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After U.S. Immigration Battle, Musician Kayhan Kalhor Returns To Iran

Kayhan Kalhor is an Iranian <em>kamancheh</em> virtuoso and composer whose work has been celebrated around the globe.
Julia Gunther for NPR
Kayhan Kalhor is an Iranian kamancheh virtuoso and composer whose work has been celebrated around the globe.

When Kayhan Kalhor first left Iran, at age 17, he walked — more than 2,500 miles, to Italy. He carried only two items with him: a small backpack and his main musical instrument, the kamancheh.

This was during the Iranian Revolution. Kalhor was the only one of his family — who are of Kurdish descent — to leave the country. His parents, fearing the worst for him, decided there was no other choice. They stayed behind, along with Kalhor's beloved brother.

"Imagine being a teenager," Kalhor says. "You have school, you have your friends, you have your nice things to do." He had two pastimes he adored. "I was riding horses and playing music — you know, a very normal life. And then, suddenly, you can't go on the street. You know people will shoot you if you do. It was very, very confusing and not at all normal." (Interviews with him and others for this story took place over more than three years, conducted in person in both the U.S. and the Netherlands, as well as by phone, email and in messages.)

Even before he departed, the stirrings of the revolution were affecting his family. "It carried many different manifestations that we, at least in my family, weren't used to," he says. "How to be more religious, how to be more political, how to be more, you know, whatever you're not." For Kalhor, the chaos of the revolution was only the beginning of the personal calamities he was to endure.

On his long journey, Kalhor worked his way across two continents, Iran to Turkey to Romania to what was then Yugoslavia to Italy, picking up menial farm work as he went along.

He was already a very promising young musician — a child prodigy. At age 13, he was invited to join his country's national radio and television orchestra. And because he started learning his craft so early, he had a chance to learn from older virtuosos — before the revolution, before music was entirely banned. Once he reached Rome, he studied Western classical music; later, he moved to Canada and earned a music degree at Ottawa's Carleton University.

But back then, walking from Tehran to Rome, Kalhor was a kid fleeing mayhem, intensely aware of what he had left behind. "When you live with your parents, you know everything you want is there — food, comfort, love, what you get from your family usually," he remembers. "And then, suddenly, you live in a different country, you have to speak the language, you have to start working. My family wasn't rich, so we had limited resources. I was just thinking about what is the next meal I'm going to have."

Four years after Kalhor left Iran, his parents and brother were killed in a missile strike that hit their home during the devastating Iran-Iraq war that followed the Iranian revolution. (In September 1980, Saddam Hussein ordered his forces to invade Iran. The war lasted eight years, and killed an estimated million and a half people, the majority of them in Iran.)

For many years, Kalhor didn't speak publicly about his personal life, or what he had endured. He let his heart-wrenching and beautiful music speak for him: music that is rooted in rigorous erudition, a tradition so distinctive and so precious that it's been named to the United Nations' list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

His instrument, the kamancheh, is a small, dusky-toned, four-stringed, bowed upright fiddle, with a delicate sound that belies its emotional intensity. He composes, sings and plays several other instruments as well.

Kalhor plays the <em>kamancheh</em> in 2017. When he left Iran at age 17, he carried only two items with him: a small backpack and his main musical instrument, the <em>kamancheh</em>.
/ Julia Gunther for NPR
Julia Gunther for NPR
Kalhor plays the kamancheh in 2017. When he left Iran at age 17, he carried only two items with him: a small backpack and his main musical instrument, the kamancheh.

Kalhor is now one of the most famous performers and composers in Iran, with a global reputation. He is an integral part of the Grammy-winning Silkroad Ensemble, the artistic collective founded by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who has become a close friend. He's written music for filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola and has collaborated with a range of vaunted artists, from Kronos Quartet, Brooklyn Rider and the New York Philharmonic to Malian kora master Toumani Diabaté and Dutch jazz pianist Rembrandt Frerichs.

