#3: Nazanin Rafsanjani
January 13, 2017
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Twice Removed is produced by Meg Driscoll, Ngofeen Mputubwele, Matthew Nelson, Audrey Quinn, and Kimmie Regler. Our senior producer is Eric Mennel. Editing by Jorge Just and Alex Blumberg. Michelle Harris is our fact checker. Research and genealogy by J. Mark Lowe and Eowyn Langholf. Music and sound design by Haley Shaw. Interpreting and translations by Raha Hakimdavar and Sara Goudarzi. Additional music by Blue Note Sessions.
Special thanks this week to Casey Turner, Loretta Shugrue, Sarah Rodriguez, Suzanne Campbell and the West Texas Collection at San Angelo State University, Vickie Webb, Dr. Frank Sousa, Heather Wylie, Brad Moseley and The American School for the Deaf, Dr. Amy Malek and Khodadad Rezakahani.
Jeffrey Einboden’s new book which talks about Emerson and his persian influences is “The Islamic Lineage of American Literary Culture.”
You can reach us at TwiceRemoved@gimletmedia.com. We tweet @TwiceRemoved, and we’re also on Facebook. Twice Removed is a production of Gimlet Media. I’m AJ Jacobs, we’ll be back next week with more Twice Removed. Hopefully you’ll be filled with delight… or perhaps abject horror. You never know. It’s family.
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And be sure to check out another podcast about family: The Longest Shortest Time, hosted by Hillary Frank!
Naz: One of my first memories is seeing American breakfast for the first time and the breakfast here seemed so gross.
Naz: Yes! because like in Iran we would eat fresh bread and feta cheese and tea. And and here it was like my cousin is eating fruity pebbles... it’s like pouring like primary colors into a bowl and then pouring milk on top and then eating it (laughs)
I’m AJ Jacobs. And this is Twice Removed. The show that proves we are, in fact, one big family.
Right now there are two people here with me, in separate studios. And what they don’t realize is…they’re related. One of these people is our mystery relative who will be hidden away until the end of our show. But the other...is right here in the studio with me... our guest! Nazanin Rafsanjani. Hello, Nazanin.
Naz: Hello. Hello AJ.
We, uh, Nazanin, we are delighted to have you. People in the Gimlet Office of course know you very well. But why don’t you go ahead and introduce yourself to the rest of our audience.
Naz: My name is Nazanin Rafsanjani, I’m the Creative Director at Gimlet. Gimlet is the company that makes this podcast. That means that I work on all the ads and branded content that we make.
Right. You are our advertising guru. You’ve also produced stories for This American Life, and you worked for the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC. You have a fascinating personal history and an amazing family… So we’ve been working for months to dig into that history.
Now as we heard at the top of the show you came to the US from Iran as a kid. And because of that you had to leave a lot of your family behind. So how much do you know about your family?
Naz: I don’t know much about my family. Like all i know are like these little snippets. I think one of the things that sometimes you give up when you immigrate here is is is all this stuff. Who were your grandparents grandparents? What did they do? I don’t know, we have like 5 family members in the United States and that’s who we’re gonna know about.
AJ: If you could have a fantasy of what your ancestors were like, what, what would you want them to be? Do you want them to be like you know princes and princesses? Or do you want them to be like gangsters? What what would you like?
NAZ: Oh my god, I haven’t - uh I think i definitely would not want them to be princes and princesses. I can't believe I'm saying this. I don't know why I'm saying this, but like I would love to know if any of them were artistic? Like painting or drawing or writing or anything like that. I just have questions more than fantasies of who I want them to be… since I’ve had my own kids. I think it’s really weird for me to have these totally American kids. They’re just American. There’s a part of me that wants them to have like a connection to my whole family and like where I’m from. Or at least at want them to know that like the parts of my personality that I’m proud of come from some people they’ve never met.
Well, Nazanin I couldn’t have said it better myself - this idea that parts of who we are… parts of our experience... are wrapped up in family we’ve never even met. That’s exactly what we found with your family.
So here’s how Twice Removed works. We’ve spent the last few months doing research- talking to historians, distant relatives... finding people who are related to you.
If you look here, we’ve actually - we’ve built a road map. And it starts with you on one end - that’s you over there.
And it ends with your mystery relative
Naz: Oh okay. (Laughs) Wow.
And in between the two of you there are forty people, related by blood or marriage. They’re across generations, across borders… it’s like six degrees of separation, only in this case,
Nas: Uh huh
it’s forty degrees of separation.
Now in the course of the show, we’re gonna make our way through this road map... one person to the next. And along the way, we’ll stop at five of your most interesting relatives. And we’re gonna tell their stories.
With all of these people... one theme kept coming up... Exile. People who have left their communities and had to start over. They are artists and dreamers… We’ll meet a victim of one of the world’s oldest diseases... and not just one but two literary icons... And, at the end of the show... after we’ve made our way through this road map... we’re gonna bring our mystery relative into the studio...for a family reunion unlike any other.
AJ: She says laughing nervously.
AJ: And what do you think - do you have any idea who your mystery relative might be?
Naz: No - I have - I have no idea. I mean I’m just looking at this chart and like
AJ: No idea? What about one guess. Give me one guess.
Naz: I mean if Michelle Obama’s in there I would be psyched. And if she’s not I’ll be really disappointed. So.
