Image: Paree practicing her Persian in a letter to Abol in 1948.
On the publication of the Bakhtiar Family Letters
To the Family: 1939 to 1973, and a Few Beyond
I first want to express my gratitude to God for my existence. Then, my parents, Abol and Helen, for their nurturing me and to my six older brothers and sisters who were always there for me. Last, but not least, I thank my three children, Mani Helene Ardalan Farhadi, Iran Davar Ardalan Smith, and Karim Ardalan who have been with me every step of the way in our family multi-year journey. The Family Letters in this multi-volume series of over 15,000 pages began this multi-year journey in 1939 when Shireen, age 9, wrote to an Agha Shoku (was this Abol?). The extensive number of letters go up to 1974 when Cyrus died, and some go up to 2018.
The Story Begins with Abol Ghassem Bakhtiar, M.D.
The story of the letters begins with the life of Abol Ghassem Bakhtiar, M.D., born in Chaharmahal Bakhtiari in Iran in ca. 1872. His father named him after the epic poet, Abol Ghassem Ferdowsi. Abol Ghassem means “the son of one who swore an oath to someone.” My father struggled for almost forty years before he was able to fulfill his dream of traveling to America to study medicine. He arrived on Ellis Island on October 29, 1919. He took this day as his birthday, as he had no record of the exact year or even day or month he was born. Abol Ghassem was to become the first Iranian to graduate from medical school in the United States in 1926 and return to Iran in 1931. There were no other American-trained doctors in Iran when he and Helen arrived with Lailee and Shireen, both born in New York City.
And with Helen Jeffreys PHN
The other major figure in the history of the Family Letters is Helen Jeffreys, born in Weiser, Idaho in 1905. She became a nurse when her family moved to Los Angeles. When she received a scholarship to teach nursing at Bellview-Harlem Hospital in New York City, she moved to NYC, met and married Abol in 1927. They had two daughters in New York City, Lailee and Shireen. Then, in 1931, she migrated to Iran with Abol and her children. Helen was the first American wife of an Iranian to migrate to Iran. There were no other American spouses at that time in Iran and just one British spouse of an Iranian. The other foreign spouses were European or Russian. She was also the first American trained nurse in Iran.
Iranians in America Before 1919 and Abol Ghassem’s Arrival
There is a history of two other Iranian men who came to America before Abol, but neither one married or had children and only one took American citizenship. There is also the history of one Iranian diplomat, Ali Kuli “Nabilu'd-dawlih” Khan, who married an American socialite from Boston, Florence Breed, and they had one daughter, Marzieh Nabil Khan Gail, who does not appear to have had any children before she died. However, a diplomat marrying someone from the country they are posted to does not usually count as an immigrant because the diplomat remains a citizen of the country that sent him and they visited Iran, but never lived there for any period of time.
From Iran to America and Back Again, 1931-1945
The story of Abol and Helen is unique in that it moves from Iran to America to Iran and back to America. Their seven children, who were either born in America or migrated back to America after being born in Iran, represent the first mixture of the Iranian-American DNA. As of 2018, there are today 117 direct line descendants of Abol and Helen and Abol’s second wife, Bibi Turon. Many of Bibi Turon’s children have also migrated to America.
Abol and Helen, along with their daughters, Lailee and Shireen, lived in Iran from 1931 to 1939 where Abol and Helen established a private hospital. Helen was pregnant when she arrived in Iran. In January, 1932, she gave birth to twin girls, Paree and Parveen. Then came Jamshid, Cyrus and myself, Mehree, who was also given an American name of Mary Nell (I later changed my name to Laleh).
In 1939, just before the beginning of World War II, the American Embassy in Tehran told all Americans that it was not safe for them to be in Iran as Reza Shah was siding with the Germans. Abol and Helen, not knowing how long this political situation would last, decided that she should go for a visit to Los Angeles to see her parents. They agreed that she should take Lailee and Shireen with her, as they were both born in New York City, and me, who was just six months old. This decision, which was to separate the family for six years, left Abol in Tehran with four children, Paree, Parveen, Jamshid and Cyrus while Helen was in Los Angeles with three children, Lailee, Shireen and myself. We each wrote letters back and forth to each other. 1939 marks the beginning of the collection of Family Letters with a letter Shireen, age 9, wrote to Agha Shokuh (Abol?).
When we arrived in Los Angeles, WWII broke out in Europe and it was no longer possible for Helen and we three children to get passage back to Iran. All ships were being used for the war effort and many of the passageways were not safe for other than military personnel, yet mail, which took one month to arrive, was at least able to get through and the family letters continued.
In 1945 Helen was finally able to get passage to Iran on a troop ship. She, Lailee, Shireen and I returned to Iran, arriving in the south of Iran in a city named Solomon’s Mosque (Masjid i-Sulayman or MIS), where Abol had become head of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) Hospital. We only stayed a short six months, an emotional reunion as the family had not been together in six years, and the siblings did not know the ones they had been separated from. Helen and the three of us who had grown up in America left Iran, again, but now with the other four who had grown up in Iran. The urgency was so that all seven children would have a chance at an American education, a blessing which Abol was grateful for all of his life. Abol was supposed to join us, but then a law was passed in Iran after the war that forbid doctors from leaving the country.
