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My Journey To West
by: Ali Rezai, MD
 
Happy Days in Tehran

1963 was still a year in the classic era: people were properly born in their homelands and stayed there till the end of their days on Earth. The number of people who ever traveled abroad was fewer than one percent of the population. I considered myself happily to be in the majority group of my home country, Iran, and I was prepared to enjoy living in its capital city, Tehran, for the remainder of my life. Yet, fate had it completely otherwise. I was twenty-one years old at that time and I was studying pre-medicine at the newly established National University of Iran in the capital city. I was living with my parents and enjoyed my mother's cooking immensely.

Other than my family, my life revolved around the two beloved friends I had from high school, and my car. It was a Volkswagen beetle model 1961. It was quite dear to my heart and close to my soul, as I have tried to portray in this picture. I was supposed to be a bright kid; and I suppose I was. I passed my exams without a chore and with flying colors. But beyond all that trivia, I was mainly thankful for a profoundly tranquil and happy personality that nature and my father's genes had inculcated in me.


Such was the state of my merry days in the late summer of 1963 as I was getting ready to start my junior year at the university, but instead I suddenly decided to go abroad and continue my studies in the United States. I had two sets of reasons for this  abrupt change of heart. The official line that I told my parents and everybody else was that the National U. was a newly established institution with only an uncertain future, and certainly all American universities are superior to our own!. My father listened to me and simply said: ' Son, I want the best for you. If you can manage the difficulties of getting a passport, etc, go ahead.'  I always knew that my father, while somewhat timid himself, always admired if his children were adventurous and explored the far horizons of life.

My Friends

Rashid, Raphael, and me in Los Angeles

The true reason behind my decision  though was much simpler: I was merely following my dearest friend Rashid who had all of a sudden decided to move abroad. Rashid also attended the National U. of Iran with me, but our mutual third friend, Raphael, whom we called Raphic, had already emigrated to the USA a year earlier. Rashid and I then had decided to stay on and finish our medical education in Tehran and only join Raphael afterwards. But fate had it completely otherwise. Out of the blue sky Rashid fell in love with the director of the university's libraries, a young attractive woman with a voracious appetite for sex, and had been carrying on a liaison with her during most of his sophomore year. Now the lady wanted to move to America in order to enroll in graduate courses in a reputable university that awarded her full scholarship as well. Events cascaded thereafter in an unbelievable manner. First the heroine left the country followed shortly by my friend Rashid. But my case took a bit longer. I arrived in Los Angeles in early October of 1963!

Airport

Passengers boarding Pan Am Bowing 707. I am on far left

As I have said before, foreign travel was extremely rare in those days. On the day of my departure there were only a handful of passengers boarding the Pan American Bowing 707 that had landed from far east in Tehran's Mehrabad airport en route to Europe. Pictures here are from that day showing me basking in the warmth and love of my relations; foremost among them my father and my dearest brother, Mohammad-Reza, as well as the other relatives who had gathered there to bid me farewell.

I am in the center flanked by two of my uncles. My father at far right

The moment I stepped inside the plane though I realized what a tumultuous era in my life I was embarking on. A zillion new realities in the western world awaited me and I had to learn a lot in the new land. I stayed there for nearly two years and I did learn a lot in that period. I learned some academic stuff all right, but what I learned beyond that and on my own was far more important. It transformed me forever. I learned how to think freely; how to respect fellowman; and how to cleanse my mind of all those preconceived notions that defined humanity. I am glad I did not succeed completely in the latter task. Nowadays more than ever I realize that you need to have a set of value systems and rules and dogma that should govern your behavior. This system of morality you will not find in the laws of physics, or chemistry, and definitely not in the laws of jurisprudence. You have to build it up for yourself

With my brother Mohammad-Reza at the airport

Religion is a crude package to fill part of that void. But it is riddled with problems of its own. It turns humans into semi-robots who are set in their own ways and adamantly against those who do not share the same religion. Throughout the history, religion has been a divider of  humanity rather than a uniter. Thousands of wars have been raged under the guise of religion and millions and millions of people have died in the cause of religion;  far more than any other cause. I had discarded religion while a teenager, but I was lucky to have been born where I was born.

Where I was borne had been the cradle of civilization some ten thousand years ago and, at least in my own mind, I was always convinced that a branch of the ancient silk road had passed through our neighborhood in the past! In this ancient land there thus prevailed a sea of unwritten laws, rules, and traditions that collectively defined our morality, our conduct in life, and our sense of where we stood in the world at large. I am eternally grateful for this East-West upbringing that was bestowed on me in my early youth!