OK! Uh, Now, mystery relative, I’m talking to you now, I can hear you but Nazanin can’t.
How are you doing?
Pat: I’m doing just fine, thank you.
Excellent. Is there anything you would like me to say to Nazanin for you?
Pat: Just that it is going to be absolutely wonderful to meet her.
AJ: Lovely. They say that it will be absolutely wonderful to meet you.
Naz: Okay. Yes. It will be wonderful to meet them.
Alright! Mystery relative please hang tight... soon you’ll be in the studio with us, meeting Nazanin face to face.
Hopefully, the two of you will be filled with delight, though it could be abject horror. You never know. It’s family.
Alright, so Nazanin, let’s get started with our first story. Now, if you take a look at the road map of your family right here… so we actually don’t have to go too far to get to your first remarkable relative…
AJ: In fact just one step…
AJ: One step to the right…
Naz: Uh huh.
AJ: Hi Nilu it’s AJ Jacobs.
Nilu: Hey how are you?
AJ: I’m good how are you?
Nilu: I’m doing well I’m doing well.
Naz: My sister.
You recognized her.
Her name, of course, is Nilufar. She goes by Nilu. She is about five years older than you.
Naz: Mm hm.
And the story of how you and Nilu came to America is pretty harrowing. And because Nilu older than you, she has a more detailed memory of how drastically your life changed.
Naz: Yes, she - knows more about that than me.
It all starts in the nineteen seventies... Tehran was a city split between two cultures… You’ve got a modern, western capital… but one that is deeply steeped in the Islamic faith… in photos it looks just like Los Angeles, or Paris, with people walking down the street in business suits or bell bottoms… but also, hijabs. And in a lot of ways, Nilu’s early years don’t seem all that different from a kid growing up in the U.S.
Nilu: I wanted to be a boxer.
Nilu: Cause I was obsessed with Rocky. At the time it was like a big deal to like get western movies. You know that was like a thing.
AJ: And did you ever train? Did you ever do a little Rocky either running up stairs or-?
Nilu: Oh all the time. Like when I was by myself I used to pretend I was Rocky all the time. It was like shadowbox and do pushups and that - you know that kind of thing. I was always kind of embarrassed by it. Like I was always - I always made sure like no one knew I was playing Rocky.
Nilu: Man did I love Rocky.
Mina: My favorite movie was uh-mm Sabrina.
Mina: With Audrey Hepburn. I couldn’t get enough.
AJ: You know what, that was my father’s favorite movie and I was gonna be named Sabrina if I were a girl.
So Nazanin, you wanna tell us who this is.
Naz: That is my mom. I mean she’ll watch anything so there - just take that all with a grain of salt.
AJ: (laughs) It’s a good movie .
Naz: It is a good movie.
AJ: Not the re-make but-
Naz: No no no yeah. The Audrey Hepburn version. Yeah.
So that is your mother. Mina Attar. Now, during this, there was actually a massive political shift happening outside your home… in the streets of Tehran….
Reporter: At dusk last night there were fires burning and roads blocked. This was the scene all over Tehran. It was the beginning of a night of violence that followed a day of violence.
In nineteen seventy nine... there were two sides struggling for the control of Iran ... on one side, the Shah who was aligned with the west but also very corrupt and unpopular in his own country... and on the other side was the Ayatollah Khomeini, a religious hardliner.…
Now in that year, revolution broke out and the balance of power shifted away from the Shah... and toward the Ayatollah.
NBC: Ayatollah Khomeini. The winner. He now controls Iran, the oil, the money, the government, billions in military equipment bought by the Shah, he has it all.
And with that power, Khomeini started instituting harsher laws…
Mina: The year that I got pregnant by Nazanin, was the year that they forbidden everything, alcohol and western movie... and they put the hijab in the woman's head.
Nilu: my least favorite part which I absolutely hated, was the, um, this thing they called a man na'eh... which is like a lycra almost... fabric that would cover your hair. I hated that... and I just didn't understand why the boys didn’t have to wear that and I did. And I would get in trouble.
Mina: She would get so mad. And she would, she would argue yeah, yeah.
And the head covering was just one new requirement under the Ayatollah. There were restrictions on where women could travel, what jobs they could do… The way your mom tells it, Nazanin - it was overwhelming...
Mina: Everything was tighter and tighter and harder to breathe for woman. It was horrible horrible. They take your identity. They take everything. Who you are. What you think. (exhales) It feels like you’re trapped. You’re in a wheel that you just keep - just keep uh screaming and nobody hears you.
AJ: Are you alright?
Naz: Yeah yeah yeah. It’s hard to hear your mom cry.
September 21st, 1980. Does that date ring a bell?
Naz: Yes that is my birthday.
AJ: That’s right!
Naz: Yes. [laughs]
Now by then, the revolution was about 2 years in. And literally the very next day, war broke out in Iran. And soon, life in Tehran would go from oppressive… to outright dangerous.
NBC: Good evening. In the middle east iraq’s border troubles with iran exploded into fighting today that had all the appearances of a war.
The Iran-Iraq war - it started as a border dispute. But it quickly escalated. Saddam Hussein started flying planes hundreds of miles into Iran, and dropped bombs on the capital, Tehran, where you lived.
Do you remember anything about the bombings?
