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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dogs, lessons learned, psychology

What are the odds?

Last night, I read an article about elderly people who suddenly find themselves homeless since the advent of COVID-19. The piece, which appeared in The New York Times, featured the story of a man named Miles Oliver who lived in Phoenix, Arizona. Originally from Chicago, Oliver came to Arizona by way of the Army over thirty years ago, when he was a new recruit assigned to Fort Huachuca. He liked Arizona and decided to stay there once his stint with the Army was finished.

According to The New York Times article, Mr. Oliver had been able to make a life for himself in Arizona by working day labor jobs and delivering pizzas for Papa John’s. But then COVID-19 struck and Oliver was soon out of work. To make matters worse, work had already been slow in February, before things really started to get bleak in terms of the virus. Oliver was soon face with the difficult decision of either paying his rent or paying his car note, $230 for a 2007 Ford Fusion. He decided to pay the car note, since it was a source of shelter and transportation. By the end of April, he was kicked out of his home, forced to grab just a few necessary items– reading glasses, socks and underwear, and Metformin for his blood sugar, before he hit the streets in his car. By late June, his car quit working.

Oliver has an ex wife and two children. His older son is estranged and hasn’t spoken to him in years. His younger son is a student and in no position to help him. He doesn’t speak to his ex wife. He has diabetes and sleep apnea, and although he is a veteran and qualifies for some benefits, his future looks dim.

As I read about Mr. Oliver’s plight, it occurred to me that he’s about Bill’s age. Once again, I was reminded of how quickly and drastically things can change. I’ve been doing what I can to mitigate the risks that someday, I’ll find myself homeless. I looked at Bill and said, “You know what? I think if I were in that situation, I’d be tempted to just check out.” I said this mainly because although I am not necessarily estranged from my family, neither am I particularly close to them. I don’t have children, and although I am well-educated and privileged, I was never able to parlay that into a job that paid me enough to live on. If I couldn’t do it 20 years ago, how can I do it now? And why would I want to? Without Bill, I’m not sure why I’d stick around this hellhole we call Earth, which is swirling with plagues, natural disasters, and selfish, shitty politicians like Trump and Mitch McConnell.

Bill, who is eternally optimistic and has survived some pretty dim odds himself, gave me a pained look. Although he knows I suffer from depression and that makes me look on the dark side of things, I don’t think he’s ever gotten used to that unfailingly pragmatic aspect of my personality. It’s also kind of anti-American to “give up” on life. Bill has never felt the urge to off himself, despite his brush with death when he was a teenager. I, on the other hand, used to feel suicidal somewhat often. I’ve often felt ambivalent and apathetic about life. I was told more than once that I wasn’t wanted by the people who were responsible for creating me. They later came to appreciate me, but those comments left a deep scar that has affected my self-worth. And I just feel like if I were in a situation as an old woman without a home, family, or friends, I wouldn’t want to bother going on. But then I started thinking about it some more and realized that maybe I was wrong to think that way.

I thought about all of the challenges facing Mr. Oliver. He’s an older Black man, with no family able to help him and, it appears, few friends. He’s got health problems, but no money or resources to take care of them. There’s a pandemic raging, and we have a president who doesn’t care about people. And yet he is clearly a survivor. He has reached out for assistance. His story was told in The New York Times. Maybe I got the wrong message.

After I told Bill about why I felt it would be more expedient to “check out” than try to rebuild life as a homeless person, I looked behind me at Noizy. He’s still stuck in the corner of our living room, slowly getting braver by the day. I started to think about how he’d once been a homeless puppy, weaned too early from his mother, and left to die in a country where dogs aren’t appreciated. It’s kind of a miracle that he’s here with us in Germany. What are the odds?

Noizy was brought to his American rescuer, Meg, by a young man in Kosovo who had seen him in the street, screaming for help. He brought the puppy to Meg because he didn’t know where else to take him. Kosovo has a big problem with street dogs, but the culture doesn’t support animal rescue too well. Many people in Kosovo are Muslim and many Muslims consider dogs impure and unclean. Meg didn’t need another puppy to take care of, but she decided to keep Noizy anyway. She watched him grow from tiny puppy to gigantic adult. I’m sure she wondered what his future would hold.

And then, Bill and I came along, looking for a new canine friend. We had just tragically lost a dog we’d tried to adopt, one who was much closer to the type of dog we usually take into our home. It took some time for us to decide we really wanted another dog, and it was definitely not our plan to adopt a big dog– especially one as large as Noizy is. But once I saw Noizy’s face, I was hooked. There was something about his eyes that touched my heart. I have never been sorry when I’ve taken in a dog, and every single one we’ve adopted touched me through a photograph.

I started thinking about all of the people who came together to see that Noizy found a home. He spent 18 months living on a farm in Kosovo, one of many dogs living there, cared for by a farmer who has a soft spot for dogs and was willing to help Meg, who had moved from Kosovo to Germany and couldn’t take her rescues with her. She had paid for the dogs to be taken care of on the farm while she looked afar for potential rescuers. Most of these dogs haven’t lived as pets in a home.