Los Angeles

Back in the golden era of the fifties and sixties Los Angeles (LA) still could claim to be the land of angels. People were civilized and they were nice to each other, nothing like the rat-race that it has turned into nowadays. The climate and scenery of course were delightful as ever. Rarely ever there would build up some smog in the air that obscured the vision and brought tears  into the eyes. But all in all, it was the closest thing to a paradise on Earth.

Foreign students came in waves to Los Angeles and after a three month period of acclimatization marked by language problems and feeling homesick were then assimilated into the juggernaut of the American society. In my case, the language problem was mostly a half problem. I knew enough vocabulary to get by on a daily basis but I was not familiar with the American accent. I simply did not understand when the average American spoke, while they understood me!

Language Problems

A case in point was what happened three days after my arrival in  LA. It was nine o' clock in the morning and Rashid had already gone out. I woke up and turned the radio on. Rashid did not own a TV yet. Back then television was still very expensive. I immediately realized that the radio broadcast was different and extraordinary on that day, but could not figure out what was happening for the life of me. I would catch bits and phrases like president, assassin, dead but could not believe my own ears. Until Rashid came home around noon and informed me that President Kennedy had been assassinated on that day in Dallas, Texas. I decided how ignorant I had been and decided there and then that ignorance was no bliss. I went out and bought a third hand vacuum tube TV set for $50 which was a fortune for those days. Then every day and every night till past four in the morning I would sit up in front of the TV and try to soak in the words I was hearing. My favorite program was what was called 'Password.' A certain word would be flashed on the screen and enunciated in the best of voices by the program moderator. Then contestants had to guess the target word after listening to a series of synonyms, etc. This was my regular ritual for a month or so, day and night, before I ventured again to go out into the public. I still remember my delight on that day when I realized that I am understanding nearly everything said around me.

A more colorful account of a language problem was what had happened to my friend Rashid about a month prior to my arrival. He had crossed the street where not permitted and the police had ticketed him for jaywalking. Back then police occasionally did such things if they were too idle and had nothing better to do. On the day of his court appearance he had stated that he was a foreigner and not quite familiar with the laws of the United States. The judge had sentenced him to pay a fine, but suspended it for two months. Which simply meant he would not be reprimanded at all if he did not repeat the offense again in the next two months. Rashid, however,  misunderstood the word suspend. He says he searched hard in his own mind and came up with the meaning 'to hang.'  Thereafter he had started a commotion in Persian about being hanged for such a minor offence!  In later years a girlfriend of Rashid wrote this up and submitted it to the Reader's Digest magazine. It did get published and they received a $50 honorarium for it.

As for being homesick, I felt it most heavily in my first month. I remember staring at the moon in the evening sky with longing eyes as it was the only object I could relate to in that strange new environment. I missed everything especially home food. I remember how much I hated even simple things like hamburgers because they contained sweet pickles. On the tenth day of my arrival in LA Rashid treated me to a dinner at the only Persian restaurant in town. Nowadays of course there are thousands of them. We sat down by a table and immediately I started sinking into my sorrows as I looked at the objects around me reminiscent of the back home. Then the food came. It was chelokabob. I stared at it and stared at the other paraphernalia on the table like sumac, and I was nearly beyond myself. At this point some music came on. It was a classical recording and the female vocalist narrated about the sorrows of life when you are detached from your loved ones and ... I could not hold any longer... I put the silverware down, covered my face in my hands and I cried my heart out. That turned out to be a good catharsis though. Within a month after that I was fully functional and in pursuit of studying medicine, as well as the pursuit of happiness as best as I could.

Student Life

About half of the students coming to United States from abroad would soon discover that they were not university material and would join the cadre of unskilled workers in the greater American society, such as dish washers, busboys, gas station attendants, etc. Some of these who were more capable would later go on to become entrepreneurs in their own fields owning restaurants and gas stations, etc.

A notch above them would be those staying in the university but not in their desired fields of study. They would end up graduating in biology or chemistry, for those who were aiming for medicine originally, or else  business administration, political science and diverse other unrelated subjects. Top tier belonged to students who majored in engineering fields such as civil, electrical, or mechanical engineering, and if they could support themselves along the way as well by working on the side they were supposed to have made it to the zenith.