Within Iran, he is among the foremost nurturers and champions of Persian classical music; he founded two important ensembles, Dastan and Masters of Persian Music, as well as composing for, and performing with, revered vocalists including the late Mohammed Reza Shajarian and Shahram Nazeri. Kalhor cuts a regal, dashing figure onstage, always clad in an elegant jewel-toned shirt, with thick hair and a mustache that have both turned silver.

Although music has been central to Persian culture for many centuries, just like its poetry, Ayatollah Khomeini initially banned all music in Iran. Since the revolution, however, Persian classical artists have ridden cross-current cycles of official condemnation, grudging tolerance, censorship and encouragement — even attempts at co-option — by the Iranian government.

Even today, female singers are banned from solo performances for mixed-gender audiences; rock and hip-hop artists remain underground. In August, a male musician, Mehdi Rajabian, was arrested for recording with female singers, on the grounds of "encouraging prostitution." It was the third time Rajabian has been held for musical offenses against the regime.

Between those political pressures and the rigors of tradition, it takes a very particular kind of intensity and devotion to be a classical musician in Iran. And with its soulful beauty, Kalhor's music had the potential, he knew, to go to a much wider world.

"One of the greatest musicians I've ever had the privilege to know"

In 1991, after he had graduated from Carleton and obtained a Canadian passport, Kalhor knew it was time to explore wider vistas again. "I thought maybe there is a better environment for me, to present myself and my music," he says. So he moved to Brooklyn, where he was based for many years, and began to build an international career. By the late 1990s, he was recording solo albums that grew into collaborations with other artists and tastemaker labels like ECM Records. In 2000, he was invited to travel to Massachusetts for a workshop collaboration with the renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma and dozens of international musicians. That project grew into the Silkroad ensemble.

The year of that workshop, Kalhor wrote a perfumed, deeply evocative piece Blue as the Turquoise Night of Neyshabur for the Silkroad group.

"It's one of the most beautiful pieces I've ever heard," Ma said in an interview in the late summer of 2017. "I think he's one of the greatest musicians I've ever had the privilege to know and to work with."

Ma says that his fellowship with Kalhor rests in something deeper than just their shared virtuosity. "He's like a spiritual brother to me," Ma said. "We often call each other brothers because there's an incredible link — if you believe in the soul, then we're linked in that way. And we have a very deep bond that somehow comes through in the music making."

Back then, as his international career blossomed, Kalhor's global career seemed unbound by the strictures of what passport he was carrying. "To tell you the truth, I never thought of becoming a permanent U.S. citizen back then," Kalhor says. "I was a Canadian citizen and an Iranian citizen, so I had a Canadian passport. I used to travel very comfortably back and forth."

He had a series of O visas for the U.S., a work visa that the U.S. grants to "aliens of extraordinary ability in the arts. "I renewed it every two years, I paid my [American] taxes," he continues. "So I never thought an American green card would be necessary until 9/11 happened. And things got...a little more difficult."

In 2001, fees for visas increased substantially — as did the average wait time for paperwork processing, which multiplied from weeks to up to six months. And after Sept. 11, there was vastly increased security attention paid towards Iranian nationals in the U.S. After the Patriot Act was passed in September 2002, President George W. Bush's administration created a controversial program called the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS). It mandated increased screening of travelers from 25 countries — 24 of them predominantly Muslim, including Iran.

Visa holders from those countries were required to register upon arrival in the U.S. (which meant being fingerprinted, photographed and questioned), as well as check in regularly with immigration officials while they were in the U.S. NSEERS was suspended by the Obama administration in 2011, and ended completely in 2016. Over the course of NSEERS' existence, however, some 80,000 people were required to participate; according to news reports at the program's cancellation, not one of those individuals was found to have any links to terrorism.

Kalhor found the anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. so difficult that in 2002, he decided to return to Iran, despite his native country's strictures. Along with continuing to perform and write there, he dedicated part of his time to teaching. In the years since the revolution, when so many prominent Iranian musicians had left the country, he felt a responsibility to cultivate a new generation of talent.