I just happened to have a friend who knew Meg and introduced us. I met this friend in Stuttgart a few years ago, again by chance. We’ve only seen each other in person once, but our mutual friend is very involved in dog rescue herself and has a couple of exotic dogs from far flung countries like Thailand and Afghanistan. She told Meg that one of her dogs would be very lucky to be placed with us. It was like the stars aligned.

I just met Meg in person the other day. She is very impressive. Somehow, she has managed to develop a powerful network of people in Kosovo, Serbia, Slovenia, and Croatia who have helped her on her mission to save some street dogs. What are the odds that a tiny puppy like Noizy would end up in Meg’s care? What are the odds that she would be found by a local young man who cared about the puppy’s life enough to seek her out? It was much more likely that the noisy puppy would have languished and died.

Even once we’d decided when to pick up Noizy, there were challenges. First, there was the whole COVID-19 situation, which is causing countries to shut their borders again. Fortunately, that didn’t affect us during our trip, although it as definitely a concern. And then, when Meg was bringing Noizy and two other dogs up to Slovenia to hand off to Bill and me, her car broke down. Another American couple (younger and able to take another day to travel) drove an extra 400 kilometers to help Meg get the dogs to Slovenia. They drove all night, very slowly, to make it happen.

Soon Noizy was in the back of our Volvo, with our other dog, Arran, looking pissy in the back seat. On his first night in our home, Noizy was obsessed with going outside. It’s what he knew. He hugged the door to our yard, taking every opportunity to go out. He bumped his head on the glass, apparently because he’d never seen a glass door before. Within 24 hours, he clearly preferred being indoors rather than outdoors. He’s staked out a part of our living room and won’t venture beyond that area. But every time he sees me, he looks delighted and wags his tail excitedly. He rolls on his back for a belly rub. He’s learned how to drink from a water bowl and eat from a dish. He’s even been pretty good (but not perfect) with peeing and pooping outside. Noizy is clearly game for the challenge of learning how to be a pet.

A few days ago, Bill had an epiphany about Noizy. In 2012, when we were vacationing in Scotland in honor of our tenth wedding anniversary, we got the devastating news that our beagle/basset hound mix, MacGregor, had a spinal tumor. At the time, we lived in North Carolina. Vets had told us before we left for our trip that they thought MacGregor had disk disease. If we had known it was a tumor (which they only discovered after he had a MRI), we probably would have made other choices about our vacation.

The night we found out about the cancer and the vet’s suggestion that we euthanize MacGregor, Bill had a nightmare. He dreamt he was being chased by many dogs. He thought they wanted to hurt him, so he initially threw rocks at them. But then he realized they weren’t trying to attack him at all. They all needed help. One dog in particular was kind of eerie looking. He had gleaming eyes, but he wasn’t menacing.

The next morning, we got off the Hebridean Princess and took a taxi to Edinburgh. As we were passing the lovely town of Stirling, Bill considered his dream and what it meant. He knew it meant we were going to be helping dogs… perhaps even a lot of them. As he thought more about his dream while we rode toward Edinburgh, Bill came to assume that the gleaming eyed dog represented death, which will always be there whenever there’s a living creature involved in a situation. The dream has stuck with him almost eight years later. This past Sunday, as we were driving to Germany with Noizy and Arran, Bill said “You know what? That dog in my dream looked a lot like Noizy.”

Later, Bill told Meg about his dream. Meg, who studies Jungian psychology, offered her take on it. Then she told us about what Noizy meant to her and how he came to be in her care. I hope Meg doesn’t mind that I share this one bit from her explanation… because I have been thinking about it a lot over the past few days. She wrote that to her, Noizy represents hope for the future. He should have died on the street, but he screamed for help (hence his name). A young man, native to a country that doesn’t necessarily appreciate dogs, came to his rescue and gave him to Meg, a woman who rescues dogs.

Why did the young man give Noizy to Meg? Because he had hope that Meg could save the puppy and give him a future. The alternative was to let him die. Meg told us that a lot of the young people of Kosovo don’t have a lot of hope. They are in a country that isn’t recognized everywhere yet. Their country is troubled, and the young people wonder if anyone cares about them.

Why did Meg give Noizy to us? She said it was hard for her. I could tell she was very emotional when we took him. He’s a big, powerful dog, though, and Meg has many dogs who need homes. Meg is also retired and has physical and financial limitations that may preclude taking care of Noizy the way we can. Even though we’re doing fine so far, I wonder what the future holds for us. I’m no spring chicken myself. 😉 But I do have plenty of time, and Bill and I– at least for now– have a secure home and money for food, vet care, and anything else Noizy needs. So we’re going to do our best to make sure that young man’s hope for Noizy will not be unfulfilled.

And maybe I can learn a lesson from Noizy, too. Against all odds, he’s up here in Germany, about to live his best life… to the best of our ability to give it to him. We’re an unlikely match. Bill and I have always had beagle mixes, after all… and we’re renters with a somewhat nomadic lifestyle. But I think I can teach Noizy a thing or two, and he can teach me even more than that. At the very least, he can teach me that maybe “checking out” isn’t the best thing to do when one is suddenly homeless or facing another major adversity.

I hope Miles Oliver finds what he needs to start over and live his best life with whatever time he has left. And I thank him for his story, which affected me more than I realized when I read it last night.