Admission into medical schools was very competitive and on the order of a dream even for top American students, let alone for foreigners. American Medical Association had a strong hold on the total number of accredited medical schools throughout the United States. At the time their number was only eighty. Fewer than twenty state universities would take in a single foreign student each year as a token of their good will. Private universities were more receptive but their tuitions were beyond the means of most foreign students. Thus the majority of foreign medical applicants would end up graduating in chemistry, biology, etc, and head home for a career of life-long dissatisfaction and frustration.

I did not wait for that eventuality to hit me in four years. I contacted The Pahlavi University in Shiraz, Iran  that encouraged Iranian students abroad to transfer over, and I was granted acceptance to their first year of medical school,  bypassing the two-year pre-med requirement on basis of my combined education at the National U. of Iran and the courses I had passed in LA. This was another one of the heavenly gates that ever opened my way during my lifetime. The next six years in Shiraz were among the best periods of my life. I was three years older than my classmates in Shiraz due to the years I had lost hopping around during my pre-med studies. But that was a meager price to pay for the level of wisdom I had acquired and the mature outlook I had developed on worldly matters at that prime age of 23 years! Yes, I had fun and I did it my way! I chose the long and hard way, but triumphed at the end. I could have just followed the median road all the way, but that would have been a mediocre behavior, not worthy of me, the so-called smart kid.

Los Angeles was located some 12,000 kilometers away from my homeland. The climate was somewhat similar, but the mental climate of its people and their culture differed even more remotely. I learned a lot during my sojourn in Los Angeles and changed a lot . Changes that shaped my personality forever.

Truth of Religion

This was my second trip abroad. The first trip had been to a neighboring country, Iraq, when I was only 14 years of age. We were then visiting the holy shrines of Shiite Islam in that country. Before that trip I had been a youngster believing firmly in the religion of my father and my clan. I prayed five times a day on a regular basis as proscribed by my religion. At times I even climbed up to the roof of our house and delivered ' Azan ', namely a call to prayer ushered in a loud voice to entice the true believers of Islam to pray!  We were in Iraq for two weeks and we visited Karbala, Kazemeyn, Najaf, and Samara where the last of the Shiite Imams had descended into a well in the ground and disappeared forever, until such time that he will reappear to purify the world of all sins before the final Armageddon. I prayed the proscribed verses into the well and paid the attendant some coins. That trip to the holy shrines of Islam had a very profound effect on me. After returning home I never visited an Islamic shrine again and quit religious beliefs forever.

A burning question though remained in my heart in the years to come. I asked myself  how is it that there is supposed to be one god and yet there are so many different religions on the face of the earth, each claiming to be the singular righteous path to the creator almighty and condemning all other religions?  The answer dawned on me one day during my stay in Los Angeles. I asked myself how is it that back home they consider Christians as sinful people destined to go to hell en block, while as I see them here in person, they are very nice and hard working people who are kind, generous and very decent in their pursuit of life. On the other hand these very same angelic Christians believed firmly that whoever in the world did not recognize Jesus Christ as the son of God, is destined to go to hell. The prophecies of both sides appeared equally absurd to me. I wondered who is telling the truth?  Undoubtedly there could not be a zillion truths ... so where is the truth?

The truth then dawned on me one day. The truth is ' there is no truth.'

As best said by the greatest Persian poet of all times, Hafez in 14th century:

Forgive the seventy-two
competing factions- all their tales

جنگ هفتاد و دو ملت همه را عذر بنه

Mean that the Truth is what
they haven’t seen and can’t define.
چون  ندیدند  حقیقت   ره افسانه  زدند

Many sects of humanity around the world each have their own religion and even their own different gods. They firmly believe in their own ways and hate those who don't! Majority of humans have a mental inclination to worship something, otherwise  they will lose their equilibrium in daily life. Thus religions are created to serve their needs and may even be useful as they calm the agitated human souls. Problem arises when two people of different religions or no religion at all coexist. The result is typically oppression, humility, warfare, and death of one in the hand of the other. Whilst without religion they could have coexisted as two naive and ignorant but happy people. The largest warfare and mass killings throughout the history have been religious warfare not expansionist desires of emperors. This is the heftiest price humanity pays for subscribing to organized religions on earth.

