By Maryam Qarehgozlou

An odyssey of Iranian-American Islamic scholar Laleh Bakhtiar 

February 20, 2019

TEHRAN — Laleh Bakhtiar is an Iranian-American Muslim author, translator and clinical psychologist. She is also the first American woman to present a critical translation of holy Quran in English. 

Born on July 29, 1938, in Tehran, Iran, to an Iranian father and American mother, she grew up in Los Angeles and Washington D.C.

Bakhtiar has a BA in History from Chatham College, MA in Philosophy and Counseling Psychology and a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from the University of New Mexico. 

Bakhtiar is a Licensed Professional Psychotherapist in the State of Illinois. She also taught courses on Islam at the University of Chicago. She is co-author of A Sense of Unity: The Sufi Tradition in Persian Architecture (University of Chicago Press) and author of SUFI Expressions of the Mystic Quest (Thames and Hudson), as well as a three volume work, God's Will Be Done, on Moral Healing and some 15 other books on various aspects of Islam.

She is the leading authority on spiritual chivalry, most clearly expressed in the Sufi Enneagram, also known as the Greater Struggle. She has also translated over 30 books on Islam and the Islamic movement into English. 

Bakhtiar is presently Director of the Institute of Traditional Psychology and Resident Scholar at Kazi Publication. 

Coming from a prominent family and a mixed Iranian-American background as well as her true desire to learn and her pure natural genius have given Bakhtiar the enormous privilege to become a well-known author.

Abol Ghassem of Tus

Abol Ghassem Bakhtiar and  Helen Jeffreys

Her father, Abol Ghassem Bakhtiar (1872-1971), was the first Iranian who obtained a degree in medicine from a university in the United States, Syracuse University, 1926. 

Abol Ghassem was born to a poor family in Borujen, Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari Province, and learned how to read and write by attending Maktab (old-fashioned elementary schools primarily used for teaching children in reading, writing, grammar and Islamic studies) from the age of 5 to 10, however, despite his deep fondness for acquiring education and becoming a doctor he failed to attend school or university until he became a middle-aged man. 

He experienced different jobs and responsibilities. He was a peddler, later on a shopkeeper, and then a tutor. 

Meeting Dr. Samuel Martin Jordan, who served as the president of Alborz High School (the then American College of Tehran), was a turning point in his life. 

At the age of 39, Abol Ghassem served as the home teacher to a prominent Bakhtiari family in Tehran and used to drop their children at Alborz High School and wait there to pick them up in the afternoon every day.  

Dr. Jordan who became aware of Abol Ghassem’s eagerness for learning decided to help him in obtaining his diploma. It took him 6 years to obtain his high school degree.

Nonetheless, finishing high school didn’t satisfy him as he was greatly interested in medicine since his early childhood after struggle with smallpox.

In 1918 when famine struck Iran a group humanitarian activists from Near East Foundation came to Iran for food assistance and they were looking for someone knowing English so that they could help them in distributing the food among the famine stricken people. Dr. Jordan introduced Abol Ghassem to them, and he told them about his yearning to go to the United States and become a physician. 

On August 29, 1919 Abol Ghassem, penniless, finally managed to leave Iran to travel to the United States and he arrived in Ellis Island in New York City in October and decided to study medicine at a University in New York. 

His request to study at the university was originally rejected, but a recommendation letter from Dr. Jordan assessing the qualities, characteristics, and capabilities of Abol Ghassem and his ability to study there granted him a seat at the university. 

In order to pay his tuition fee, Abol Ghassem, burly and well-built, started a career in boxing and wrestling. 

He initially was enrolled at Columbia University and afterward completed his academic study at Iowa and South Dakota universities and in 1923 he received his BA degree in medicine and entered the “Syracuse Medical School” in 1925 at the age of 51. 

Finally, after the internship course, he started his residency program of the surgery at the “Bellevue Hospital” in New York. At the age of 55, Abol Ghassem became a fully qualified doctor. 

In 1927 Abol Ghassem met and married his first wife, Helen Jeffreys, a 22-year-old American nurse.  In 1931 Abol Ghassem returned to Iran with Helen with two of their children and twins on the way. Upon his arrival to Tehran they founded a private hospital where he performed different surgical operations. 

Later he was appointed as the Vice-Chancellor of Tehran Medical School from 1934 –1935 and as teaching staff at the School between 1933 and 1937. During this period, he taught the topics of the anatomy, obstetrics and gynecology and minor surgery to students of medicine. 

His other major contributions to the Tehran Medical Faculty dates back to 1934 when he played an effective role in planning and building of the Anatomy Hall.

In 1940, he went to Abadan, southern province of Khuzestan, and worked as the chief surgeon at the hospital affiliated to the “Oil Company”. He then moved to another city in Khuzestan Province, Masjed Soleyman, in 1942. 

At the age of 90, in 1962, he came back to Tehran. For his contributions to medicine and educational services, the chancellor of Tehran University honored him in 1964 in an official ceremony and one of the anatomical halls at Tehran Medical School was named after him. 

Eventually, after nearly a century of hard work Dr. Abol Ghassem  Bakhtiar passed away on January 1971 in Tehran, at the age 99, due to a heart attack. He was buried next to the tomb of Ferdowsi (the great Persian epic poet) in Tus, near Mashhad, northeastern Iran. 

Abol Ghassem had had a dream just before he died that his earth would mix with the earth of Ferdowsi and a Rostam would be born to save Iran. This is why he is buried in the public graveyard in Tus behind the tomb of Ferdowsi.

In a letter addressed to his son in September 26, 1953, quoted from the book “Abol Ghassem of Tus: The Epic Journey of Abol Ghassem Bakhtiar, M.D.” co-written by his daughters Laleh Bakhtiar and Lailee Bakhtiar, he writes: "At nineteen, I was a peddler in the Bakhtiari Mountains with thousands of hallucinating dreams. I had one guideline and that was my desire-my desire for an education and for betterment. At the age of forty-four, when I came to America, I had only a high school diploma from the American High School in Tehran. No money! No relatives! No one to back me up! But I was determined to study medicine. No one on the earth could divert me from my path. When I first met the Dean of Columbia College for admission to the college, he said I had chosen a very hard subject and I should change it. I told him that death or success was my aim and I would not change my subject even if I spent all my life trying to achieve it.” 

Helen of Tus

Laleh’s mother, Helen Jeffreys, was a young nurse in her 20s when she married 55-year-old Abol Ghassem who was almost thirty-five years her senior. 

According to the book “Helen of Tus”, a biographical memoir coauthored by two of Helen and Abol Ghassem’s daughters (Laleh, the youngest and Shireen, the second-born), Helen was the first American-trained nurse in Iran. Helen, an American from Idaho, immersed herself in Persian language and culture while pursuing her nursing career and commitment to prenatal and neonatal health education with a tremendous sense of mission. Simultaneously she bore the remainder of her seven children in the space of eight years.

Due to various personal and geopolitical vicissitudes, Helen moved between Iran and the U.S. for the rest of her life, although Abol Ghassem never returned to the U.S. again. The children were shifted back and forth in different combinations, leading lives of complicated cultural and filial identity. 

Abol Ghassem married a Bakhtiari wife, Bi Bi Khatoun, in 1946, and had 10 more children with her, but he and Helen remained in constant communication.

In the 1950s, Helen achieved a measure of independent professional distinction in the medical community, and important validation from the U.S. of her expertise and the value of her cultural and linguistic fluency in rural Iran. She landed a post as chief public health nurse, educator, and administrator for the U.S. government's postwar Point 4 program in Iran. Her efforts lodged her in the environs of the nomadic Bakhtiari confederacy, where she forged deep friendships and a true sense of belonging.

Upon becoming a naval officer with President Truman's Point 4 program, she travelled by jeep to remote villages of Iran, convincing the clergy of the need to educate women about healthcare and journeyed with the Bakhtiari tribe on their annual migration through 12,000 feet snow-capped mountains. 

Bakhtiari tribe had honored Helen Jeffreys Bakhtiar so much so that they commemorated her public health work there in the 1950s by naming a mountain area after her. 

Located in the central Zagros Mountains of Iran, near the ancient city of Isfahan, stretching over a 40,000 hectares of land area, the area around Kohe Helen or Helen's Environmentally Protected Area, is home to a wide variety of species, including brown bears, leopards, wildcats and eagles. The mountain and the surrounding forests are marked as a protected area.

Helen died in 1973. She, too, is buried in Tus, near the tomb of the legendary Persian poet Ferdowsi.

The Tehran Times have conducted an in-depth interview with Laleh Bakhtiar with a focus on her works, revolving around Islam and her translations especially her translation of Quran which will be published in the following days. 

MQ/PA

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