"This is what I have to offer — culture"

It was then that Kalhor met Zohreh Soltanabadi, his great love. She shares Kalhor's other passion: horses. That's what brought them together; not long after his return to Tehran, a friend invited Kalhor to go horseback riding. As it happens, the friend took him to Soltanabadi's place — her business is breeding horses, primarily race horses. They soon fell in love, and began building a life together in Tehran. Being with Soltanabadi gave Kalhor a new personal contentment and peace.

That era of their romance was beautifully depicted in the documentary The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma & the Silk Road Ensemble, a 2016 film made by the Academy Award-winning director Morgan Neville. It includes footage of the beaming couple, shot in Iran in May 2009.

In the film, Soltanabadi says confidently on camera, "Our future plans are all for here." Kalhor agrees: "I can't imagine living abroad anymore." It was a time of hope for them, and for their country. Then, just one month later, the ground was yanked from beneath them. After the government's violent response to the Green Movement, which challenged Iran's presidential election results, Kalhor felt that he could not stay in Iran. It was time to leave — again.

Remembering those days in a 2017 conversation, Kalhor observed, "I think we were facing the same thing that you're facing in the U.S. right now. We had a bad administration, a president who was ignorant and uneducated. The country was unlivable after he got to office. The situation, especially for artists and intellectuals, became very difficult. I couldn't convince myself to go back, because the administration that was in office was not cultured. And this is what I have to offer — culture."

Kalhor found a property in rural Cherry Valley, Calif., where they could breed horses; as he proudly points out, some of their horses have won major awards. The couple married in the U.S., and they both tried to apply for a green card — permanent resident status in the U.S. Initially, Soltanabadi and Kalhor both told NPR, they received bad guidance from an immigration lawyer, and wasted seven years on that initial attempt. In 2016, they applied again with a new attorney. (With the couple's permission, NPR repeatedly requested interviews with that attorney, who declined to respond.)

Not long after the couple got married, Soltanabadi's father died. Soltanabadi's mother back in Iran needed her, she says, and as an Iranian daughter, it was her duty and desire to care for her mother. With Kalhor gone so frequently on tour in any case, Soltanabadi returned to Iran. She stayed for three years.

"How long have we not seen each other?"

For the next several years, Kalhor and Soltanabadi saw each other mostly by Skype and, occasionally meeting abroad. The Music of Strangers shows one of those transient reunions, in a hotel lobby in Istanbul. The couple embrace repeatedly, exuberant smiles on both of their faces. ("I love you so much. How long have we not seen each other?" he asks her in Farsi, the Persian language. "A long time," she replies softly. It had been five months since they were last together.)

Yo-Yo Ma says that he understands how strange Kalhor and Soltanabadi's relationship might look to outsiders. "Just from the point of view of a musician, I can say that we have very odd travel profiles," he observes. "Kayhan and Zohreh — they're separated for months at a time, all the time. And that's very unusual for married couples, you know? If you look at the profile of those two people, it's incredibly odd. It looks insane."

Soltanabadi says that despite their frequent separations, her hopes for living in the United States were simple. "I dreamed of being with Kayhan, and having our horses there, our business there. That was the dream, you know?" she says, speaking to me from Tehran through an interpreter. "But mostly, I just wanted to be with Kayhan, and live with him."

Life in Iran has become even more difficult than it once was, Soltanabadi says. U.S. sanctions against Iran, and the American government's retreat from the 2015 nuclear deal, have resulted in a severe economic crisis in her native country. Not only has she not been able to build the breeding business in the U.S. that she had hoped, but her work at home has suffered as well. "Due to the embargo," she observes, "there are not a lot of shows happening in Iran that have an international influence or an international component, with horses coming in and out of the country. And modern veterinary medicine is not available now in Iran." (The same is true for medicines for humans.)

