By JASON REYNOLDS
If you have ever seen the movie or read the book “Not Without My Daughter,” you may have wondered whatever became of the family featured in the biographical story and the followup book “For the Love of a Child.”
Amazon introduces the book this way: “In August 1984, Michigan housewife Betty Mahmoody accompanied her husband to his native Iran for a two-week vacation. To her horror, she found herself and her four-year-old daughter, Mahtob, virtual prisoners of a man rededicated to his Shiite Moslem faith, in a land where women are near-slaves and Americans are despised. Their only hope for escape lay in a dangerous underground that would not take her child…”
Betty was married to Sayyed Bozorg Mahmoody, who had left his native Iran at the age of 18 to study English in London. He moved to the United States to attend university. He worked as a math professor and an engineer. He even worked for NASA. Then he became an anesthesiologist. The couple met in 1974 and married in 1977, Mahtob writes.
Mahtob writes that her father changed during the Iranian Revolution, having been a mild-mannered man who loved the West, which had provided him so many opportunities. He also had been a non-practicing Muslim. With his new-found religion, the marriage hit the rocks, and Sayyed promised he would change. He seemed to change but was planning to take the family on a two-week “vacation” to Iran to visit his family that would really be a permanent move and integration into the culture.
Betty and Mahtob did escape, of course, and the rest is history. Sally Fields starred as Betty in the well-known 1991 movie based on Betty’s account of their ordeal. Betty fought to make the international kidnapping of a child by one parent a recognized cause around the world.
But what happened to Betty and her daughter? And did Mahtob ever have anything to say?
Mahtob does indeed have something to say, and you can read that in her memoir “My Name is Mahtob,” by Nelson Books.
I had the opportunity to speak with Mahtob last Friday the 29th, a day that marks two very important anniversaries for Mahtob and Betty: it was the 30th anniversary of their leaving their Iranian house to begin their journey to freedom, and it is the 29th anniversary of Mahtob’s baptism as a Christian. She said that she and her mother planned to celebrate that evening.
Her decision to write the book came about because of her long-time family friend, Anja Kleinlein, a German editor who had worked with her mother on her two books in Germany.
“I grew up traveling around the world with (Mom), sharing our story. Many of her publishers were like family to us.”
Kleinlein had always wanted Mahtob to write her own account of the kidnapping because she was fascinated that the daughter had her own perspective. Mahtob was approached by publishers many times over the years to write the book but she did not want to — she wanted a normal life. But she was appraoched by a publisher again several years ago while Kleinlein was dying of cancer, and Mahtob relented because she knew it would mean a great deal to Kleinlein. And it seemed that God would not leave her alone about writing her story.
I asked Mahtob what she hopes that readers will take away from her story.
“This is an opportunity God kept presenting. I felt like, ‘Okay, God, enough already.’ It became a family joke. My family would joke about how often you needed to write about this. I feel like God has a plan for this. I don’t know (what). I hope people get a positive message from it. It seems like such tragedies and how someone goes on living after that. God has been so gracious and has blessed us. We all face challenges and it’s hard to understand there is a reason for this. I hope that is a takeaway.”
Mahtob said it is unfortunate the way things turned out with her father.
“It’s really unfortunate my Dad’s behavior and his decisions reflected so poorly on his culture and his country and even his religion. I am not a Muslim, but certainly not all Muslims behave the way my Dad did, and not all Iranians behave the way my Dad did.”
I asked Mahtob what she wanted people to know about her story in a nutshell. She replied that her mother has received a lot of criticism for supposedly giving Iranians a bad name, or Muslims a bad name. “But those are people who clearly don’t know our story. I get less of that, but I do get some.”
When she meets new people, it is a balancing act to figure out when and how to tell them about her background. “If you go too long in your friendship, it’s betrayal and why didn’t you tell? Yet you don’t shake someone’s hand and say ‘By the way. …’ People get excited at first and want to ask questions and talk over a Persian meal and then I’m just Mahtob again.”
Her father died in 2009. “I felt really sad for him when he died. He died angry and bitter and saw himself as a victim. I don’t think of myself as a victim. Mom doesn’t think of herself as a victim. He never was able to do that as far as I know.”
Mahtob says she felt a visceral sense of relief, even though she had forgiven him. “He was a threat. There was a real danger he posed. Now I’m finally safe but … he was so vocal in his latter years and so charismatic and people took up his cause and were determined to help him reunite.” For a while she was afraid someone may lash out at her, but that never happened.
Mahtob’s book details the ways in which those fears were justified. Her father used people to try to make contact with Mahtob. There were a number of scary incidents over the years, especially once she enrolled in university: unexplained intrusions into her apartment and her brother’s home, a gun fired outside her brother’s home, and more. Then there was a European documentary filmmaker who intruded into her life, from afar, saying he wanted to reunite her and her father. There was a student on her university campus who seemed to be involved in the plot. Her father’s shadow hung over her and her family from the time she and her mother escaped back to America until he died.
Mahtob’s life, however, is so much more than the shadow her father cast over her, and her book opens up some of her experiences outside of “Not Without My Daughter.”
Her father was not the only danger. Mahtob is a survivor of lupus, an autoimmune disease that continues to hang over her life with its own menacing shadow. She has survived some very serious outbreaks, most recently about two and a half years ago when she was hospitalized and underwent an emergency blood transfusion. She took chemotherapy to shut her immune system down and was in a virtual quarantine for a year to avoid exposure to germs. That delayed her book: It was released in Europe but her American launch was held until recently when she could actively promote it. Her publishers have been amazing during all that time, she said. “Maybe that is the purpose of the book, to have a job where I can work like that.”
Despite experiencing lupus and worrying about her father’s ever-increasing shadow during college, Mahtob graduated in 2002 with a degree in psychology. She says that her life experienced likely did affect her choosing psychology as a major. She grew up watching her mother work tirelessly to promote her causes.
She worked in the mental health field, not in a clinical setting, but in such aspects as community education and event planning. She worked to promote awareness. “Mental health is such a stigma, people need help but do not seek it. I was going to take the resources to them. I did a TV show and monthly lecture series, all free. I did fundraising and event planning, all in the mental health arena.”
Mahtob made some fascinating comments in her book regarding what she sees as a link between mental illness and guilt and shame. “I am not aware of any science to back it up.” But she attended parochial schools. “I grew up learning we are redeemed children of God. Jesus took care of it. If we rely on Him we don’t have to live with guilt. He died to take away our guilt. It just seemed logical to me if guilt and shame are issues, God’s grace is the prescription. Who doesn’t feel better when they are right with God? I don’t know how people make it through life’s difficult times without faith.”
Having faith in Christ can help a person see the silver lining in a bad situation. Mahtob is no different. “I feel so blessed there were people who found out and took off running, that didn’t want to deal with the threat, but more often people stood by me and worked hard to protect me.” Mahtob said she is only recently reconnecting with her old parochial school teachers, whom she learned practiced lock-down drills in case her father ever showed up — this being in the 1980s, before tragedies like Columbine.
In response to “What’s next?,” Mahtob said she is not entirely sure, but perhaps she will write an international cookbook with her mother, who has always wanted to do such a project with her. Indeed, food is another theme in Mahtob’s memoir. Food is more than just eating; in other cultures, it is an experience of culture and heritage to share with others.
“Look at the world; there’s so much turmoil in the world, so much hatred. We need to sit down and eat together. In Iran, during the war when people had nothing, everybody still had dinner parties. You would invite people over for dinner and you would never, ever enter their house without taking a bouquet of flowers. Being respectful. We need to talk about that in society. We hear horrible things about the Middle East. There is danger there. But at the same time, these other things are true too.”