The Gift of Freedom
My earliest memories are of my childhood in Iran, and they are all wonderful. Like everyone, I’ve no doubt blurred my actual child‑ hood memories with stories recounted by my parents and my own vivid imagination, but my recollection of my first five years is that they were perfect. I was born in Shiraz, a city over four thousand years old, known for its beautiful gardens and for being the home of artists, scholars, and poets during the height of the Persian Empire.
My mother recently reminded me that it actually snowed in the win‑ ter, but all I can remember is blue skies and warm, bright sunshine. The gated community where we lived was actually a compound for the fami‑ lies of the thirty or so doctors who worked at the hospital, many who came from all over the world. We lived in a comfortable two‑bedroom bungalow surrounded by trees and flower beds. There was a park with tennis courts and a huge swimming pool. Every year, we’d plant a Christ‑ mas tree in a patch of nearby woods and cut it down in December. We even had a small zoo on the compound, with mountain sheep, goats, a bear, and a jackal, which was allowed to roam free around the compound and was known to take toys and hide them from time to time.
I felt I had all I could possibly want or need in that special place. Even at the age of three or four, I was free to wander around the com‑ pound as I chose, always under the watchful eye of Saroya, my nanny and our family’s housekeeper and cook. Saroya was small, barely five
feet tall, and always gentle and kind. She had a son of her own, whom she left with her mother during the day while at work. We were always joined on these walks by our Belgian shepherd, Dovuum, whom I nick‑ named Doddy. Once time I fell down in the street. A passerby saw me crying and approached me to see if I was OK, only to have Doddy snarl and keep him at bay. Someone ran to find Saroya and she came, whisked me up in her arms, and took me home, with Doddy following dutifully behind. They were my protectors.
The pool was my favorite place of all. My mother taught me to swim before I could walk, and I loved diving and splashing about in the deep end for hours and hours. My parents had a good friend, Tom, whose real name was Thelma. She headed the Iran‑America Society and her husband, Dale, was an engineer with Point Four, an American foreign assistance program. Tom did all sorts of activities with me, like taking me to a local preschool. She encouraged me to practice English with the young Iranian students who were trying to learn the language. But I would speak only in Farsi—an early sign of my long‑standing desire to be like everyone else. It was in the pool, though, that Tom and I had the most fun. She’d put me on her shoulders, then she would climb on Dale’s shoulders, and Dale would slowly walk down into the deep end until we were all well submerged, then I would pop up to the surface, laughing and coughing from swallowing water. Once Doddy, always my bodyguard, spotted our circus act and tried to rescue me by diving in the water. Chaos ensued, as dogs were strictly forbidden in the pool.
Outside the compound, my parents and I often explored the city and the surrounding countryside. My best friend was Roshan Firouz, an American‑Iranian girl about my age. Her parents, Narsi and Louise, were my parents’ best friends, and we were always running around to‑ gether at one of the two Firouz farms, Big Lou and Little Lou, both named after Louise and their relative size. Roshan was scrappy and forever coaxing me into mischievous adventures. They had a huge don‑ key, Laura, and we’d climb up on her and ride her around and play endless games of make‑believe, with all the different farm animals as the characters in our stories.
My parents and I traveled all over, but one of our favorite day trips was to the ancient Persian city of Persepolis, where I’d climb up and down the old stone stairs, run circles around the columns, and hide among the monuments. Either we’d pack a picnic lunch for the day or my parents would take me to a hotel nearby for a treat. An afternoon entertaining myself among the ruins, topped off by a delicious dinner prepared by Saroya back home, made for a day I still treasure.
Saroya did all our shopping and made all our meals. While kids my age in America were eating hot dogs, Oreos, and peanut‑butter‑and‑ jelly sandwiches, I was devouring her lamb, rice pilaf, and the cool cu‑ cumbers and yogurt of mast‑o‑khiar. She cooked with saffron, cumin, and dried barberry, spices we’d buy when she took me to Vakil Bazaar in the old city. I loved to smell all the fragrant and colorful spices heaped in copper pots and burlap sacks. Traveling the world as an adult, par‑ ticularly when visiting different bazaars and markets throughout the Middle East, the familiar smells always take me back to those early years and make me smile.