Naz: I didn’t know they were bombings until later. I remember being woken up in the middle of the night and being like - shuffled down to our basement and not knowing why.
We actually talked to your mom and sister about it. And they remember of course very clearly. And - on any given night bombs would start falling on your neighborhood and your mom would have to react….fast.
Mina: We all wake up. I grab nazanin. Just put the blanket on Nazanin. Tried not to fall. And my husband get another blanket and grabbed Nilofar... Nilofar was six years old seven years old then. Then we go in a hole in the wall or somewhere we think is safe. We go and we shiver. Literally shiver for all the time that the bombing continues.
AJ: What did you say to your daughters at that point?
Mina: In fact, i’m I’m I’m so wimpy that- i just shiver and cry. Nazanin was just an infant, but Nilufar was the bravest.
Nilu: She would be crying, and my grandma would be crying, my sister would be crying. And i would be the one, like, comforting everyone.
Mina: She would tell me, “don’t worry, at least we all are together. Don’t worry.
AJ: Wow, that’s amazing.
Nilu: i kind of I kind of remember liking it almost, um It almost kind of felt like a little like a slumber party.
Naz: That’s so funny.
AJ: What’s funny?
Naz: Yeah, I mean - she really experienced these things you know where I have like snippets of a - a memory. Almost looks like you looked at a picture and you’re just remembering the picture.
Yeah... and the bombings were basically the last straw for your mom. She said enough… we need to leave. The first step was for your mom needed to quit her job without looking suspicious. She was worried her boss at the time would turn her in.
Mina: I put my resignation and he said no where are you going and I said, my husband didn’t let me to work anymore and he said Oh OK. [laugh]
AJ: That makes sense!
Mina: So he said yeah yeah, my sister, you have to look after your husband first. I said, yeah, right. (Laughs)
Naz: Yeah. that is absolutely in her character.
AJ: That sums it up?
So that was the easy part. But your parents actually had to get your family out.
She made a plan. She’d line up at four in the morning to get travel visas. And she had to get there super early to beat the crowds. The whole family would then fly to Turkey. And from Turkey, you would catch a plane to Minnesota. Where two of your uncles already lived.
The day comes. You all go to the airport. Your mom and dad say goodbye to their families. The plane takes off. And the emotions were complicated… Your mom, she was sad to leave her life behind… but at the same time it was also a relief...
Mina: We were still in Iranian territory. You have to keep the hjiab. As soon as we flew over iran’s border I remember… nilufar was the first one, she was nine years old… she said no power puts this hijab on my head ever again… all the women cheer, and they take the hijab and they clap, and... [laughing] I took it off I said no matter what it takes… I'm gonna make it... I'm not going- I’m not gonna do this anymore. Enough is enough... I have only one life to live. They have no control.
The plane touched down in Minnesota, now your family - they were only here on a travel visa. So like a lot of immigrants, your mom had to work under the table. And she worked a lot.
Mina I worked at night cleaning offices. One of them was Chuck e’ Cheese.
AJ: Oh really?
Mina: I said oh my god - how many tables do they have?
Naz: I did not know she worked at Chuck E Cheese. It’s like my kid’s favorite place now. If she still worked there they’d be so psyched.
AJ: You gotta tell em. That’ll give some cred
Naz: all my kids ever want my parents to do is take them to Chuck E Cheese.
AJ: Do you think maybe that’s why she doesn’t take her?
Naz: May - I don’t know. Or ‘cause it’s awful but like yeah. (laughing)
While Mina worked nights as a cleaner, just to make ends meet… Nilu was focused on trying to fit in.
Nilu: I remember feeling very defensive. Very defensive. I - I think I went up to sharpen a pencil and and some kid was like - tried to teach me how to like use the pencil sharpener and I was really offended. Like - I may not speak the language but I know what a pencil sharpener is. Like we have Pencil sharpeners in Iran. You know?
Nilu: You just want to not be different when you’re that age.
Nilu: We were just so different. Everything about us was different. There was just this like overwhelming sense of like I don’t belong anywhere.
Naz: Yeah, I hated it. I felt so weird. I mean, every kid does I think, but we were weird. You know all the houses had christmas lights, everyone had a christmas tree. Everyone was named lindsay. That’s how it felt. There were a lot of Lindsay's.The most popular girl at our bus stop, her name was lindsay. It felt really isolating.
What about your parents? Your mom, she didn’t have the same experience it seems because she was so busy working.
Naz: I never thought about how hard they were working ever. Such a selfish little kid.
AJ: Was there a moment when you got older that you were like "Oh my God, I can't believe the sacrifices they made"?
Naz. Yeah. (laughs) Yes. I have those moments all the time. I think about that all the time now. I think about it all the time. I can't imagine making the decisions that they made. My Dad said goodbye to every member of his family. Everybody. My parents, they worked six days a week. They were just never around, and as a kid, I um, I would get mad about it. Or like, I wanted them to, especially my Mom, I wanted her to like be volunteering and doing all the things. Or like having her nails perfectly done, because that's how the Moms of my friends were like. I never thought about how … I never thought about how it must've been like beyond just all the leaving your family behind and all that stuff. How it must've been just painful for them never to, like never to see us.
