In the days long before Iran was constantly front page news, I found myself spending two days with an elderly Iranian couple who happened to be in my group of six being interviewed at the American Consulate in Naples in an effort to secure a Green Card – during two days in December, just before Christmas, in the corridors of the imposing Consulate right across from the sparkling Mediterranean, this quiet couple sought my help in filling out forms. Their English was precarious and their Italian non-existent and I took them under my wing while navigating the meanders of the Consulate and of the American bureaucracy. We passed through the hands of an ancient doctor who deemed us free of TB and tested us for HIV, we took a taxi to a clinic where we got inoculated against every contagious disease known to man, we answered questions but, above all, we waited around on a bench in a faceless corridor, waiting for our turns.
It was during those waiting sessions that I learnt the couple was a relic from the Shah’s days whose sons had moved to the States – the husband suffered from heart disease and was trying to become a legal alien in order to seek better treatment in Los Angeles. Iran, the wife, wore dark kohl around her eyes and sported a veil on her passport photo. They were lovely and gentle and, Green Card secured, we ended up travelling to Rome together and exchanging phone numbers. Months later, back in LA, when I had already forgotten all about them, they got in touch and invited me for dinner and, on a Sunday, still new to this city, I took an incalculable numbers of freeways to visit them. I enjoyed my first home-cooked Persian meal and was introduced to Iran’s brother who lost no time and, while showing me a picture book of his motherland, politely asked me whether I was looking for a husband. I promptly invented a fictitious boyfriend I was planning to marry. Good heavens! On hindsight, I acquired the knowledge of what to do should I ever desire a) to marry b) to move to Teheran c) to spend my life covered by a black veil. You never know.
They phoned me once more, still thanking me for my kindness but I never saw them again. I recently thought of them while watching the movie “The Golden Door” (a beautiful film on Sicilian emigration to the States) – despite our grumblings and the idle hours inside the American Consulate, our immigration process was fairly simple. I thought of the millions of compatriots who made the same trek I did but with only their clothes on their backs and the good Sunday shoes on their feet, not a word of English (and, in most cases, very few words of Italian too), huddled on a stinking ship that took two weeks to reach New York.
All immigrants seeking a better life in the new world, no matter where they came from, Italy, Russia, Ireland landed at Ellis Island. A place of hope. In my imagination, I thought Ellis Island was just a disembarking hub where people were processed, in many cases re-named and then let go on their merry way, full of expectations. I never realized that my forebears had to spend weeks at Ellis Island, being checked for diseases and lice, given improbable IQ tests and, in the case of women, meeting their betrothed – yes, the only way for a young woman to gain entry into the United States was to have a fiance waiting for her, in most cases someone she had never met but only seen in a sepia tinted photograph and who was then forced to marry on the spot at Ellis Island. Not much has changed really – the process has only been streamlined and made more effective.
To this day, thousands still pour in, legally or not, looking for a new beginning and it’s a testament to this country that, even in these hard times, it’s still a beacon of hope. I can’t think of many other places that embody the power of dreams the way the US does. A dream a bit tarnished maybe but still worth fighting for, leaving roots, family and past behind. I wonder if it will still be the case fifty years from now.