To this day I still love all Persian food (except eggplant), but my fa‑ vorite dish is any kind of rice. No meal in my home is complete without a serving of rice. After we moved back to America, it took me until high school to develop a taste for a good hot dog at a baseball game, and it was only a few years ago that my daughter convinced me to try peanut butter. Not bad.
I’m often asked why I was born in Iran. My father once said I should tell people, “Because that’s where my mother was at the time of my birth.” But that answer never seems to satisfy anyone, particularly bor‑ der guards and customs officials. The truth about why we were in Iran is somewhat complicated, but what it boils down to is really quite simple: we were there because my father was black, and he needed a job.
I arrived in this world just as America’s civil rights movement was gaining momentum. The rights and opportunities for which black peo‑ ple were marching and fighting in the United States my parents and I already enjoyed in Iran. While black families were often confined to redlined slums, we had a lovely house in a cosmopolitan neighborhood. While black people in America were marching for the right to enjoy public pools and parks, our neighborhood had lush green spaces where I could run and play and a big blue swimming pool, where people stared only when my dog jumped in the pool with me. While black students in the United States had just begun to be bused into hostile white neighborhoods to integrate the schools, I attended an excellent school with loving teachers, filled with kids from all over the world.
My father, Jim Bowman, had always wanted to be a doctor. He grew up in Washington, DC, in the 1930s and ’40s. In DC in that era, his life experiences were determined by the color of his skin, including where he could attend school. Living in DC, however, meant he was relatively fortunate. The son of a prominent dentist in the city’s small black middle class, he was able to attend Dunbar High School, the pre‑ mier high school in Washington, and perhaps the country, for black Americans at the time. As oppressive and unjust as segregation was, it did mean that black scholars with PhDs from Harvard and other Ivy League schools often had no choice but to teach at the high school level, at high schools like Dunbar. So at a time when few black children had access to quality schools, my father’s education was first‑rate—and the lessons stuck. His grammar was impeccable, and he corrected mine throughout my life, even when it made me sound ridiculous. I used to ring the doorbell when we visited my grandmother, and when she said, “Who is it?” I wasn’t allowed to say, “It’s me.” I had to say, “It is I.” All that was missing was “Hark! ”
Graduating at the top of his class at the age of sixteen, my father went on to Howard University, the famous historically black university in DC and his own father’s alma mater. He went there as an under‑ graduate and for medical school. Had my dad chosen a different career, he might have found more doors opened to him, but as the civil rights movement began making inroads across the color line, medicine would prove to be one of Jim Crow’s most tenacious holdouts. Which is unsur‑ prising, given the intimate nature of doctor/patient relationships and the pervasive racist myths about black people and disease that kept us from sharing swimming pools, let alone hospitals, with white people. Desegregation in health care didn’t begin in earnest until the passage in 1965 of Medicare and Medicaid, programs that threatened to strip federal funding from any hospital that engaged in racial discrimination.
When he graduated from medical school in 1947, he joined DC’s Freedmen’s Hospital for a one‑year residency. During that year his mother, only thirty‑eight years old, died in Freedmen’s from hyperten‑ sion while he was on duty. In a quiet moment of openness, he once shared with me how helpless and guilty he felt that he could not save her. From Freedman’s he was offered a huge opportunity: a residency at Chicago’s prestigious St. Luke’s Hospital. He was the hospital’s first, and only, black resident. After attending only black schools, he was thrilled to break the color barrier, but even then the door opened only partway. He wasn’t allowed to live with his white colleagues in the resi‑ dents’ quarters adjacent to the hospital. He had to find room and board on the black side of town, five miles away from the hospital, and travel by bus or streetcar—a very long and tiring commute after a thirty‑six‑ hour shift. He was also instructed to enter the hospital through the back door. This he refused to do. He showed up on his first day and walked through the front door like all the white doctors. Word spread through the black staff. The next morning many of them were waiting out front when he arrived, and they all walked in together. Nobody objected.
