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Helen of Iran

Laleh Bakhtiar's mother wasn't your average Persian girl.

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On the cover of the book published last year by Laleh Bakhtiar and her sister Rose is a photo of their mother in a stylish suit and pumps--perched atop a camel. Helen of Tus: Her Odyssey From Idaho to Iran tells the story of Helen Jeffreys, one of the first American-trained nurses to work in Iran. "Her father was the mayor of Weiser--it's a small town near Boise," says Laleh Bakhtiar, the 64-year-old production director of Kazi Publications, an Islamic book distributor on Belmont that specializes in translations of classical texts and poetry. "Her family had been pioneers in the west, but what she did was amazing."

Three years ago Bakhtiar went to Iran and lugged home seven suitcases of family letters and photographs, which she and Rose used to help piece together Helen's story. Their book starts with her childhood, describing her as a "born diplomat" for her skill in settling arguments between her older sisters. Because she grew up near American Indians, they write, Helen developed "an attachment to the oppressed." When she was 15 her family moved to southern California, where she later went to the University of California at Los Angeles to become a nurse.

In 1927, at the age of 22, Helen took a job at a hospital in New York, and in her first week there she met a 55-year-old medical resident named Abol Ghassem Bakhtiar. Before coming to the U.S. eight years earlier, he'd worked in Tehran for the Near East Relief Committee. He, like Helen, had grown up in a small farming community. He wooed her, says Bakhtiar, "by reciting Persian poetry for her. Firdawsi was the favorite. She was absolutely fascinated." After a six-week courtship the couple eloped. Helen's mother fainted when she heard the news.

In 1931 the couple, who'd had two children, decided to leave Depression-era New York for Iran--officially known until 1935 as Persia--and put their savings into what would become Tehran's first hospital for women. Helen later wrote of arriving in Baghdad that fall and making the overland trip to Tehran: "Not only were we traveling with two girls, I was then six months pregnant with twins. It was not an easy journey. When we arrived in Tehran, all of Abol's relatives said that the twins would be boys now that I was on Iranian soil. I had twin girls, Paree and Parveen."

Abol and Helen set up the hospital in a wing of their home. Decades later she wrote to her children, "As soon as I would fix up a room, Abol would use it to care for one of his patients--or one of his cadavers that he would bring home until it could be taken to the university to be used for pathology experiments by the medical students. The advantage was that we were never away from the children except when they were at school....It was kind of 'Life With Father,' Iranian style."

The couple had three more children, including Bakhtiar, the youngest, who arrived just before World War II broke out. When the U.S. government said its citizens should leave Iran, Helen took Bakhtiar and the oldest girls back to Los Angeles. Abol couldn't get a visa.

The years apart were a struggle, but the family's postwar reunion in Iran lasted only seven months. "They'd been separated six years," Bakhtiar says. "My father wanted more children. My mother was 40. She'd already had seven." Helen brought the children back to the States. "They decided an American education would be better for everybody and that my father could come here later."

But in 1946 Iran passed a law compelling doctors to stay and help with rebuilding. Abol took another wife, who bore him another ten children, and Helen filed for divorce.

Bakhtiar says her mother was still drawn to her adopted country, and in 1951 she went back as a nurse with a U.S. Public Health Service program that was a precursor to the Peace Corps. She drove from village to village in an open jeep, seeing patients and training health care workers. She also set up a school for girls in a village near Tehran, a project the director of U.S. technical cooperation in Iran described in a book he wrote: "She had to beat the bushes for recruits. Finally one day, her problem was solved. A particularly timid girl of about thirteen slid through the door and took a seat in the back of the room. She was the daughter of an influential mullah in a nearby village. Once it was clear that the mullah's daughter had actually entered the class, other volunteers came."

Meanwhile Bakhtiar finished boarding school in Washington, D.C., then went on to study history at Chatham College. After graduating in 1960 she married Nader Ardalan, an architect of Iranian heritage who'd been raised in America. After the couple's two daughters were born, Ardalan was offered a job building employee housing for the National Iranian Oil Company, and in 1964 the family moved to Tehran.

There Bakhtiar, who'd been raised as a Christian, and her husband began studying Sufism. Neither had known anything about it before moving to Iran."Sufism is to Islam what Zen is to Buddhism and cabala is to Judaism," she says. "It's basically for self-development. It's about replacing vices with virtues. It's about special prayers and 'self-talk' that makes you reflect on why you did something. Once you realize what the issue is, you do it less." She and her husband wrote Sense of Unity: Sufi Tradition in Persian Architecture, which was published in 1971 by the University of Chicago and presented to the shah of Iran, who in turn made a donation to the university.

When Bakhtiar decided to convert to Islam, she says, her husband wasn't thrilled. "Sufis don't ask people, or compel people," she says. "It was my decision. Nothing to do with the political thing--this was 1976, before the revolution. I wanted to learn more about the faith, about Sufism. He was not into it. He didn't want to be married to someone who wore modest dress."

The couple divorced, and Ardalan went back to the States, where their daughters were already in college. Bakhtiar stayed in Tehran with their son. During the 1979 revolution they went to England, but Bakhtiar didn't move back to the U.S. until her son decided he wanted to go to college here. Both of them wound up at the University of New Mexico, where she got her doctorate in educational psychology.

Bakhtiar's mother had moved to Tehran in 1967, having developed emphysema after years of driving on dusty roads. She lived down the street from her daughter and family until her death in 1973. She wanted to be buried in the town of Tus, where Abol had been buried two years earlier. He was 99 when he died. Their graves are near the tomb that's said to hold Firdawsi, whose words had helped bring them together so many years before.

Bakhtiar has now written ten books. She wants the next one to tell her father's story.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.

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