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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book reviews

Jason Rezaian does time at Tehran’s Evin Prison…

A couple of months ago, I saw a book excerpt posted on The Washington Post’s Web site. It was the start of Jason Rezaian’s 2019 book, Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison–Solitary Confinement, a Sham Trial, High-Stakes Diplomacy, and the Extraordinary Efforts It Took to Get Me Out. Although I love a good prison book, I was probably attracted most to Jason Rezaian’s surname, which I suspect could have Armenian origins. Ever since my two year stint in Armenia, I take notice of people who have the telltale “ian” or “yan” as the last three letters of their names. A lot of times, those names indicate an Armenian link.

Jason Rezaian is, in fact, half Iranian. He holds Iranian and United States passports, speaks Farsi, and is married to an Iranian journalist named Yeganeh Salehi– Yegi, for short. Rezaian is a journalist, and he had been working for The Washington Post as the Tehran Bureau Chief when he and his wife were arrested on July 22, 2014. They had been planning to go back to the United States when Iranian government security forces raided his and his wife’s Tehran home. They were accused of espionage and creating “propaganda against the establishment”.

That same night, an American photojournalist and her husband were also arrested on the same charges. The photojournalist and her husband were released a few weeks later, but Rezaian and his wife were taken to Evin Prison, a notorious detention center in Tehran where intellectuals and political prisoners are often held for long stretches. Yegi was released on bail in October 2014, but Jason spent 544 days languishing in the prison, where he was forced to wear a blindfold any time he wasn’t in his tiny, filthy cell.

Both Jason and Yegi were repeatedly interrogated about their supposed “espionage” activities, which, of course, were non-existent. Most of Rezaian’s articles were about food and travel. He’d even served as a guide to Anthony Bourdain for the show, Parts Unknown, when it featured Iran. The charges of espionage stemmed from a Kickstarter project Rezaian had started. He had noticed that Iran didn’t have any avocado trees. He was missing guacamole. So, on a complete lark, Rezaian started his campaign and collected a few donations from people, to include a U.S. government official. Iranian officials had taken the term “radio silence”, which Rezaian had put in an email, as a sign that he was a Central Intelligence Agency plant.

At first, Rezaian was sure he would be out of detention very quickly. It was all a huge misunderstanding. But then he and his wife were ordered to put on “pajamas” and taken to their cells. The first night stretched into weeks, then months as Iranian officials demanded that Rezaian admit to spying and promised he’d be set free if he’d just tell them what they wanted to hear.

Rezaian lost a lot of weight and endured many uncomfortable, sleepless nights. He spent long stretches of time in solitary confinement and got to the point at which he looked forward to speaking to the interrogator, simply because he was kept in solitude for so long. Meanwhile, Rezaian’s family– his wife, brother, and mother, worked tirelessly to get the United States government, then led by Barack Obama, to let him go.

I have read other books written by former Evin Prison inmates. I remember one I read about ten years ago, by a woman who had been arrested for taking part in a student demonstration at Tehran University. But although Zarah Ghahramani was subjected to psychological torture, beatings, and interrogations, her time at Evin Prison was mercifully brief. She was only there for a month. Rezaian was imprisoned for well over a year and might still be there were it not for the tireless efforts of his family.

One thing that surprised me about Rezaian’s account is that it seemed to me like he adapted to being at Evin Prison, to the point at which he became almost friendly with a couple of the guards. One interrogator named Kazem told Rezaian, who admits to not being very religious and a big fan of the late Christopher Hitchens, that he should read the Koran. Rezaian was starved for reading material, so he agreed to read the religious book. Kazem proudly presented him with a beautiful, ornate Koran, that he hoped Rezaian would keep with him as a memento. Rezaian read the Koran, but was not moved by it. He left the “gift” at the prison and Kazem was crushed. It was as if the interrogator could not conceive of why Rezaian would not see him as a friend. However, Rezaian did tell Kazem that there was no way he’d ever forget him. It’s hard to forget someone who frequently threatens you with execution.

Rezaian frequently reminds readers that Iranians are typically very kind and hospitable people. Even in prison, it seemed like Rezaian would encounter those kindnesses. For example, after her release, Yegi was allowed to visit Jason in prison. One guard was rather lenient about giving them time together, “forgetting” about them so they’d have two hours to enjoy each other’s company. Rezaian describes the guard as almost accomplice like. Another time, he was practically forced to call his mother, even though he didn’t want to call her. But then, once they started talking, he didn’t want to hang up. The “great judge” also decided Rezaian should exercise, so they started allowing him 20 minute sessions on a machine. Rezaian was not known for being particularly athletic, but he came to appreciate those opportunities to use his muscles and sweat.

Rezaian’s “trial” was, of course, completely absurd. And just after Rezaian’s arrest, the Islamic Republic went on a killing spree, hanging over 700 people in the first part of 2015. Rezaian would often see the doomed people on his way to and from court. They were executed near his cell in Evin’s execution square. In an effort to get Jason Rezaian to talk, his interrogators would remind him that the court had so far been very lenient, as he should have been executed months prior. Rezaian says he was never physically abused by his captors, but he was definitely psychologically terrorized. He never knew if they were going to release him, keep him for the rest of his life, or kill him. In the wake of his confinement, he had to live with the post traumatic stress disorder that inevitably comes from such an ordeal.

Overall, I found Jason Rezaian’s book a fascinating read on many levels. I have never been to Iran, but my dad was there once, years before the fall of the Shah. He brought back a painting, which I inherited and left in storage back in Texas. I believe the story went that the artist liked my dad’s leisure suit and traded his art for my dad’s fancy duds. Armenia borders Iran, and I actually met some Iranians when I lived in Armenia. Rezaian also ran into Azeris, one of whom was a guard. Armenia and Azerbaijan are not on good terms and he brings up their conflict in his book, which was of particular interest to me.

I also enjoyed Rezaian’s stories about his family, a fascinating group of people who came together in an unlikely way. Rezaian’s father came to the United States in 1959 and built a very successful Persian carpet business in Marin County, California. Though his business suffered during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, his dad– proud to be an American and an Iranian– sent free carpets to the hostages after they came home. With the carpets, he included a letter apologizing to the hostages for what they had endured and hoping the would enjoy their new rug.

Rezaian writes very well, and his story held my attention. I particularly enjoyed his story about how he was whisked out of Iran by the Swiss, then taken to Landstuhl– a place near and dear to any military person’s heart if they’ve spent time downrange or living in Europe. Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos brought Rezaian and his family home on his private jet. He even stocked it with burritos and guacamole, which Rezaian said were delicious. Life is very surreal. I’m sure that despite Rezaian’s adventurous nature, he had no idea that one day he’d be flying back to the United States in a jet owned by one of the richest men in the universe and walking red carpets among politicians and celebrities.

I would definitely recommend Prisoner to anyone who is curious about Jason Rezaian’s story. I’m glad I read it, though as curious as I am about Iran, I’m not sure I want to go there myself. Evin Prison doesn’t sound like a good place to be.