Chicago was like that. It had a patchy attitude toward segregation. Some things were allowed, some weren’t. Marshall Field’s, the famous department store, was a classic example. Black people could shop at Marshall Field’s, but they couldn’t work there. It was a checkered land‑ scape that my mother’s family had learned to navigate. Being one of the most politically connected black families of the time, they’d managed to carve out a measure of status and access unavailable to most black Chicagoans. They were second‑class citizens nonetheless, and their relative degree of freedom existed in a very narrow lane.
For my mother, Barbara, there was no equivalent to Dunbar High School; in Chicago, all black schools offered second‑rate educations. Fortunately, her father, Robert Rochon Taylor, was a leading figure in Chicago business and civic circles, even outside the black community. He came to prominence through the city’s real estate, banking, and insurance industries, which led to his appointment as the first black chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority in 1941. Thanks to his prominence, he was able to obtain special permission for my mother and her older sister Lauranita to leave their all‑black neighborhood and travel to the then white neighborhood of South Englewood to go to its all‑white elementary and high schools. That put her on a path to attend the Northfield School for Girls, an elite prep school in Massachusetts, which in turn opened the door for her to enroll at the small, predo‑ minantly white, all‑female Sarah Lawrence College in the Bronx, New York.
During trips home from college—and after my dad flubbed a blind date with her sister—my mom and dad started dating and soon fell in love. After my dad proposed and my mom accepted, they knew they first had to get past her father, who had strong opinions on priorities for his family. And so, in a story that he would retell many times over the years, my dad came up with an ingenious strategy to get his way. Over a game of bridge one evening with my grandparents, my dad took an extra long time to study his hand, and then, when he finally played his card, he casually tossed in, “By the way, Barbara and I are getting married.”
It was classic Jimmy Bowman: deliciously provocative with perfect comic timing. But this was no joking matter. A bit flabbergasted, my grandfather finally replied, “But, you know, Barbara has to finish col‑ lege first.”
“That’s good,” my dad said, “because I can’t afford to pay her
And so my parents were married on June 17, 1950, two weeks after Mom graduated from Sarah Lawrence.
My dad finished his residency that same year, but despite his sterling credentials, he still enjoyed limited job prospects. In most major cities, even the segregated, Jim Crow hospitals that served black patients were often white owned and refused to hire black doctors and nurses. Like Marshall Field’s, you could shop there but you couldn’t work there. With few options to choose from, my father accepted the position of chair of pathology at Chicago’s Provident Hospital. Established in 1891, it was the first black‑owned‑and‑operated hospital in the United States and, as such, one of the only places that would hire him.
While at Howard my father had joined the Army ROTC, graduat‑ ing as a second lieutenant, and as the Korean War escalated in 1953, the army called him up and stationed him at an army hospital in Colorado, where he and my mom lived for two years. Upon being honorably dis‑ charged in 1955, he told my mother he didn’t want to return to Provi‑ dent or, as he put it, “anything that smacked of segregation.” He applied to the Public Health Service, which offered him a job in Liberia. But the ambassador to Liberia, who was a friend of my parents, told them, “Do not, under any circumstances, come here.” It simply wasn’t safe. Then, when it seemed like Provident would be the only viable option, a white colleague of my father’s was offered a job as the chair of pathology at the Nemazee Hospital, a newly constructed facility just staffing up in Shiraz, Iran. He declined the position but passed along the contact in‑ formation to my dad.
Iran, which is a little over seven thousand miles from the South Side of Chicago, had certainly never been on my parents’ radar. But after many lengthy discussions, my parents decided that it would be the ad‑ venture of a lifetime, a chance for them to be alone together away from all that was familiar, including the racism and discrimination they’d endured their entire lives. So my father applied, and received an offer.
When they announced to family and close friends that he was considering the job, nobody was shocked since many knew they were going abroad, but my grandparents wanted to keep the family close and this was too far away. However, my parents had made up their minds. And so he accepted the job, and off they went.