Nazanin: Yeah. And now, my Mom is always you know, trying to convince me to be a stay at home Mom and I always yell at her. But, um, she's always like "You're going to regret not seeing the kids." I mean I feel like I won the lottery. For all the things we’ve like given up, and my parents especially, literally I feel like the life I live now is like equivalent to having won the lottery when I was six.
We are going to take a quick break. And when we come back -- Your family’s history with one of the oldest diseases known to mankind. And we’ll start to make our way toward your mystery relative.
Naz: Okay. [laughs]
Welcome back to Twice Removed - the show that proves we are, in fact, one big family.
I’m here with Nazanin Rafsanjani, my co-worker here at Gimlet. We just heard about how her family immigrated from Tehran to the US when she was a kid. Nazanin, are you ready to get back on this road to your mystery relative?
Naz: Yes I am.
Let’s do it.
Next stop, we’re staying in Tehran… For a story that’s not about coming to a new country... It’s about what gets left behind.
Take a look at this map again. We’re gonna go one, two, three steps from your sister, Nilu.
So - we called up your great aunt …
Naz: Uh huh.
AJ: you look a little emotional.
Naz: I know. We call her Hala-joon, which means dear aunt.
Others call her Effat. That’s her name. She speaks a little English, but mostly Farsi, so we had a translator come to help us out… but there was only so much she could do with idiots like me…
AJ: Vale Vale
AJ: Does Bale mean ok?
Raha: Yes, that means ok
AJ: I feel like I got it, I’m almost fluent.
AJ: Okay so. That’s all I got. That’s my -
Naz: Oh man. That’s that’s - that was a - that’s brave that’s a brave effort.
AJ: That’s my Farsi, you’ll have to teach me later
Naz: Uh huh.
Effat remembers the day your family left Tehran. She met you at the airport to say goodbye. And she says it was one of the saddest days of her life.
Effat: (In Farsi) It was really not believable. I didn’t realize until we were in the airport that she was leaving. And the moment that she took her hands from mine, the last moment, it was like she took the life from me.
AJ: Nazanin… What did she say?
Naz: She said that uh every single thing about my mom leaving Iran was incredibly difficult for her. Down to the last moment when - I could be translating this better but in the moment when my mom um let go of my great aunt at the airport it felt like she was taking a piece of her life away.
AJ: But your mom and Effat they’re still in touch right? They’re still close?
Naz: Yes. She's just like a force of nature. She was a Principal in Iran for a school for the blind for many, many, many years. She had a bunch of brothers and a Dad who like weren't particularly interested in having her be educated. And she made that happen for herself. And she’s just like a good person.
Yeah. Effat is sort of the external hard drive of your mother’s family. The memory-keeper. And that’s especially important in a country like Iran. People like Effat, who have lived there for many decades, they can be the best … and sometimes the only… link to the past.
So we asked Effat about your more distant ancestors. She started with her father, Hajee Ghanei, who was your great grandfather…
Hajee was born in 1892. Effat describes him as a difficult man. A tough father.
Raha: somewhat dictatorial in the way that I think he ran things.
But, she does remember something very special about him… his love of poetry. So Naz, you were hoping to learn if you had any artists in the family… turns out there was one not too far away … your great grandfather. He would write poetry. And sing it. He would memorize his favorite poets…
Raha: and expected everyone to also know these words and to have an appreciation for these things. Especially Saadi …
Saadi is a major figure in classical poetry. He’s sort of the Persian Shakespeare. Only… he lived 350 years before Shakespeare.
AJ: Did your father um make you memorize those poems, and if so do you remember any of them?
Raha: Some of them a little bit?
AJ: Wow, first of all, I am just astounded that you still remember that. Just amazing.
Effat: Vale vale vale...
Were you able to understand that poem at all?
Naz: I ca - I can understand a little bit but it’s like it I mean it is kind of like listening to Shakespeare when you -
AJ: What little bit did you understand?
Naz: Um something about - uh the - youth or like children to a mother.
AJ: I didn’t understand it either but - it was translated. And it’s the voice of a mother who is disappointed in her son’s behavior. So there you go Nazanin. You have a deep love the arts baked into your genes.
Now, something else came up in our conversation with Effat that surprised us. It took us back one hundred years. You see, for most of Iranian history, people didn’t have formal last names, at least not in the way that we think of them.
But in the 1920s, the Shah decided it was time for the country to westernize. And one of the first things he did… was give everyone a formal last name. That single decision makes it hard to research any Iranian family… because a hundred years ago, it’s likely they had a totally different last name.
A perfect example of how confusing this can be is Effat’s last name, Ghanei...
Effat speaking in Farsi
Translator speaking in Farsi
Raha: Her father actually changed his last name from Daneshmand which means knowledgable to Ghanei. He just thought the name didn’t fit.
AJ: That’s very humble of him to change the name. What does the new name mean?
Raha: It’s also a very humble last name, it means whatever God has given you, you should not ask for more. You should be happy with what he has given you.
Did you know your great grandpa had changed his name?
Naz: No. I had no idea their last name was made up. And I feel this weird like sense of relief that he didn’t change his name to like Awesome Superstar or something you know. Naz: Um. I was saying like I want my kids to know that the parts of me that I’m - that I’m most proud of come from people they’ve never met. I think Hallajoon is the main person. She’s just incredibly poised and brave and strong. I don’t think without her influence would my mom have ever had the like courage to leave Iran. Like ever.