Washington D. C. 1945-1951
We arrived in Norfolk News, Virginia in 1945, stayed with Helen and Abol’s friends for a few months until Helen could find a house for herself and her “seven wonders of the world.” Letters were more frequent between America and Iran as we children, particularly the four who had grown up in Iran with Abol, and the two oldest ones who had remembered him from their childhood, missed him. Helen and Abol also continued to write to each other.
Once Abol and Helen realized that Abol would not be joining them and Abol decided to remarry, they were divorced in 1949. Abol subsequently married Bibi Turon, moved to Abadan, and had ten more wonderful children. Some time in 1950 Lailee went to Iran to see Abol and saw that he had saved all the letters he had received from Helen and their children. She set up a file cabinet with folders for each of us so Abol could easily file letters as they came. Whenever one of us would visit Abol in Abadan, we would check the file cabinet and make sure everything was in order. Of course, we all enjoyed reading the letters, as well.
By 1951, Lailee and Shireen had left our home with Helen in Washington, D. C. and moved to Los Angeles to go to college. Paree and Parveen had married. Jamshid had gone out on his own. That left just Cyrus and I with Helen. Helen, a public health nurse, obtained a job with President Truman’s Point Four program to give aid to Iran after the war. As Helen was fluent in Persian, she was an ideal choice to go to Iran and help the Iranian people. The three of us moved to Tehran. Abol was still in Abadan where Cyrus and I would spend our summers. All seven of us continued to write letters to each other across the oceans as well as to Abol and Helen. It was still difficult or expensive to telephone each other. Occasionally we would telegram emergency information.
Abadan to Tehran, 1951-1971
In 1962 Abol was visiting Shireen who, by that time, had married Manuchehr Javid. They were living in Abadan, when Abol fell in the shower and suffered a minor stroke. It was of great concern to them as well as to Lailee, who was a doctor by then, and Jamshid, who was in his residency. Lailee and Jamshid flew to Abadan and told Abol, by then around 90 years old, that he needed to close his clinic and move to Tehran. It took some convincing, but Abol finally agreed. When he closed down his office, he left the file cabinet with the letters with Shireen and Manuchehr.
The correspondence between the nine of us continued just as it had for twenty-three years, but letters to Abol and Helen went to Tehran where they each continued to save the letters they received. Abol died January 9, 1971. Helen, Shireen and I, who all lived in Iran at the time, buried Abol in Tus, as he had wished...
Digitizing the Family Letters
Over the years here in Chicago, I photocopied all approximately 15,000 pages of the letters and put the photocopies in plastic sleeves inside 4 inch white notebooks. I left the originals in the files I had organized in Tehran... [But eventually] the photocopies were no longer useful and the original letters had to be digitized. My grandson, Ryan, and granddaughter, Layla, along with their fateventuallyher, my son, Karim, have made invaluable contribution of their time to scan letters. My daughters, Mani and Iran, have helped with editing and suggestions. My grandson and granddaughter, Iran’s children, Saied and Samira, have helped with the cover design and photographs for the covers of the final 35 volumes.
Obviously we do not have all the letters that were exchanged among family members. What we do have and what you will see in these volumes, mentioned below in Other Letters in This Series, is the raw material, the original letters or post cards, articles and notes that someone saved. It has been a tremendous task and hundreds and hundreds of hours just to get them together. Some are typed and many are not and even some of the typed letters have typos. Some of the pages have been scanned crooked. Some are not very legible as the original has not aged well over time. There may be duplicates. Some may be out of order or belonging to another file. I ask that you please accept these books as invaluable to the history of our family in whatever shape or form they presently have. Harvard Library has shown interest in housing the collection.
Now that the project is completed, as noted above, there are 35 volumes in all: Abol, 2 volumes; Helen, 4 volumes; Lailee, 3 volumes; Shireen, 3 volumes; Paree, 1 volume; Parveen, 3 volumes; Jamshid, 6 volumes; Cyrus, 5 volumes; and Laleh, 8 volumes. Each volume is between 400-500 pages, several up to 700 pages. Detailed information about them is on this website (bakhtiar.org)
Whoever takes the time to read some of the letters will see what a treasure they are as each person has told their life story in their own words. There are not many families who have such a legacy and certainly no Iranian-American family from this early date. They are invaluable research material for anyone who wants to write about our family or an individual member, fiction or non-fiction. From a historical, sociological, psychological and cultural perspective, there is a lot to learn from the letters.
Our Unique Blend of Eastern/Western Heritage
In an era of digital communication, with email, texting, messaging, voicemail, and a plethora of social media, having actual hand-written and typed letters is a rarity. It is my hope that by documenting, sorting, cataloging and sharing these letters, it will shed light on our journey for future generations. The letters uncover not only the reality of families spread apart by war/politics, financial hardship/college, and/or marriage/divorce, but more importantly, their narrative reveals the strength of familial love, the resilience of immigrants, the depth of relationships and the indelible bonds formed across the miles.
With 17 children, 43 grandchildren, 55 great grandchildren (and counting) and 20 great, great grandchildren (and counting them, as well), we all stemmed from Abol Ghassem Bakhtiar’s vision of coming to America. In 2019, we celebrate his centennial year of his landing in Ellis Island, with a Bakhtiar family reunion this summer in New York City. Our unique blend of eastern/western heritage, with our cross-continental stories, is a cultural legacy we treasure, as we reflect on our past, while looking towards the future. My love to all.