"As long as art and culture are held hostage"

Meanwhile, the political climate in Iran continued to wreak havoc on Kalhor's artistic life. In June 2015, he was scheduled to play his first concert in Iran in six years. It was to be a performance with some longtime friends and collaborators, the American string quartet Brooklyn Rider. Less than a week before the concert, however, authorities canceled the show, citing unspecified "security concerns."

After that incident, Kalhor vowed not to play in Iran again "as long as art and culture are held hostage." It was a difficult chapter for one of Iran's most visible and widely beloved cultural ambassadors.

In the spring of 2017 — just months after President Trump's initial ban on travelers from several Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, went into effect — Soltanabadi finally had her an appointment at the U.S. embassy in Ankara, Turkey for her green card interview. Kalhor had already had his application for U.S. permanent residency granted.

Because the U.S. hasn't had a diplomatic presence in Iran since 1979, Iranians who are seeking entrance to the United States must go to a third country for their visa interviews. Turkey is a common destination. The applicants bear the costs of those trips, along with all of their other immigration expenses. (By June 2017, the Supreme Court had ruled that the travel ban could not be applied to people with a "bona fide" relationship with a person or entity in the U.S.)

"The interview was very uncomfortable," Soltanabadi tells NPR in a FaceTime call from Iran, speaking through a translator. "The lady who was interviewing me — she seemed not to like anybody at all, not just me, but any human being." She says that she understands that it's a consular interviewer's job to be clinical and dispassionate, and that the process should be arduous and lengthy, but she feels strongly that this interviewer, whose name she does not have, went far beyond that point.

"That's nice, but I'm not interested in those"

Soltanabadi says that although she knew that the interviewer would ask all sorts of questions that might strike the couple as strange or intrusive, she was still taken aback by what she says the interviewer said to her. "She persisted in asking us why we'd gotten married in the U.S., and not in Iran. And she said to me that the reason must be that your family probably doesn't even like him," Soltanabadi remembers. "I said, 'Well, you're wrong. In Iran, everybody likes Kayhan, and my family loves him.'"

Her return to Iran to care for her mother after her father's death also appeared to be a major issue, Zoltanabadi says. "The lady kept asking me, 'Why did you separate from your husband and go back to Iran?'" she recounts. "She had no concept that in our culture, when the parent dies, the rest of the family has to take care of each other."

The interviewer, Soltanabadi says, also asked to see pictures of the two of them together, and of Kalhor with her family, as a way of proving that they were a real couple. (This is a quite common technique among immigration officials, in order to establish that there's an actual romantic relationship at stake.)

Soltanabadi says that she tried to explain that because of her husband's fame, and because they had already been together for 14 years, that there were plenty of photographs available — as well as the documentary film, which had premiered two years earlier and had been screened across the U.S.

Soltanabadi thought that those photos, and the film, would bolster their application and help explain their lengthy separations. But, according to Soltanabadi, the official in Ankara dismissed her suggestion, saying: "'That's nice, but I'm not interested in those.'" Soltanbadi thought the official's response was nonsensical. How many couples have had a major American filmmaker chronicle their romance?

She says that she knew that the green card interview had gone badly. "Afterwards, I was really upset," Soltanabadi says. "I was very unhappy when I left the embassy — I despaired. I even told Kayhan that maybe we shouldn't even pursue this anymore."

Despite his status as a legal resident, Kalhor has been unable to live in the U.S. with his wife, Zohreh Soltanabadi, during the Trump administration. She has a valid work permit, but can't get into the country to use it because of the former administration's travel ban.
/ Julia Gunther for NPR
Julia Gunther for NPR
Despite his status as a legal resident, Kalhor has been unable to live in the U.S. with his wife, Zohreh Soltanabadi, during the Trump administration. She has a valid work permit, but can't get into the country to use it because of the former administration's travel ban.

Just as Soltanabadi had feared, her green card application was denied. But shortly afterwards, in May 2017, came even more bad news from Turkey — a message that further shattered the couple's assumptions about how the U.S. government worked.