Ok, Nazanin. We’re moving onto your next relative …
our next story … It’s about the battle to stop one of the oldest diseases in the world… a disease that affected your family… and how that battle changed modern medicine.
Okay so, let’s go back to the map here. You see Effat? Uh. Now we’re going to take four steps to the right to get to your cousin Saeed and his wife Casey.
Naz: Mm hm.
And you know them. You know Saeed and Casey pretty well, right?
Naz: Yes I do, yeah I do.
When was your last time you saw them?
Naz: My last time seeing them was last year in Minnesota for my grandfather’s 90th birthday.
Naz: Which was the first time I had seen them in a long time.
Now you probably don’t know this, but Casey’s grandfather was one of seventeen children: Arnold, Billy, Pierce, Malcolm, John-Burnum, Annie-Mae, Mattie-Lou, Cecil, Maclyn, Huie, Hosie, Hershel, James, Howard, Hubert, Andrew, and Leona... Turner.
Naz: (laughs) That’s insane.
Fourteen Turner boys and three Turner girls. And we’re going to focus on just one of them for this story… John Burnum, or JB.
Like you and your family, JB had to leave his home… though his exile wasn’t political…. It was physical.
Tovia: I can just remember us coming in, I guess from outside playin. And he was coughing up blood.
This is Tovia McWhorter... She’s JB’s niece.
Tovia: And Mother was running to the telephone. And daddy came home early the next day, and took JB to the doctor. And then found out that he had TB. ..
Or, Tuberculosis. It’s among the oldest infectious diseases known to humans. It’s been killing us since the Stone Age... Literally. And by 1800, Tuberculosis had killed one in seven people who had ever lived.
Yeah. Just a crazy statistic.
Living and dying with TB was a fact of life for nearly all of human history. So.. .when JB heard the diagnosis, he knew what it meant. Back then, getting TB was basically a death sentence.
But today, that’s no longer the case… at least not in the United States. And that shift … is one of the greatest public health triumphs in history.
Narrator: Once it was a hopeless curse, but now thanks to our knowledge it can be brought under control.
This is a newsreel from 1937. See, the big reason that TB was so rampant... is that people had no idea where it came from. Most people thought it was hereditary. Or that it came from dirty air or water. Nobody thought TB was something that we could pass on to each other.
So, Nazanin... would you mind trying an experiment with me?
AJ: I like - I like your willingness.
Okay so I have some delicious ice cream - some Haagen Daz ice cream - and I’m going to take a big bite of it…
AJ: Mm. Mm mm mm mm mm. OK! Here, now you have some.
AJ: With the same spoon that I just used I only have one spoon.
Naz: I know. I um - I uh. Uhhh.
AJ: I should mention, 15 to 20 other people have also licked this spoon before I did and I have no
AJ: ...idea who they are or where they’ve been. But have a taste.
Naz: Thank you but no thank you.
AJ: You’re gonna pass?
Naz: Yeah I’m gonna pass yes thank you. I know.
AJ: All right -
Naz: I know.
AJ: your - your loss. All right.
So obviously yes - a little gross - a lot gross - but it was actually a thing. People used to pay a penny for tastes of ice cream out of these little glasses. They were called penny licks, and-
Naz: Oh Jesus. that’s horrible.
It was like all of lower Manhattan sharing one sample spoon.
Naz: Wow. God. It’s like licking the subway pole or something.
AJ: It is totally.
Naz: It’s like paying to lick the subway pole.
AJ: But just a penny.
There’s a reason you think this is gross. In eighteen eighty-two a German scientist discovered the bacterium that causes TB. This was a big deal. Not just for how we understood TB, but for how we understood all infectious diseases. Back then… People were just coming around to the idea that germs were a real thing. And this TB bacterium? This was proof…
Narrator: Tuberculosis is caused by a germ so small, thousands could pass through a pinhole without crowding.
This new discovery led to a revolutionary new idea: that disease could be fought with awareness.
Organizations popped up to get the word out… they made newsreels and handed out pamphlets at schools and offices. They encouraged basic sanitary practices, like washing your hands and using your tissues -- things that seem so obvious to us now.
And TB infection rates went down. On the face of it … all of this worked.
But... there was an unintended consequence: we became scared of each other.
People with suspicious coughs were evicted from their homes and refused jobs. Their names were made public. And finally… people with TB were quarantined.
That’s what happened to your relative… JB. After he got his diagnosis, JB was put away...
Tovia: He stayed with us for about a week while they found him a place, a sanatorium, for TB patients.
A sanatorium was a place where people with tuberculosis could be treated long term… A place where they could get fresh air, good nutrition, and rest. LOTS of rest.
And these sanatoria were everywhere... hundreds of them all across the United States.
Three miles away from where you got married in the Catskills?
There was one there: Ulster County Tuberculosis Sanatorium. And if you walk about a mile east from where we’re sitting right here at Gimlet Studios... there’s another one.
So on one level... Sanatoria were a way of curing patients. But on another... they were a convenient way to get the infected people out of the community.
Tovia: He had to go in this hospital, and, he was put in this room, and he wasn’t allowed to associate with anyone else. You don’t have a whole lot of human contact unless someone comes to see you and not too many people want to come see you. You know, kind of like you’re waiting to die.
