Many years ago, I watched a movie called Not Without My Daughter, with Sally Field. Have you seen it?
It was a true story about an American woman married to an Iranian man and together they had a 5 year old daughter named Mahtob. They lived in Michigan and were happily married, until he suggested they take a 2-week vacation to visit his relatives in Iran. This was just after the Iranian revolution during which the Ayatolah Khomeini overthrew the Shah. Once they were in Iran, it became clear that Sayyed, the father, had no intention of taking his family back to America. He embraced the law of the land, which claimed that women and children were the property of the man of the family, and he held them hostage, watching their every move and threatening them with their lives if they disobeyed him. They lived like this for almost 18 months, until Betty, Mahtob’s mother, was able to earn his trust enough to be allowed to go shopping in the market and make secret contact with an underground network of people who were able to help her and Mahtob finally and miraculously escape.
I remember having had nightmares about this movie for months after seeing it. And now here is the epilogue…
This is the story from Mahtob, the daughter, herself. She recounts her story, as the daughter of these two very different parents. She shares her early memories of America, in a very loving home, with tender memories of her father at the start. She recalls a subtle shift in his attitude toward his culture and religion just before their leaving for Iran. But the change in his attitude was like a tidal wave once they landed in Iran, and the loving father that she knew essentially disappeared, replaced by a monster, in her eyes – one who beat up her beloved mother, who threatened her mother, and who separated Mahtob from her mother for days at a time. And that’s when she learned to hate.
What I did not realized was that the story did not end with their escape from Iran. This mother and child had to endure years of terror, fearing a kidnapping by her father – or worse! – their whole lives. And the impact spread to everyone around them.
Betty Mahmoody coped by using their experience to advocate for others in this situation. She fought for federal laws that protected children against international parental kidnapping, which President Clinton passed. And she travelled around the country and around the world, personally supporting many families who were in the same situation that she had been in.
This is a very, very hard book to read emotionally but it is an important one, I believe. It serves as a portrait of the convergence of mental illness and religious fanaticism, which is a terrifying combination.
It brought it all back for me, but it also brought closure as well. It seemed to have done so for Mahtob herself.