Life in Los Angeles

My life in LA was indeed a pleasant one. I shared a one-bedroom suite with my friend Rashid  located on the picturesque hills of North Hollywood. This was an addendum to a much bigger house that was located further up the hill. It belonged to our landlords consisting of a beautiful middle aged lady, her husband, and their two sons who were about our age. The story of this family and their background is worth narrating here as it sheds light on how America was predominantly populated by immigrants from all walks of life and from all corners of the world. The family had moved to United States in 1957 following the Soviet invasion of their homeland, Hungary. The husband and wife belonged to aristocracy of that country and bore titles equivalent to Count and Countess, yet in the new land they had been reduced to Lasloe and Julie working in an upholstery factory and a female barber shop, respectively each earning a few hundred dollars a month. The boys worked too and, we pitched in with our $100 a month rent as well. The boys had a pool table in the main room and we spent quite a bit of time there playing pool with them. All in all they were a lovely, generous, and kind family and a delight to live amongst them.

There were about twenty or so Persian students in our circle of acquaintance and they were madly nostalgic about one thing and one thing only, Persian food!  I set about to remedy this desire as best as I could. I had some sporadic knowledge of certain food items from back home. For example I could prepare a decent kabob koobideh at all times, but I needed to expand my repertoire beyond that considerably. Remembering what I could from my mother's kitchen back home coupled with a ton of improvisements in America, I gradually managed to bring out to the table some decent versions of such favorites as gaymeh and gormeh-sabzi fortified and complemented by a plethora of easy dishes like cutlets, macaroni, and so on. I was immensely popular in our circle of friends, but basking in that glory I gradually built up a sizeable belly in no time at all, as shown in this picture.

 

What I learned in the West

The picture shows me at the entrance of a college where I took the bulk of my general courses in order to save on tuition fees. Whereas the more specialized courses I had to take at UCLA. One of the professors at the college who taught history routinely gave a grade of  'B'  to all foreign students regardless if they studied the course or not. His logic was that these students did not need to learn US history in order to become good engineers and return and build up their home countries. Needless to say he was very popular amongst the foreign students who had to pass history as part of compulsory requirements.

I was the black sheep among them. I found US history fascinating. I was fascinated by the story of waves of humanity from around the world who had been desperate in their own lands and sought refuge in the newly discovered hemisphere on 'the opposite side' of the world. Great majority were running away from abject poverty, some from religious oppression, and even a few from their criminal past in the land of their origin. They came aboard ships that took three months or longer to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Many were crammed into the underbelly of those ships since they could not afford the price of a  regular fare. Along the way many died of disease and poor sanitation in their living quarters and their bodies were simply thrown overboard. Thus they had entered the world unceremoniously in remote villages of Europe as children of underprivileged classes and now left the world equally unceremoniously while in the pursuit of an end to their miseries.

Those who reached the new world had to work hard, but there was hope for many of them that they   could eventually own a piece of a farmland or a little business in a little town and start enjoying the fruits of their hard labor. Once settled, many would find themselves living a life of solitude somewhere in the great American landscape that was scarcely populated at all. They would write back home and ask for a wife, a request that was not easy to fulfill. The young and pretty village girls back home obviously had enough local suitors not to even think of going abroad to the wild and uncharted new hemisphere on the other side of the world. Those who did go were mostly not so young women past their prime time and some were even retired prostitutes. That is how more or less the greater America was populated in the very beginning. In later years though millions and millions of young aspiring men and women came to America to seek a better life and in modern times the crème of the crop from all around the word flock to USA competitively. Who would have guessed in the seventeenth century that a nation being built by desperados gathering from around the world would one day reign supreme over the entire globe? If you don't find that fascinating I am not sure what else you can call it.

Two hundred years later the settlers of the new world acquired their independence from England, which was the colonial power ruling over them through an asymmetric warfare. Then came the moment of glory for the leaders of this new nation. They declared in their famous Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." These shining words had never been so eloquently uttered anytime throughout the history. Who said them? A group of freemasons who magically appeared in the scene of history all at the same time and at the same location. A hundred years later yet another great leader of this new nation said: "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth". These were sum totals of what I learned in LA.

I bid farewell to LA after the Spring semester of 1965 and headed off to England on my way home. My sojourn in Los Angeles had lasted about eighteen months and left indelible marks on my psyche. I learned a lot, academically and otherwise. I had fun and adventure galore and in the process gained a new outlook on life that has continually guided me and illuminated my path ever since. I stayed in England a couple of months with my beloved uncles there and my cousin Asad. Thereafter I started on a journey across the face of Europe towards my home, i.e. A Journey Back To The East.
 

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