Tovia described it as a prison for sick people. And it kind of was. People would hold their breath as they drove by. Some patients had their belongings and houses burned. People went in there and they were forgotten about.
But JB’s family, they made sure that never happened to him.
Tovia: You know my dad would go in to see his brother, and he would tell him that we were outside playing in the yard and he would just come to the window and wave at us. You know, it had to be heartbreaking for him. To know that, you know, he’d never be outside again.
JB spent a year in the sanatorium… but he wasn’t getting better. So he volunteered for a surgery that was so experimental half of the patients died.
Tovia: Because if they could do something to cure him or make him better, he wanted to try it because you know he couldn’t go anywhere, he couldn’t do anything. He didn’t have a life.
Sadly… JB died in surgery … He was thirty four years old.
It was 1957 when JB died. Around that time, the US finally got Tuberculosis under control... which meant that the old sanatoria - they weren’t really needed anymore. They turned into schools, resorts, assisted living facilities… The one near Gimlet? It’s now a fancy apartment building.
Places that were used to keep people away from the community... they have become places for people to gather.
Did you know anything about this?
Naz: No I didn’t know anything about this. That sounds horrible. To be sort of - like isolated in that way. Like I can’t believe that someone who was having that experience in the United States is tied to me in any way, you know what I mean?
Ok Naz, I’m just gonna check in real quick with our Mystery relative, so sit tight. Mystery Relative, I want to say hi, because you have quite a connection to this chapter of history, right? There was a sanitorium near your house.
Pat: Yeah… The one near my house was called Nopeming, it's long gone now.
Pat: I mean you just knew that you didn't go near there. you knew there were people with tuberculosis, and if you went near it, you were going to get it. The belief was you were just going to die. You didn’t want to get close to it.
But did you ever get close to it?
Pat My dad did a lot of social ... I mean, he helped a lot of people. And I remember going to the Nopeming Sanatorium with him, he said, "You stay in the car, don't want you exposed". He went in, he came out, and and I did later test positive for exposure, that’s when my mother went ballistic. But I was put on a course of antibiotics, and I've never had trouble with it.
Alright, Mystery relative, we’ll be back with you in just a few minutes. Please sit tight.
How are you feeling, Naz?
Naz: I’m feeling excited how are you guys?
AJ: I’m excited.
Naz: Okay good.
AJ: Are you nervous are you uh exci-
Naz: Um - I’m I yeah. I’m -
Naz: I’m curious yeah I’m curious -
AJ: Curious is good.
Naz: And um yeah. Yeah.
I am very excited about our next stop... It’s a relative who is deeply connected to the arts... He’s 18 steps away from JB Turner… More than half our way to your mystery relative...
He’s in Massachusetts, 1803… He’s someone I’m pretty sure you’ve heard of, though maybe not someone you thought of as family… his name… Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Naz: [laughs] Okay. That is so weird. Um.
AJ: Cousin Ralph.
Naz: Yeah. Cousin Ralph. Um yes I know who that - I know who that is.
For those who are un... or maybe only vaguely familiar,
Naz: Uh huh
He’s often considered the father of American literature. He’s a poet and an essayist. He’s most famous for an essay called Self-Reliance.
But in our research we heard this story that totally changed how we thought about Emerson. And his influence on American culture.
In the early part of his life Emerson was a Unitarian minister. But in 1832, he quits. Leaves the clergy. And he’s not sure what to do with himself.
Einboden: He’s a little bit adrift.
This is Jeffrey Einboden an Emerson Scholar at Northern Illinois University. He says that Emerson did what lots of upper class 20-somethings do when they’re out of work… trying to figure things out... He went to Europe.
Einboden: And he makes his way up through Italy and france and eventually Britain.
And while Emerson’s in Britain… he goes to meet a hero of his… the famous poet, Samuel Coleridge. He goes over to Coleridge’s house… walks up the front stairs...
Einboden: And when Emerson climbs the stairs to go see coleridge, he’s expecting to see this great romantic master. Instead Coleridge is only a year away from death. So he’s in a state of illness and repose.
But all is not lost. On that same trip to England, Emerson came across another piece of literature that was arguably as influential on him as Coleridge’s… wandering through the streets of London, he ducked into a small bookstore. And while he was pacing through… one particular volume caught his eye… he wrote about it in his journal...
Einboden: He writes that he’s bought a copy of the Quran, the muslim scripture… an english copy of the Quran. And that he eventually we believe takes home with him to New England.
He bought a Quran… for 2 pence, 6 schilling. Remember that when you could get a book for 2 pence? Good days.
But it’s at this moment … that Emerson, the father of American literature, engages with a great western influence, Coleridge. And at the same time, engages with a great eastern influence… Islam.
See… While Emerson’s well known for his writing on Nature and Self-Reliance, he also wrote extensively about Persian poetry.
And Nazanin, this is how the lives of your ancestors in Tehran intersect with that of your distant relative in Massachusetts… Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Remember that poem your great aunt recited earlier in the show?
Effat reciting poetry
That poem was written by the Persian poet Saadi [SAH-dee].
In 1842, Ralph Waldo Emerson published one of his first major poems… it was called “Saadi.” In it, he takes on the name and voice of the Persian icon. It turns out Emerson was studying Saadi just a few years before your great grandfather was born in Tehran.