"A recommendation for revocation"

Kalhor received an email, which NPR has viewed, from the Immigrant Visa Unit of the U.S. embassy in Ankara. It read, almost in its entirety: "This office regrets to inform you that a consular officer has returned your petition to USCIS for further review, with a recommendation for revocation." It was signed: "Sincerely, Immigration Visa Unit, U.S. Embassy Ankara." It meant that the U.S. was perhaps thinking of taking back Kalhor's legal status as a U.S. resident.

NPR reached out to the State Department and to USCIS; neither entity would comment on a specific case. Speaking anonymously, however, an experienced official within USCIS told NPR that the language and content of the email Kalhor received was so bizarrely worded, confusing and out of the ordinary that, this official speculated, it might have been some kind of phishing attempt. It was not.

A revocation of a green card is supposed to be an exceedingly serious matter that goes through lengthy official channels, New Jersey-based immigration lawyer Leena Khandwala explains. People lose their green cards for reasons like criminal convictions and committing fraud.

"For a permanent resident to be stripped of their status," Khandwala says, "they have to be put in formal removal proceedings. An immigration court makes that decision, but then that can be appealed, and then beyond that it can be appealed to a circuit court of appeals. The process takes several years." In other words, revoking a green card isn't something to be threatened via a terse email.

That one email threw much of the next two years of the couple's life into disarray, both professionally and personally. Kalhor had concerts scheduled in the U.S.; he constantly worried that he would be prevented from entering the country, or that he would be detained by immigration officials once he landed in the States. And the life that Kalhor and Soltanabadi had been so lovingly and carefully building in California — a place for them and their horses, a place where they could finally build a real, joint life for themselves — suddenly seemed a mirage.

Eventually — and after NPR made inquiries about his case and immigration status — Kalhor received confirmation that his green card was secure, and that he can come and go as a permanent resident of the U.S. But Soltanabadi cannot be here with him. After her green card request was denied, she has stayed in Iran.

Kalhor still travels frequently to the U.S. to perform, but he has decided he cannot live apart from his wife, even though he still spends most of his time on the road. "It just makes you question yourself," he says. "I have basically been living in North America for over 30 years. I always thought of the U.S. as a different place — as a second country for me. And a place where everything is done differently, according to people's merit, not the color of their skin, or their race, or anything else." Once again — so many years after walking out of Iran — Kalhor found himself separated from the country he called home.

"Wherever he puts down roots, they get yanked out"

Isabel Soffer has been presenting global music in New York City and across the U.S. for over 25 years. She has known Kalhor for much of that time, and has helped him book shows and tours. "On so many levels — emotionally, economically, politically — it's been really difficult," Soffer says. "Whenever, wherever he puts down roots, it seems they kind of get yanked out from under him. And for him to continue to go through this, it's just twisted. It's really cruel."

"I think this man is about as safe an individual as anybody that I've encountered," Yo-Yo Ma observed to NPR in 2017, not long after Kalhor received that portentous email from the U.S. embassy. "Imagine becoming an orphan so young, and then you kind of recapture your life through music. And finally, you find a loved one, you want to settle down — but you're still separated by all these circumstances, your life is once again in shambles, because you're deemed someone not worthy, when in fact your very essence is to spread the poetry of love, for understanding, for creating trust, for bringing people together. It's just a very sad contradiction of the content of someone's life, and his intentions."

Kalhor's case for his <em>kamancheh</em>. His life's work is trying to ensure that his beloved Iranian classical music reaches as many people as possible.
/ Julia Gunther for NPR
Julia Gunther for NPR
Kalhor's case for his kamancheh. His life's work is trying to ensure that his beloved Iranian classical music reaches as many people as possible.

