After U.S. Immigration Battle, Musician Kayhan Kalhor Returns To Iran Grammy-winning Iranian musician Kayhan Kalhor called the U.S. home for decades, until chaotic encounters with the immigration system caused him to leave the country permanently.
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After U.S. Immigration Battle, Musician Kayhan Kalhor Returns To Iran

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After U.S. Immigration Battle, Musician Kayhan Kalhor Returns To Iran

After U.S. Immigration Battle, Musician Kayhan Kalhor Returns To Iran

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Kayhan Kalhor is a master classical musician from Iran. He first came to the U.S. decades ago and launched a successful career, working with names as big as the New York Philharmonic. His life back home in Iran has been marked by tragedy and a repressive regime, and so he and his wife decided they would try to move permanently to the U.S. But about four years ago, they began having a series of troubling encounters with U.S. immigration officials. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas reports.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: There was nothing easy about Kayhan Kalhor's life in Iran. The first time he left the country, to flee the revolution, he was just 17 and alone.

KAYHAN KALHOR: The revolution carried many different manifestations that I, at least in my family, wasn't used to - you know, how to be more religious, how to be more political, how to be more whatever you're not.

TSIOULCAS: Kalhor walked more than 2,500 miles to Italy. All he had was a small backpack and his kamancheh, a bowed string instrument that's traditional in Persian classical music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TSIOULCAS: Not long after he left home, Kalhor lost even more. During a brutal eight-year war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s, a missile hit the family home, and both of Kalhor's parents and his brother were killed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TSIOULCAS: Kalhor's music sustained him. He studied Western classical music in Italy and in Canada, but he knew he wanted to bring his own music, Persian classical music, to wider audiences. He moved to New York City, and in 2000, he was invited by the celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma to become part of a new collective of international musicians, the Silkroad Ensemble.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YO-YO MA: I think he's one of the great musicians I've ever had the privilege to know and to work with.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SILKROAD ENSEMBLE'S "BLUE AS THE TURQUOISE NIGHT OF NEYSHABUR")

TSIOULCAS: Kalhor was touring the world. He'd already gotten Canadian citizenship, but he thought of the U.S. as home. He received a series of temporary visas, and then September 11 happened.

KALHOR: And that was a period that I didn't feel safe.

TSIOULCAS: So despite everything that had happened to him and his family in Iran, he decided to return. Not long after, he met a woman named Zohreh Soltanabadi. They fell in love. In a documentary film about the Silkroad Ensemble called "The Music Of Strangers," Kalhor and Soltanabadi confidently declared that their lives were now settled in Tehran. Their future was there.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS: YO-YO MA AND THE SILK ROAD ENSEMBLE")

ZOHREH SOLTANABADI: (Speaking Farsi).

KALHOR: (Speaking Farsi).

TSIOULCAS: This was in May 2009. It was a time of hope for them and for their country. But just one month later, the Iranian government violently cracked down on the country's Green Movement, which challenged the presidential election results. Kalhor felt it was time to leave his native country again.

KALHOR: The situation, especially for musicians, for the artists and for the intellectuals, became very difficult because the administration was not cultured. And this is what I have to offer - culture.

TSIOULCAS: So Kalhor found a home for the couple in California, and he got a green card. Speaking from Iran, Soltanabadi says that her hopes for living in the United States were simple.

SOLTANABADI: (Through interpreter) Mostly, I just wanted to be with Kayhan and live with him.

TSIOULCAS: She applied for her own green card and secured an interview with U.S. immigration in Turkey since there's no American diplomatic presence in Iran. Soltanabadi says that the interviewer went way beyond the normal lines of questioning to make sure there's a real relationship at stake, a requirement for a spouse applying for a green card.

SOLTANABADI: (Through interpreter) She said to me, your family probably doesn't even like him. I said, well, you're wrong. In Iran, everybody likes Kayhan, and my family loves him. She told me, that's nice that your husband is a successful artist, but I'm not interested.

TSIOULCAS: She was turned down. Then came an email from the immigration visa unit from the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, that seemed to threaten to revoke Kalhor's own green card. All of a sudden, he had to worry about being prevented from entering the country or that he would be detained by immigration officials once he landed. After NPR made inquiries, Kalhor received confirmation that his green card was secure, but it was still enough to make Kalhor question his assumptions about the U.S.

KALHOR: I always thought of the U.S. as a second country where everything is done differently according to people's merit, not their color of their skin or their race or anything else.

TSIOULCAS: Now, Kayhan Kalhor is back in Iran with his wife. The pandemic has put concerts and touring on hold, and they are waiting to see if the Biden administration's rollback of immigration policies could provide them with an opportunity to try again.

Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News.

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