Saadi and the other Persian poets had an enormous impact on Emerson. He translated more than two thousand lines of persian poetry… he quoted it everywhere… in letters to friends… on the backs of envelopes. It’s all over his personal journals. In the 1850s, one poet referred to Emerson as “Our Concorde Saadi,” … as in Concord Massachusetts…. where Emerson lived. He said Emerson was, quote, “responding from today and America, over the ages and the sea, to the dead lyrist of Persia.”
Einboden: In some ways Emerson, he influenced a whole generation coming after him. Whitman, as well as Emily Dickinson, Emerson also heavily influenced Henry David Thoreau
Einboden calls this literary genealogy… the act of tying people and cultures together across borders, across languages… across time... by tracing their common influences… Influences like Saadi.
Emerson ends his essay “Persian Poetry” with a poem by Kermani, he’s another persian great. And it’s a poem about nostalgia for a former homeland… it reads in part:
Except the amber morning wind,
Not one salutes me here;
There is no lover in all Bagdat
To offer the exile cheer.
That poem is called “The Exile”
Naz: Hm. That’s beautiful. It makes me think of my parents. It just made me think about how it must have been for them. It was easy for me to like - blend in you know? But for my parents - it’s very lonely.
Naz: I think when you leave your country at that age, like my dad was 40 my mom was 30. You know you’re just not comfortable anymore like just -
Naz: in space.
AJ: It just doesn’t come naturally.
Naz: Nothing comes naturally.
We’re going to take a short break, but stick around… Because when we come back, we’ll meet our mystery relative.
Welcome back to Twice Removed. Nazanin… we have made it! We are at our final stop before your Mystery Relative. And it’s been quite the journey to get here… We’ve been to Tehran to Alabama, to a bookstore in London… but here we are, mere minutes from meeting your mystery relative. So… how you doing?
Naz: I don’t know I’m I’m sweaty. I’m nervous. I am! I’m nervous like my palms are sweating.
Yeah. Nazanin, we started out with the story of how your family came to this country. So for our last story, we thought we’d tell you how your mystery relative got here. And it’s from a very small part of the world in the nineteen-teens… And we land on a woman named Adelaide Lima Texeira.
OK, real quick here, I want to check in with our mystery guest.
Mystery guest, does the name Adelaide Lima Texeira ring a bell?
Mystery Relative: Yes it does! She’s my grandmother.
Uh, huh. What do you know about her?
Mystery Relative: She was born in the Azores, i think on san miguel island and came here with her first husband.
Well we’ve got a little more detail so hang tight. We’ll be right back.
Nazanin… Since you couldn’t hear that... Adelaide is our mystery guest’s grandmother.
AJ: Super close
Naz: Very exciting
So to learn more about Adelaide, we talked to another one of her granddaughters, Fran Conners.
Fran: I remember her as kind of short, kinda stocky lady, always remember her with grey hair, usually pulled back in a bun. And always in black clothing."
Adelaide was born in 1891 on Sao Miguel, a remote Portuguese island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s part of a chain of islands called the Azores. And even though Sao Miguel is incredibly lush… the people there call it the green island…. there’s not a whole lot of opportunity.
And so at 23 years old, Adelaide and her husband Jacinto, gathered up their three kids, got on a boat...and left for a small town, unknown to most of the world. Fall River, Massachusetts.
Fall River was called the most Portuguese City in America. It was filled with people who’d left San Miguel. The backbone of the town was its cotton mills. “Spindle City” they called it. They were hard jobs, but good jobs. And jobs were the key. Most people coming over, like Adelaide… didn’t have much.
Fran: well she brought all of her possessions in steamer trunks, I know at least one because I have it now.
But Adelaide and Jacinto’s new life together in America... it lasted just nineteen days.
Fran: her husband died, and
Fran: he contracted some kind of nasty thing, so she came to a new country with three young children and lost her husband. That must have been very frightening. I think she had to be a pretty strong willed woman to survive that, being a young mother and a young widow.
Now remember, Nazanin, at the very beginning of our show, you said you wanted your kids to know that there are parts of your personality that come from people they’ve never met. Things like your great aunt’s kindness and strength. Well, those are the same sorts of things Fran remembers about Adelaide. More than dates and details… it’s Adelaide’s personality that is passed down through the generations…
… her strong will.
Fran: when she was you know bedridden, I used to go in the room and sit with her. I had to be maybe 7 years old, and she did actually teach me to crochet, and I made one long strand of crocheted yarn and then I didn’t know what to do with it, and she said let’s take that, and she tied it to the foot of the hospital bed, which it was iron railings, and when she wanted to sit up she would pull on that, to help pull herself sit up in the bed." so that yeah, that just came back to me when we were talking about her. So maybe I got some of that strength and gumption from her, I don't know.
It’s through memories like this that Fran understands herself. And I imagine that’s also true of your mystery relative… Who’s Adelaide’s other granddaughter...
Do you want to meet Adelaide’s granddaughter... your mystery relative?
Naz: Yes. Yes I do.
All right mystery relative! Come on in!
Mystery Relative: Hello.
Naz: Hi. I, I’m Nazanin.
AJ: Nazanin -- so here is your mystery relative… do you have any idea who this is?
Naz: Yes. Hi!
Mystery Relative: Hello!
Naz: I do not.
