read over our FAQ and NPR's Community Guidelines before commenting. We try to notify commenters individually when we remove their comments, but given that we receive a high volume of comments, we may not always be able to get in touch. If we've removed a comment you felt was a thoughtful and valuable addition to the conversation, please don't hesitate to get in touch with us by emailing codeswitch@npr.org.