Monday, March 07, 2016
Not Without My Daughter
I first read Betty Mahmoody's Not Without My Daughter in high school back in the nineties. Up until that point, I'm not sure I'd read any nonfiction "for fun," in other words of my own choice and NOT for a school assignment. And to be honest, most of the nonfiction I'd read before was biographies of dead people I had little interest in to begin with. This book was a quick, compelling, action-and-adventure packed book about a mother and her daughter--and both were still alive. I remember it being a "wow" book for me.
Twenty years later--give or take a few years--I decided to reread this one. I saw My name is Mahtob at the library and it brought this one to mind again. The books are quite different. This one focuses more on Betty's marriage to Moody and Betty's determination to get them both out of Iran no matter what. It was written just a year or possibly two years after their escape. And as they were still very much in hiding at the time it was published, it doesn't give you much of a sense of what happened after they escaped through Turkey.
To catch everyone up in case you're not familiar with Not Without My Daughter or My Name is Mahtob:
In the late 1970s, Betty married an Iranian man nicknamed Moody. At first their marriage was working out well enough. He was a mostly non-practicing Muslim who was becoming more and more Americanized with each passing week. He treated her well--lavishing her with gifts, proud to show her off to anyone and everyone. After the birth of their daughter, Mahtob, things began to change. Not her fault, mind you, but because of the situation in Iran. Now that Iran was at war, now that his country was violent and in turmoil, he felt it was HIS country again. He listened to Iranian radio and read Iranian newspapers all the time. He became more and more unhappy in America, blaming America for all of the problems in Iran. That coupled with job woes meant horrible stress and strain on their marriage. Also the family "hosted" at various times several of his family visiting from Iran, and a visit could last months or even a year...
It was after a visit from one of his "nephews" in 1984 that he determined that the family would go to Iran for a two week vacation. He insisted that they had to go. Fighting against her natural instincts, she agreed that the family could go--for two weeks. At the time she agreed, she was already thinking of divorce. But she was worried about Mahtob, not, what divorce might do to her emotionally, but, what it might mean for her physically. Her father could take her out of the country to Iran--without her permission, essentially kidnap his own daughter--and stay indefinitely without breaking any laws. There was no legal protection in place.
The first few chapters of the book focus on the initial two-week vacation, but, as Betty feared, Moody's vacation was really much more permanent. He told her they were never going back to America, she'd never see her family--her parents, her two sons by a previous marriage, etc.--again. She was to learn to be a proper Iranian wife, the sooner the better. In the meantime, she was essentially held hostage. Not allowed out of the house, not allowed to use the telephone, not allowed to write letters. By this point, Moody's temperament had shifted from unhappy and mean to violent and abusive. The book is at times graphic in detailing the physical abuse of both mother and daughter. I think what hurt worse than the abuse she received at the hands of her husband was watching him abuse Mahtob. That and knowing that his family KNEW of the abuse--heard it, saw it--and did nothing. Moody was out of control and unpredictable.
The rest of the book covers essentially the almost two years they spent trapped in Iran. She had to learn the language, had to learn the city, had to learn the culture, customs, laws, and religion. Her goal was to conform enough on the outside so that her inner rebellion could go undetected as long as possible.
Her family did learn soon after the two weeks was up that the two were trapped in Iran, that Moody would not allow them to leave, that they were being held against their will. Her family did everything they could--on their side--to help their daughter. And through the American interest office of the Swiss embassy, I believe, they did manage to stay in contact some. But no one could think of a legal way for both mother and daughter to leave the country. Betty could divorce him at any time and leave. But leaving Mahtob behind meant leaving her behind forever. A mother give up on her child?! Never.
Is the book Christian? No and yes. It is not published by a Christian publisher, and, there are words in this one that no Christian publisher would ever allow. But Betty was nominally at least a Christian when she married Moody--a variety of Methodist, I believe. For better or worse, she believed that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, and that whether one called him "Allah" or "God" didn't matter much at the end of the day. Mother and daughter prayed together daily in secret--in the bathroom--pleading with God to let them escape Iran and return to America. At times, Betty expressed a great longing to have a Bible--a New Testament--to read. And several times she referred to Jesus as the Son of God. But at the same time, Betty blurred the lines a bit, in matters of doctrine. She began praying to Allah, praying the five daily prayers facing Mecca, began visiting Islamic holy sites and making wishes and vows. If God couldn't help her, maybe Allah would. She writes that Moody couldn't begin to suspect her sincerity in her prayers. So there are little things that might add up to make elements of this one questionable in terms of "is the book Christian?" That being said, I think Christians--especially adult believers--should be able to read the book with discerning, compassionate eyes. Yes, Betty was "unequally yoked;" she did not marry a Christian believer. But having Mahtob was undoubtedly a blessing, and, God did indeed work out all things for good through the circumstances. After Betty escaped, she became a champion for this cause, a spokesperson, a fighter. Never forgetting what it felt like to be trapped, to be separated from her family, her country, she would FIGHT to help reunite other families in similar situations around the world, she would fight to change laws as well, or, to put laws into place. So her experiences, as horrible as they were, have benefited others.
Is the book anti-Muslim? I wouldn't say that it was exactly the Islamic faith she was opposing as much as it was her own controlling, possessive, abusive husband who appeared to have mental health issues. It hurt her to see other women--whether foreign-born or not--in marriages where men were abusive and manipulative. What she wanted to see, perhaps, was a culture where men respected women, and women respected men--both being equal. She didn't like being told that that is just how men are: all men beat their wives. Some are more open about it in front of others, but, this was just something that made men, men. This felt wrong to her, it didn't sit right. Not all men are like that, and women should not have to live in fear of losing their lives. Some of the issues addressed in the book--physical abuse--could have happened anywhere in the world. Her being in a foreign country where she couldn't easily speak the language and where everyone else was a different religion didn't HELP her escape his abuse once it started. But, his being Iranian, his being Muslim, wasn't the root cause of his being abusive either.
That being said, I don't think it would pass the current political correctness test. It was published in 1987. For example, she focuses in on how un-American living conditions were: how unclean the houses were, how bathrooms were a hole in the ground, how "most people" just bathed once or twice a year, how babies didn't wear diapers, how bugs and worms and other vermin were in the food and not even picked out before cooking, how women blew their noses on their chadors. Little things that add up to create the idea that she found living conditions in Iran to be absolutely beneath her and primitive, for lack of a better word. She doesn't go out of her way to be kind and generous about the culture exactly. For what it is, one person's perspective on Iran during the years 1984-1986, I don't think it is hugely unfair or overly offensive. In the movie, I thought it was exaggerated even more. The character openly saying again and again, HOW CAN YOU EXPECT ME TO LIVE WITH SUCH PRIMITIVE PEOPLE?! In the book, it is never that outspoken.
© 2016 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews