Helen of Tus: Her Odyssey from Idaho to Iran

Monday, August 6, 2012

Authors: Laleh Bakhtiar & Bakhtiari Rose

Paperback: 216 pages
Publisher: Kazi Publications (April 1, 2002)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1930637187
ISBN-13: 978-1930637184 

Subjects:  Religion › Islam › General

Biography & Autobiography / General
Biography & Autobiography / Medical
Biography & Autobiography / Presidents & Heads of State
Biography & Autobiography / Women
Nurses/ Iran/ Biography
Religion / Islam / General
Weiser (Idaho) 


A true tale, the odyssey of 22-yr old adventurous American nurse who defied the norm, by marrying a 55-yr old Iranian doctor in 1927, New York. Despite her conservative Protestant upbringing in Idaho, Helen boldly moved to Iran in 1931. Incredibly, she helped open the first private hospital in Iran, as an anesthesiologist and mother of 7 children. Later Helen became a naval officer with President Truman's Point 4 program, travelling by jeep to remote villages of Iran, convincing the clergy of the need to educate women about healthcare and journeying with the legendary Bakhtiari tribe on their annual migration through 12,000 feet snow-capped mountains. Helen born an American, raised in Idaho, in-bred by the American "where there is a will-there is a way," sensed this paradigm as a calling. She applied her American values in the ancient culture of Iran, values of hard work, sacrifice, understanding, and identifying with other peoples sufferings. Helen died in 1973 and didn't live to witness the Iranian Revolution and what that would do to her two beloved homelands. Helen is buried in Tus, Iran near the tomb of the legendary Persian poet Ferdowsi.

Book Description

This is not a typical book and one should not expect to read it as such. First, the style of the book is very different than what we typically read in English, and it is only after you begin, that it's faint familiarity begins to awaken in you. Told in the naqqali (Storyteller) style, this book is structured similarly to our rich tradition of storytelling depicted in such books as the Shahnameh (Book of Kings, Ferdowsi). Second, the book is full of photos, each captioned, so you can begin to somewhat digest the book that way. Third, is to read the excerpts from the more than 300 letters, written in Helen's wonderfully American style, as a whole other way to enjoy the book. And finally there are the explained perspectives that puts everything into context and fills in the family's viewpoint as described by Helen's equally talented and inspired daughters.

It is the story of Helen Jeffreys, an American from Idaho, who came to Iran as a nurse in the thirties. Who came to raise a family, but also came to serve and love Iran beyond anything we can imagine today. The book is an assemblage, a transcript, a story taken from the letters that Helen wrote to her children during her incredible life. The family's photos and mementoes were used to bring the words to life by 2 of her daughters and Rose (Shireen). and Mary Nell (Laleh). In 1927 Helen met and married an Iranian, a dapper Abol Bakhtiar who had come to America to seek his fortune. The Wild Wild West meets the Wild Wild East.

Helen Jeffreys originally came from Idaho, of strong Scottish, Irish and English stock. Helen's family, like many steadfast American families of the time, were hardy, tried and true blue Americans, who originally came to the lands of the Nez Pierce Native Americans in Idaho, traveling along the famous Oregon Trail as pioneers. They fought in the Civil, Spanish-American, and First World wars. After World War II, Truman proposed what became known as the great "4-Point Plan", one of which intended for America to help spread technology and among other things public health know-how all over the world. A precursor to Kennedy's Peace-Corps. With her family strength fully instilled, Helen joined the Navy as a nurse under the 4-point program and took her commission to Iran with Abol. She then traveled throughout Iran's southwestern provinces bringing public health care to the famine stricken villages of Iran.

Abol came from the famous Bakhtiari tribe in southwestern Iran. The Bakhtiari were famous horsemen and considered to be the bravest fighters, staunchly opposed to any unfair rule by force, remnants of the long forgotten Persian warriors.

Imagine the courage it must have taken for Abol to make his way alone, halfway across the globe to America. Abol, although not featured in the title of the book, was no less than a truly marvelous Iranian. He worked his way from nothing to becoming an American educated physician returning to Iran to become a doctor. He climbed (literally, he once went on an expedition to climb Mt. Damavand and made it to the top 4 hours before anyone else on the team!) and worked his way to the top. The sheer determination of this man, un-dampened by anything, disallowing any doubt to creep into his path, is awe-inspiring. He is in some ways the very essence of the American Dream.

It is also a book of firsts; The first known American to marry an Iranian in the America and go to Iran. The first American Nurse to come to Iran. The first All American Iranian football hero (Helen and Abol's eldest son Jamshid). And there are many more in the book. Helen of Tus is not about the past, it's about potential. What keeps coming back to you is what a perfect example this is of how naturally cultures can in fact blend. That by interacting one can not only respect and understand another's culture, but serve to strengthen their.

Editorial Reviews

"Helen had peace of mind, lack of prejudice, and love of humanity respecting and serving her adopted land." -- Admiral Abol Ardalan, CEO, Iran Electronics Industries

"Helen of Tus is a powerful testimoney to the humanity that exists between Iran and America." -- Jahanshah Javid, grandson, Publisher,

"Her adventures are in the spirit of all great female adventurers, from Isek Dinesen to Freya Stark." -- Jacki Lyden, author Daughter of the Queen of Sheba and National Public Radio Senior Correspondent, winner of the Gracie Award, 2002

Helen’s adventures are in the spirit of all great female adventurers. -- NPR's Jacki Lyden

If President Bush would read this, he might change his policy regarding Iran. 

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:
Journal of Middle East Women's Studies 2.2 (2006) 139-143

While working as a nurse in New York City in 1927, Helen met and married Abol Bakhtiar, a Persian physician educated in the United States and almost thirty-five years her senior. Along with their first two children and with twins on the way, they moved to Tehran in 1931 and founded a clinic they operated out of their home. As the first American-trained nurse in Iran, Helen 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.

Then, through a series of extraordinary vicissitudes personal and geopolitical, Helen moved between Iran and the US for the rest of her life, although Abol never returned to the US. The children were shifted back and forth in different combinations, leading lives of complicated cultural and filial identity. Abol married a Bakhtiari wife in 1946, but he and Helen remained in constant (if sometimes painful) communication.

In the 1950s, Helen achieved a measure of independent professional distinction in the medical community, an important validation from the US 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 US government's postwar Point 4 program in Iran (see 107-8). Her efforts lodged her in the environs of the nomadic Bakhtiari confederacy, where she forged deep friendships and a true sense of belonging.

Helen of Tūs is a very particular kind of biographical memoir. The authors are two of Helen's seven children (Laleh aka Mary Nell, the youngest) and Bakhtiari Rose (aka Shireen, the second-born). The eldest child, Lailee, provided extensive materials she had already gathered on their father's life, while the surviving son, Jamshid, contributes a sensitive introduction. In search of reconciliation with a fraught history, they weave their collective saga from letters, diary entries, recorded interviews with relatives, and documents preserved by family members.

The whole is presented prosimetrically, in a mix of prose and verse, to echo explicitly the Iranian oral tradition. This is an act of homage to Iran, and it works well, albeit with some difficulty. While the prosimetrum technique evokes for most of us the supremely heroic epic in the Iranian tradition, it turns out to be very apt for exploring the life of this particular woman. The shifts between documentation (primarily in Helen's own words, through her letters) and allusive interpretive lyric (composed by the authors) assist her children in communicating...  

About the author

Laleh Bakhtiar, Ph.D., is the first woman to produce a critical English translation of the Quran.

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