The man in the trench coat and the derby hat is my father, Alexander Karim. He stands alone, probably on a ferry dock in the New York harbor, with the skyline of New York behind him. It is 1947, and Baba (what I call him, and the name in Persian used by children to address their fathers) is newly-arrived from Iran where he came by land and boat to this metropolis of the West.
He is thirty-two years old, but looks small and boyish. Even a little bit vulnerable. In the picture, he is holding the bottom of his trench coat like a boy who is unsure of where to put his large hands, how to even pose for such a picture. And, while he is alone, there is something anticipatory about his expression. Even while he seems lonely and alone, he also seems certain of where he is standing. Perhaps the picture was taken just before he broke into a smile, perhaps it is an expression that conveys his sense of reckoning about being in this place–a place he dreamed of visiting for many years. I wonder too who took the picture of him. Is it a stranger or someone whom he’s met and spent time with since arriving in New York? Will the person taking the picture tell him to “say cheese,” or does my father, who speaks some English, but not yet familiar with the American vernacular, know what that means. Behind him, are other tourists, travelers, maybe immigrants, taking in the vista of the city. Perhaps they are remarking on the height and majesty of the Empire State Building. Baba is standing near it, but not quite in front of it, with the fog and gray sky highlighting its discernible and distinct silhouette. He stands in this spot, perhaps knowing what this picture will convey one day to his children, to himself, that his arrival here, his determination to get here, were contained in this one moment. He knows what this building means; it’s power, yes, but also its sense of possibility. He knows what it means to be man from the East standing in front of one of the most iconic symbols of the West. Perhaps he knows without fully knowing it, that he is in the place where he can remake himself.
I don’t know if he fully knows this in that moment, but maybe it’s his own secret desire to stay here, to immigrate, that possesses him to stand here and record this. Perhaps it is the trench coat, and hat, that both place him in that time, and also make him seem out of place. He is foreigner , a visitor, a tourist, not yet an immigrant. He is in the place he had dreamed of traveling to see since he was a boy. After he read a book about an Iranian writer who traveled to the United States (he told me it was Ali Dashti, but I have yet to find the book), he became obsessed as a teenager with the idea of coming to America. He told no one about his desire except his Aunt Batool, at the age of fourteen, that he wanted to come to America. He swore her to secrecy, and for nearly five years, he collected and saved money to buy a bus ticket to go to Iraq where he intended to take a boat. But he never made it here. When he turned eighteen and bought a bus ticket and left the house without saying goodbye, his father became suspicious. He pried the information about his son’s whereabouts out of his wife’s sister, Batool, and found him at the bus station. Baba’s father, Momtaz, physically boarded the bus and removed my father and told him he would go nowhere until he enrolled at the university and finished his education. That was 1933. He would have to wait nearly a decade and half, and his departure to the United States would be more of an accident than a plan.
Baba jumped at the chance when it came to him. He was sent by the Iranian government immediately after the war to study the railroad system of the United States. Iran, having played a key role in the war as a country that lay on the periphery of the war zone, figured prominently in the strategy to halt Hitler’s influence beyond Europe. As a result of the war, Iran was invaded in 1941 by British and Russian troops. By 1943, Iran had become an occupied nation with British and Russians dividing the country. The British and Americans and some other European countries invested the technology and resources to build Iran’s railroads. The country remained occupied by Britain and the Soviet Union until three years later in May 1946 when these foreign troops withdrew. Their influence, however, was undeniable. During the war, the British had controlled the south (Iran’s oil industry and Britain’s influence over it) and the Russians (Soviet Union, back then) had controlled the north where Iran’s warm-water ports on the Caspian were critical to Soviet strategy and political influence. During the war, my father, a newly-graduated engineer from Tehran University, had been promoted quickly as newly-graduated engineer from Tehran Univeristy to serve as superintendent of the Iranian National Railroads during the war years where the railways were used to transport munitions to the southern Soviet border to arm its army against Hitler’s aggressive invading army. Baba was amazed by the confidence his superiors had in him. He was a young man with vision, but the job he was in required him to stretch beyond what he knew. He read voraciously. He read in English, French, and tried to learn everything he could about the diesel trains that were being purchased to build the infrastructure of the railroad system. You could say he was a quick study.