book reviews

Repost: A review of My Name Is Mahtob: The Story that Began in the Global Phenomenon Not Without My Daughter Continues

This review was written and posted on my original blog on March 4, 2018. It’s being reposted as/is.

In the early 1980s, Betty Mahmoody was an American housewife married to an Iranian anesthesiologist.  She had sons from a previous marriage and a little daughter named Mahtob (Persian for moonlight) from her marriage to Iranian Sayyed Bozorg Mahmoody (who went by the nickname, Moody). 

Betty and Moody had once lived a comfortable lifestyle in Texas and Michigan. Moody had earned a PhD in mathematics and worked as a math professor and an engineer at NASA before he decided to go to medical school. Having lived in England and the United States since he was 18 years old, Moody seemed fully assimilated to western style living. He and Betty married in Houston in 1977, and Mahtob was born in 1979.

In August 1984, Moody took Betty and Mahtob to his native country of Iran.  It was supposed to be a two week vacation.  Moody had taken Betty’s and Mahtob’s passports, claiming that if he had them in his possession, they would not be confiscated.  Betty trusted her husband and they went on their vacation. 

At the end of the two weeks, Moody told Betty that they would not be returning to the United States.  Moody also told his wife that if she tried to leave his family’s house, he would kill her.  Because Moody was an Iranian citizen by birth, according to Iranian law, he automatically had full custody of Mahtob.  Betty was also an Iranian citizen because she was married to an Iranian.  She and Mahtob were trapped. 

Unwilling to spend the rest of her life in Iran and not wanting her daughter to be raised there as a Muslim, Betty decided to take action.  Her husband kept her and Mahtob under extreme surveillance.  In early 1986, Betty learned that her father was dying.  Moody insisted that she go back to the United States without Mahtob.  He purchased a plane ticket for Betty; she was set to depart Iran on January 31, 1986.  But then a couple of days before the flight, Moody was unexpectedly called away.  Betty and Mahtob finally had the opportunity to make a run for freedom.   

After eighteen months of being held captive by Moody and his family, Betty and Mahtob escaped Iran via the mountains of southern Turkey, smuggled out on horseback.  Betty very nearly died of exhaustion and exposure.  In 1987, Betty Mahmoody published her very famous book, Not Without My Daughter.  In 1991, a feature film starring Sally Field and Alfred Molina was released.

Betty Mahmoody talks about Not Without My Daughter.

I read Betty Mahmoody’s book years ago and have seen the film based on the book.  When I noticed a book written by Mahtob Mahmoody, I decided I wanted to read her version of events.  I downloaded Mahtob Mahmoody’s 2015 book, My Name Is Mahtob: The Story that Began in the Global Phenomenon Not Without My Daughter Continues and just finished it this morning.

Mahtob Mahmoody’s book is extremely well written.  She obviously inherited her father’s keen intellect and her mother’s talents as a writer.  Mahtob has a gift for language.  She was a good student in school and was accepted to a prestigious academic program at Michigan State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

Mahtob is also a devout Christian.  She makes many references to her Christian faith in her book.  I suspect her being so Christian is, in part, due to the fact that her father had told her she had the blood of Fatima and he would not allow her to be anything but Muslim.  I sense that Mahtob is very faithful to Christianity, not just because she believes in it, but also as an act of defiance toward her father.  Moody never gave up on being in Mahtob’s life and terrorized Betty and Mahtob by constantly trying to communicate with them.  Betty eventually divorced Moody in 1989.

Mahtob and her mother are very bonded.  The constant stress of worrying about Moody had forced them to maintain a strong relationship.  Mahtob developed lupus when she was thirteen years old and stress exacerbated the problem. 

One aspect of Mahtob’s story that was especially interesting to me was her continual references to Armenia. As regular readers might know, I spent two years in Armenia, which borders Iran. Many Armenians live in Iran, and Mahtob was clearly exposed to the culture and food. I enjoyed reading about that, as well as reading some of the communications she got from Iranians. A mutual friend of Moody’s and Betty’s wrote letters referring to them as “jon”. In Armenia, the term “jon” is a term of endearment. It’s basically akin to “dear”. Apparently, it means the same thing in Iran.

Since I am the wife of a man who was denied access to his daughters, it was intriguing to read about what it was like for Mahtob to be estranged from her father.  She did remember him and, despite being terrified that he was going to force her to go back to Iran, had stories that made him seem more sympathetic.  For instance, she writes of how, as a young child, her father taught her the best way to eat pomegranates.  In the 80s, pomegranates were not easy to get in Michigan.  Betty had not grown up with them.  But pomegranates are very common in Iran and Moody knew the best way to extract all of the delicious juice.  He taught Mahtob.

When my husband’s daughters were young, they claimed they didn’t remember Bill.  They didn’t remember his being part of their lives.  Now that they are adults and one of them is talking to Bill again, we now know that of course they remembered him.  It appears at this point that Bill’s younger daughter is reconnecting.  Of course, Bill is a very different kind of man than Moody is.  He’s not from a vastly different culture than his daughters are.   

Moody repeatedly claimed that his ex wife had made false claims about his character.  He even made a documentary called Without My Daughter.  Supposedly, it presents his side of the story, although I haven’t seen it.  Mahtob thinks that Moody may have had narcissistic personality disorder (he died in 2009).  It’s entirely possible that he did.  On the other hand, when it comes to these kinds of relationships, it’s really hard to know where the truth lies. 

I suppose this story was especially interesting to me because in many ways, it’s a lot like Bill’s story, right down to the religious aspect.  Naturally, mainstream Mormonism is not quite the same as Islam, although fundamentalist Mormonism has some eerie similarities. 

I read Betty’s book years before I met Bill.  I had no way of knowing that one day, I’d be married to a man who was estranged from his kids.  I guess, in a way, that made it harder for me to completely condemn Moody.  Although Mahtob claims that she forgave her father, she refused to have anything at all to do with him.  I found that sad, though understandable.  I could see that being Persian is a big part of who Mahtob is.  She loves the food and the culture and has maintained ties to it.  She’s Persian because of her dad.

Mahtob does state that her mother told her that she was welcome to be in contact with her father.  In fact, she even encouraged her to talk to him because he had kidney problems (which later killed him) and Mahtob’s lupus had affected her kidneys.  Mahtob declined to get in touch with him and, when he died in 2009, forever closed the door on mending the rift with her father.  While that’s the way Mahtob says she wanted it, I got the impression that she was actually kind of ambivalent.  She will now have to live with that for the rest of her life.

Anyway, I liked My Name Is Mahtob and would recommend it to the interested.  I found Mahtob’s writing insightful, sophisticated, and at times, beautifully poignant. 

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