The day my parents boarded the plane for Iran, a country on the other side of the world, they didn’t speak a word of the language, knew not a soul, and knew nothing about the nation or its government be‑ yond what they learned from the Encyclopedia Britannica—nothing about its people or its customs. All they knew about this strange and exotic place was that it was willing to give a black doctor an opportu‑ nity far better than any available to him in the country where he was born.
Which is how, on November 14, 1956, after a “very challenging la‑ bor” and a “risky high‑forceps delivery”—as my mother frequently de‑ scribed it during my youth, much to my embarrassment—I entered this world, the second baby born at Nemazee Hospital. I was always relieved that they’d practiced on one other baby first.
Had I merely spent those first five years of my life in Iran, that would have been adventure enough for a lifetime. But from there my father’s career really took off. Trained as a pathologist, at Namazi he became interested in genetics, and in particular in favism, a genetic blood disorder that produces an allergic reaction to fava beans. It’s caused by an enzyme deficiency and, being hereditary, is common among certain ethnic groups in Iran. What followed was a lifelong study of inherited blood diseases throughout the Middle East, Africa, Mexico, and America. His work in common enzyme deficiencies later proved important to the larger field of inherited diseases and minority health.
Starting in Iran, and many summers of my youth in the years to come, we traveled the world collecting blood samples for genetic testing. We went to remote deserts, dense cities, rural villages, isolated rainforest jungles—the constant blur of new places, people, customs, and food all seemed perfectly normal to me. My parents left me with babysitters every now and then, but mostly I was by their side, perfectly content to label blood vials and give out Band‑Aids for hours anywhere from Africa’s jungles to rural communities in Mexico. My mom likes to tell a story that happened when I was nine years old and we were in Ghana. She’d given me a little money to spend on the trip. She looked out her hotel window to see me squatting with the street vendors selling tourist trinkets. Having learned in Iran, I could stay in that position with the best of them. And bargain, too. I returned an hour later, hap‑ pily carting an armload of souvenirs I’d secured with my excellent ne‑ gotiating skills—skills that would later serve me well in the political worlds of Chicago and Washington, DC.
We went everywhere and did everything. While I was still in dia‑ pers, we drove from London to Shiraz. In Russia my father made me try caviar, which I loved, and took me to Lenin’s tomb, which I absolutely did not. In Egypt I delighted in riding camels past the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid, and in India I was mesmerized by snake charmers and water buffalo under the towering spires of the Taj Mahal. In Uganda our plane touched down in the middle of a military coup, after curfew, and my parents had to convince armed soldiers to wave us through numerous checkpoints to reach our hotel. In the villages of the Yucatán, I brushed my teeth with soft drinks and ate peppers so hot they seemed to set my mouth on fire, which I then tried to wash down with a big swig of Coca‑Cola. Which I then learned is something you should never, never do.
One story, which became an oft‑repeated tale about my dad, took place in Mexico City. We awoke in the middle of the night to find our hotel swaying like a ship at sea—an earthquake! My mother swept me up in her arms and ran for the lobby, calling back to my father to hurry up. “I’m right behind you,” he said. It was madness, people running down the stairs into the lobby in their underwear, screaming in fear. My mother and I waited in the lobby a good twenty minutes and only then, right after management had given the all clear, did my father ap‑ pear, having taken the time to neatly dress in his robe, pajamas, and slippers, casually emerging without an ounce of concern. I think he might have even taken the time to shave. The next morning the park‑ ing lot was empty. All of the tourists had decided to abandon their plans and evacuate. My parents simply laughed. A mere earthquake, even one that left electrical wires dangling in the street, would not intimidate them.
I always knew my father as confident, fearless, and cheerful—a glass‑half‑full type of person. But before living in Iran, that natural exuberance had always been dimmed by the brutal realities of Jim Crow, by the limitations on what he would be permitted to achieve, the constant blatant and subtle reminders that he was considered “less than” because he was black—a belief that he had internalized, as so many marginalized people do, even though it wasn’t true. But after his experience in Iran, and certainly by the time we started to travel the world for his research, he had emerged from the cloud of his own limi‑ tations. He was liberated. He was no longer defined by the color of his skin. He was no longer a “colored” doctor. He was simply a doctor, a respected chief pathologist, a published academic.