AJ: Can I give you some clues?
AJ: Okay. You met in Minnesota -
Naz: We did?
AJ: Uh huh.
Mystery Relative: Mm hm.
AJ: It’s been 30 years since you last saw her.
AJ: You might not be in America if it weren’t for her.
Naz: Are you Pat?
Naz: Oh my God. Hi!
AJ: they are hugging people.
Pat: - see you again!
Naz: Oh hi!
AJ: It’s a good long hug.
Naz: Yeah. Um. Well I can tell people who she is. Pat is the woman - is the lawyer who helped us stay in the country.
So Pat… how long has it been since you’ve seen Nazanin?
Pat: It’s been about 30 years.
AJ: 30 -
Pat: She was just a little girl last time I saw her.
Naz: My memory of you is like - you had like uh 80’s hairstyle and you had like blue eyeliner and you just seemed like so in charge. Cause I think one of the things that happens is that like your parents who are like the people who always used to know what was going on - they did not know what was going on anymore and like you seem - you were a person who was like gonna make it okay. Which in those days was a rare feeling. It was hard to know who to trust. And it was scary. And you’re definitely like a person I’ve always been like grateful for. I would never assume you remember us or my family at all.
Pat: Oh yeah. I just remember this wonderful family. With these two wonderful little girls. Who just so desperately needed to stay here.
Naz: Were we a special case - did - was that your work?
Pat: That was my work -
Pat: and it still is.
Naz: It still is.
Naz: Is to help refugees stay in the country.
So, Pat... Can you tell us just a little more about what you did for for Naz’s family. Like how did they come to you and what did you do for them?
Pat: I’ll say I think they came to me through other clients -
Naz: Mm hm.
Pat: Because I was representing an awful lot of Iranians at the time. And so what they really had to do was sit down and talk about what had happened and what would happen if they went back.
AJ: And what would happen?
Pat: Well in particular, I think the focus was on Mina on your mom. And on what would happen to Iranian women who simply could not live under the restrictions that the Islamic republic had put on them.
AJ: Like what would happen if if a woman didn’t wear a hijab?
Pat: You could be arrested on the street you could be thrown in prison. Um, I think there was at that time even throwing acid on women’s faces if they did not wear it correctly. It was horrific. And we had to get the US government to actually recognize women as what’s called a particular social group.
Pat: Because at the time they said well no there’s too many Iranian women. Well we managed to narrow it to Iranian women who oppose the Islamic Republic. And what I’ve always said to people is - anyone who thinks that Iranian women are not strong has never met an Iranian woman. Because these were women who were protecting their families by any means necessary. You probably remember sitting in the waiting room at immigration.
Pat: And we all had to sit through that and and to tell the officer what was happening in Iran and why they couldn’t go back.
AJ: how much was riding on those meetings? What was at stake?
Pat: Everything. Their lives were at stake. If they went back to Iran, the chances that they would all survive I thought was pretty slim. Not only because of the war but because of the political issues, because of Mina’s objection to everything that was happening to women in Iran. Somebody, probably Mina, was gonna end up in prison. Ending up in prison - there was a high probability she would end up dead. It was literally life and death.
Naz: and what’s - what Pat’s saying like - it certainly is like - it - I mean my mom - or my sister - a little girl who wants to be like a boxer like. You know it’s it’s hard for that person to to grow up in Iran I think. It’s strange because you did this for us and like - changed our whole - like just changed our entire lives and then we see - don’t see each other for 30 years - you know it’s just like a -- it’s like not an exaggeration to say that like - I wouldn’t ha-have any of the things that I have if you hadn’t helped us.
Pat, How many people have you helped over the years?
Pat: Well if you’d like to know how many closed files I have? - 3000.
AJ: 3000 people in America.
Pat: Over - well and that’s families.
AJ: 3000 families.
Pat: so there’s more in most of those files than just one person.
Pat: When I look at the number I go, who did this? I mean - it just doesn’t seem like it’s been that long and that many people. But it does feel like I’ve - I’ve lived what my mother taught me to live. Which is you never - you never ever turn your back if you can possibly help it. because if you do, worse things will happen.
Naz: when you’re a kid like people are protecting you and you don’t even know. You know? That’s Pat. Like for me and my family. Like there are these people in my life, who like like my great aunt, who i think about and i think like that’s a person who’s had this huge impact on me who I haven’t seen for 30 years, and you’re like that. You are this person who changed my life.
AJ: Thank you so much for being here. And uh - any parting words? Well they’re not parting forever, you know. I don’t wanna make - I don’t want - you guys can hang out as long as you want.
Naz: Any parting words for the purposes of this podcast.
AJ: That’s right.
Pat: Yeah. Yeah. I - you know I I really - I think I’m a little bit overwhelmed in terms of any parting words because when people move on they’re moving on with their lives and i don’t see what happens thirty years down the road how, what someone has does with their lives that they now have a family, that you know... it leaves you saying well, you did something good. And I’m really proud of you, and I’m proud of what you’ve done.
Naz: Thank you. Um - I think - It’s just like thank you. Like thank you for - for not just everything you’ve... Not just everything you’ve done for my family but like - thank you for like doing this for other people. um. I don’t know I - I…I hope you know - I think you do but I just like really hope you know the what you’re doing for people you know? But really thank you. Is - the the parting words.