Because of her husband's work, Soltanabadi says, everything is still very complicated. Just like before, she usually has to travel to see him, or content herself with Skype calls. The tenuous, transitory existence captured in The Music of Strangers is, once again, their status quo. "He lives out of his suitcases, in hotels," she says. "So when we plan our lives, we have to plan a year or two out, to figure where we can be together. If we're together for two weeks at a time, that's very unusual. And it's a big source of happiness for him."

Meanwhile, Kalhor is still trying to make sure that his beloved Iranian classical music reaches as many people as possible. In 2017, he traveled across the length and breadth of Iran, giving 70 concerts — many of them free — in remote and particularly impoverished areas of the country.

Kalhor used to make a point of not offering political commentary in public, but times have changed. In 2018, he wrote an op-ed, by turns bitter and tender, for the Dallas Morning News about what he called the "isolation, extremism and revolutionary kabuki" of the Iranian regime, and the despair he and other Iranians felt after the nuclear deal fell apart.

In another political era, this chapter in Kalhor and Soltanabadi's story might have ended differently. But Kalhor has always had to lead his life — and make his music — under the looming shadow of geopolitics, of big power plays and small bureaucrats who wield enormous control.

In mid-2019, I meet Kalhor backstage before a concert in New York City. As always, the dressing room is crowded with well-wishers, the well-connected, friends and admirers. He's gracious with them all — he's a naturally generous person, but being famous for the better part of 30 years has trained him in the art of seemingly endless patience. When it's finally just the two of us talking, Kalhor tells me that that Soltanabadi has a U.S. work permit valid for three years, but she can't get into the country to use it.

"Waiting to see if the situation changes"

"It's just the same as it was before," Kalhor says glumly, "because Zohreh is not allowed to come to this country, due to the travel ban. Right now we have this house in California with no occupants. And my wife hasn't been able to come back for the past two years. So we're waiting to see if the situation changes."

In another political era, this chapter in Kalhor and Soltanabadi's story might have ended differently.
/ Julia Gunther for NPR
Julia Gunther for NPR
In another political era, this chapter in Kalhor and Soltanabadi's story might have ended differently.

"Waiting to see if the situation changes" — it's a recurring phrase that has dictated so much of Kalhor's life. But now, instead of referring to his life in Iran, before and through the revolution, before and through the devastating war, before and through all the permutations of what was and is and might or might not be permissible for a musician in the Islamic Republic of Iran — he means in the United States.

Reflecting back on what happened to him and Soltanabadi, Kalhor remains perplexed. "What happened in between, why I received that email about possibly revoking my green card, what changed, I don't know anything about it," he says.

We are talking in the midst of the crisis at the U.S.'s southern border; Kalhor has been closely watching and reading the stories of parents and children who have been separated from each other. "I'm sure many families have the same problems," he says, "and they're fighting the same situation. Maybe they have to leave their children in another country, or maybe they have to leave another loved one. I'm sure there are many, many scenarios that are the same as what we have."

Kalhor says he thinks that even after all that's transpired, he's still in a privileged position. "I do have a green card," he notes. "I'm allowed to live in the U.S. and be a permanent resident, though my wife cannot enter this country. So it's just a very awkward situation."

Since that 2019 conversation, the pandemic has of course circumscribed Kalhor's touring life. In January of this year, shortly before President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration, Kalhor tells me that nothing has changed in their circumstances, and that they believe that under the immigration code, there is no chance to successfully appeal or have Soltanabadi's application reconsidered.

One of President Joe Biden's first actions in office on Jan. 20 was to issue an executive order rolling back the travel ban, which includes a proposal to reconsider applications made by people who were affected by the Trump-era policies.

It remains to be seen whether or not Soltanabadi and Kayhan can try again. In the meantime, they are back where they started life together: in Tehran.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tehran's city scape at night. Currently Soltanabadi and Kayhan are together in Iran's capital city.
/ Marjan Yazdi for NPR
Marjan Yazdi for NPR
Tehran's city scape at night. Currently Soltanabadi and Kayhan are together in Iran's capital city.

Anastasia Tsioulcas
Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.