His self‑confidence had grown along with his reputation. He’d ex‑ perienced success based on merit and hard work, just as my mother had years earlier by the time she graduated from college, and thanks to both of them I grew up believing that was possible. It’s easier to be what you see. My parents were my role models, and they gave me the early im‑ pression that my potential in life was limited only by my willingness to work hard, combined with a bit of luck. My mom and dad had taken me across the color line and around the world, showing me what was possible, so that I could dare to imagine any kind of life I wanted.
It was only years later that I truly understood how lucky I was. The freedom of mind that I had always known, and that had taken my fa‑ ther thirty‑odd years to achieve, was the same freedom that brave little children my own age had risked their lives to attain—children like Ruby Bridges, who at age six in 1960 was the first black child to deseg‑ regate the all‑white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. I met Ruby Bridges fifty‑one years later when President Obama invited her to the White House to view the famous Norman Rockwell painting of her walking to school, hair perfectly combed and wearing a starched white dress, escorted by large armed guards. I told Ruby in the Oval Office that I was in awe of her courage and bravery at such a young age, and that she had fought for a freedom that I took for granted.
I had been given that freedom as a gift, from birth. Even after mov‑ ing to the South Side of Chicago, where the laws and social customs still tried to curtail opportunities for black people, I was already free— and no one could take that away from me.
The segregation my parents had left behind in 1955 was still alive and well in 1961. Still, they were homesick. My mother’s father had died when I was only six months old, and we’d missed the funeral. My mother was very close with her family, and she wanted me to know them. They always knew we’d leave Iran eventually. It just so happened that I was the one who hastened their decision along.
Iran may have been a magical place for me, as the child of a Western doctor, but that certainly didn’t mean Iran was a magical place for ev‑ eryone. Mohammad Reza Shah, the last shah of Iran, had pursued many modernizing reforms, among them the improvements to the health care system that had built the hospital that brought us there. But he was simultaneously a brutal dictator who established the SAVAK, the secret police force that terrorized dissidents and disappeared people at will.
Iran also had massive inequalities of wealth and a rigid caste system. Those who were wealthy were very wealthy and lived very well. Those who were poor lived in unspeakable conditions. I can vividly remember seeing people with severe disabilities begging on the streets, shunned by society and with no means of support and no place to go. Those in the lowest caste who were lucky enough to have jobs often worked as ser‑ vants, and it was socially acceptable to abuse and beat them and treat them as less than human. They generally accepted it as their lot, grate‑ ful to have any employment or income at all.
Saroya was a member of that class. Twenty‑eight years old, she had only a sixth‑grade education. I loved her dearly, but as I neared age five, I showed a sign that I had begun to internalize the mores of Iran’s caste system as my own. My mother walked into the house one afternoon to see me giving Saroya a swift kick, as hard as I could, probably because she’d told me I couldn’t do what I wanted to do, though I don’t remem‑ ber exactly why. Horrified, my mother immediately swooped in, gave my rear end a swat, and yelled, “No! ”
Now it was Soroya’s turn to be horrified. She turned to my mother and said, “Why did you do that?”
“Because she kicked you!”
“No, no,” Saroya said, “it’s fine.”
“No,” my mother replied, “it’s not fine.”
Saroya then went on to explain that it was OK for us to kick her and beat her whenever we liked. She knew that was her place. She was grate‑ ful that we let her work in our home, and she was scared we would think that she thought she was above her station.
My parents had never adopted Iran’s social norms as their own, and they’d always treated everyone with respect, no matter their standing. Having grown up under Jim Crow in America, for them to see their daughter behaving the way I had was totally unacceptable. That night, as we sat down to dinner, my mother turned to my father and said, “I think it’s time for us to leave Iran.”