Her Flag Unfurled: Celebrating My Mother’s Indomitable Spirit
Her 1956 high school yearbook at Holton Arms included this quote: “ My plume on high, my flag unfurled, I rode away to right the world.” Looking back, my mother’s life has been a blessed and most extraordinary one. Ahead of her 80th birthday, I’m sharing some of her journey, in a series of posts, in her own words.
Laleh Bakhtiar, was born in Iran but grew up in between America and Iran. Her mother, Helen Jeffreys, a constant source of inspiration. Helen was born in Weiser, Idaho at the beginning of the 20th century. She met and married my grandfather Abol Ghassem Bakhtiar in Harlem, New York in 1927.
In the 1950s, Helen travelled to Iran as a public health nurse as part of President Truman’s Point Four Program. The rural improvement project sent American experts in agriculture, health and education to work in villages in less-developed countries. Traveling in the remote mountains of Chahar Mahal in her own jeep, Helen worked with the legendary Bakhtiari tribe helping women learn about the importance of healthcare.
The people of Chahar Mahal loved my grandmother, the blonde, blue-eyed, selfless woman who spoke Persian with an American accent. That same spirit of service to community is what inspired my mother in her path as an Islamic scholar. In the past 50 years, she’s written, translated, edited, adapted over 160 books. One of her proudest accomplishments came in 2007 with the translation of the Quran from Arabic into English called The Sublime Quran.
Since the advent of Islam, it has mostly been men translating and interpreting the Quran. As a female scholar of Islam, Laleh produced a gender neutral translation and challenged the status quo on the Arabic word daraba, traditionally translated as “beat” — a word that she says has been used as justification of abuse of Muslim women. Her translation has generated intense scrutiny and criticism as well as praise and recognition from around the world.
Jordanian Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad, Chief Advisor for Religious and Cultural Affairs to King Abdullah of Jordan and author of Love in the Holy Quran, has endorsed the translation on Amazon:
The work Dr. Bakhtiar has put into her interpretation the consistency, the method, the attention to tense, root, case and detail is second to none. I have never seen its like before. The English reading of it is also lovely and smooth. This is clearly a blessing God has blessed her with, masha Allah.
While Al-Azhar female scholars, from one of the world’s oldest Islamic institutions, take Bakhtiar’s scholarship to task:
“This translator is a sinner and has committed an unforgivable crime by changing the meaning of the words of Allah in his Koran.”
Bakhtiar has also heard from hundreds of Muslim women, battered women and social service groups, thanking her for offering an alternative translation out in the public eye. In May 2016, she was awarded the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award from the Mohammed Webb Foundation in Chicago for her contributions to the American Muslim Community.
The following stories share a glimpse of her life — one that has been rich and fulfilling as a scholar, a mentor, a mother, a grandmother and a global citizen.
I was born in Tehran in 1938, the youngest of seven children of Helen Jeffreys and Abol Ghassem Bakhtiar. I was named Mehree (meaning light in Persian). My American grandparents, who lived in Los Angeles, wrote Helen, that they were happy she had seven children, but they could not pronounce any of their names. Helen then named me Mary, after her sister, and Nell after her mother.
Los Angeles 1940
World War II was about to break out. The American Embassy in Tehran told all Americans they should leave for their safety because the then monarch, Reza Shah, was siding with the Germans. Helen, my older sisters, Lailee and Shireen, and I moved to Los Angeles in 1939. We lived with my American grandparents, Woodsen and Nell Jeffreys, for 6 years because of the war. We arrived in Los Angeles the day Hitler invaded Poland, the beginning of World War II. We were there in 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. After that we lived through blackouts every night until the war ended in 1945. Helen had my portrait done in 1940 when I was two.
I was happy living with my grandparents. Papa had fought in the Spanish-American war of 1898. He had a bugle on the wall and the American flag. Grandma Nell made the most delicious apple pie.
Washington D.C. 1946
In 1946 Helen moved to Washington DC with all seven of us when I was 8 years old and my parents were divorced. I went to Catholic School where I became a very devout Catholic — I actually wanted to become a nun. My friends and I would dress in what we thought were “special clothes” to walk through our neighborhood praying for a better world.
At the age of 12, my sisters, Lailee and Shireen, had moved to Los Angeles. My sisters, Paree and Parveen, were married. My older brother Jamshid had gone to Iran for a year to be near my father Abol who had married again and was to have 10 more children. That left my brother Cyrus and I with Helen. We moved to Georgetown so I had lost all my friends and my connection to the Catholic Church.
In 1950, Helen moved to Tehran with my brother Cyrus and I. Helen was a public health nurse, Lt. Commander in the U.S. Navy. Cyrus and I went to the Community School run by Dr. and Mrs. Irvine. In 1952, Cyrus was voted King of the School and I was voted Queen. The Irvines then began a new school called Iranzamin which my children Mani, Iran and Karim attended until the Islamic Revolution that took place in 1979 when Mohammad Reza Shah was overthrown.
In 1957, my brother Jamshid and I went to Iran for a visit. It was one of those very exciting visits to Iran as he had been named All-American by the Footballer Writers Association of America and received a hero’s welcome in Iran.
We visited our mother Helen who was living in the ancient city of Isfahan. Helen was friends with a Bakhtiari tribal chief named Yahya Khan. As I was unhappy with my name, Helen took me to see him. Helen said, She doesn’t think the name Mary Nell suits her. Since all her brothers and sisters have beautiful Persian names, she would like to change her name. Yahya Khan looked at me and said: Laleh. This is a famous word in Persian poetry as it is the name of the red poppy and symbolizes a person who is intoxicated with the love of God. From that moment on, this became my professional name.
More stories on Laleh’s extraordinary life all week. Her most recently work is a new adaptation of Avicenna’s famous Canon of Medicine. Avicenna, known also as Ibn Sina, was one of the world’s great physicians though he lived 1,000 years ago.
“When I came across the works of Avicenna,” Bakhtiar says: I was astonished by the fact that his Canon of Medicine written in 1038 CE and translated into Latin in the 13th century was the only medical textbook in Europe for hundreds of years. What an impact the life of this one Iranian had on theWest. I thought to myself: Yes, I did not become a physician as my father had wanted, but perhaps I can help medicine in another way by making this great work that I call the Law of Natural Healing accessible to an English speaking audience.”
She has also authored Sufi Expressions of the Mystic Quest published in 1976 and co-author The Sense of Unity, The Sufi Tradition in Persian Architecture published by Chicago University Press. The noted American architect Louis I. Kahn wrote in support of this book:
“What they are bringing to us is the recalling of the original inspiration which motivated building.”
Tune in all week for more stories, as we celebrate Laleh, a loving mother and grandmother and pioneering champion of human rights and women’s rights in Islam.