It was a thanksgiving to remember. It was about twenty years ago, November of 1992, that my mother and I visited new York, for the purpose of attending the second Baha’i World Congress, a congress to pay homage to the 100th anniversary of the passing of the Prophet and Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, Bahá’u'lláh. It was also an occasion of an unusual and wonderful family reunion. My grandmother, after 14 years of being denied a passport to leave Iran, solely for religious reasons, managed to finally get the documentation necessary to visit her children and grandchildren in the United States—just in time for this Congress.
My Grandmother and the Prime Minister
My grandmother came from an illustrious family; her uncle was Ali-Kuli Khan, a distinguished diplomat who was a member of the mission representing Persia during the Versailles peace conference in 1919. She had six daughters, one son, and sixteen grandchildren. Her son and two daughters lived in Tehran and the rest lived abroad, mostly in the United States. For 14 years following the Iranian revolution in 1979, she was denied permission to visit her family; her application for a passport was rejected every time. She told me once that during this time. she ate only simple, healthy foods for longevity, so that she might live long enough to visit her family in America.
It was in the early nineties when the son who was living with her died of a heart attack. It so happened that at the funeral someone who had some sort of contact with the prime minister was present. During this funeral, my grandmother took a gutsy step of presenting a letter to be given to the prime minster through this acquaintance. In the letter she made her case for being deserving of being issued a passport to visit her family in the United States. It should be noted that at that time the Bahá’ís were persecuted, imprisoned and even killed because of their faith.
After reading the letter, the prime minister let it be known that he thought that she was one courageous lady and whether it was due to this letter or change of policy regarding visas at the time, in the year of 1992, in the evening of her life, she was finally issued a passport and came to New York in time for the Bahá’í World Congress.
My Mother’s Emotional Reunion
My mom was a mommy’s girl. So it is no surprise that my she was excited and anxious to see her own mother after a 14 year separation. The reunion was to be at a hotel close to the place where the world congress was held. My grandmother was one of the few—if not the only—person who attended this congress directly from Iran.
I vividly remember the moment when my mom and I arrived at the hotel where grandmother was staying. We seemed to wait forever for the elevator that would take us to her room. My mother said a few times “Do you think I will get to see her? Maybe I will pass away before we get on the elevator!”
This was her moment. Once we got off the elevator, I decided to wait outside so my mom to see grandmother first. A loud and emotional cry of joy echoed in the hallway …. “Mama!”.
Thanksgiving in New York
The hotel was close to the Javits Center, where the congress was held. I was given the assignment to be with my grandmother, as she needed help with her wheelchair. I took her to many sessions of the conference and shepherded her around New York. She told me wonderful stories about her childhood and youth in Iran. I recall in particular one story she told me about the time of Ahmad Shah, the last King of the Qajar dynasty. At a gathering in which she was invited, due to her illustrious family connections, the Shah informally asked my grandmother if she would consider being his wife. Her reply was that it might not be such a good idea since she was a Bahá’í. The Shah apparently accepted the wisdom of this observation.
Our time together in New York was also an occasion for thanksgiving with our extended family. Most of the family was there for the conference, which made it ideal for big get-togethers. There was one occasion where the whole family had dinner in a restaurant. Dozens of relatives were there, as well as my friend, Kevin, a native of Chicago, who was hanging out with us. During this family gathering, my grandmother told us a story of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and race unity that occurred during ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s trips to United States 100 years ago. This story is exquisitely described in Howard Colby Ives’s book Portals to Freedom. I will quote a lovely scene he witnessed one Sunday at the home of an acquaintance, which by now he was visiting on a regular basis. The book relates that:
“On this day, looking out the window, Reverend Ives was astonished to see a group of some thirty noisy, not too well dressed… urchins, but spruce and clean, enter the house. He followed them upstairs where ‘Abdu’l-Bahá greeted them, one by one, with smiles and laughter. The last one was a dark colored boy and when the Master saw him, His face lit up with a heavenly smile, and He exclaimed: “Here is a black rose!” Everyone present was impressed with a feeling of wonder, which increased when ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, distributing a handful of chocolates to each child with a kind word, picked up a particularly dark chocolate and “without a word, but with a humorously piercing glance that swept the group, laid the chocolate against the black cheek. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s face was radiant… and that radiance seems to fill the room. The children looked with real wonder at the colored boy as if they had never seen him before. As for the boy, himself… his eyes fastened with an adoring, blissful look upon the Master…For the moment he was transformed. The reality of his being had been brought to the surface and the angel he really was revealed.“
My friend Kevin, said that his grandmother used to share the same story.
I cannot but recall Abdu’l-Bahá’s statement that New York “is the meeting place of the East and the West…”
My grandmother, through her perseverance, made this joyous meeting and thanksgiving possible for all of us in the blessed city of New York.
Here are links about an interesting encounter I had with a homeless gentleman during the same time in New York as well as an account of Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit to the west. I may be visiting NYC this month, if so will try to write a blog on it.
==================== References =========================
 Howard Colby Ives, Portals to Freedom