It is difficult to convincingly encapsulate the tremendous heroism and devotion illustrated in Betty Mahmoody’s true-life story, Not Without My Daughter.
Betty Lover met and married Dr Sayyed Bozorg Mahmoody, an American- trained anesthesiologist born in Iran, while they were both living in Michigan. When their little girl, Mahtob, was nearly five years old, Dr Mahmoody (whose nickname was “Moody”) decided that his family should visit his homeland. Moody assured his wife that the trip was just to introduce her and Mahtob to his relatives; but what started out as a two-week family reunion turned into a two- year nightmare.
Although his marriage to Betty seemed to be built on caring and love, the few years in America had been difficult ones for Moody. After he was hit with a malpractice suit that put him out of a job for a year, Betty recognized her husband’s deep depression. Maybe it was these feelings of low self-worth that helped to ignite his sudden interest in the political affairs of his own country. At any rate, after the news that the Shah had been ousted from Iran, Moody’s longing for his homeland intensified. Even his attitude toward America seemed to sour.
When Betty, Moody and Mahtob first arrived in Iran, they stayed with Moody’s sister, Ameh Bozorg, and her family, whom Moody had not seen for years. The Bozorgs were strictly religious Muslims, getting up early in the morning to utter their Islamic prayers and to study the Koran.
Iran’s hot summer enervated Betty. The heat was even more unbearable with the many pieces of clothing she was forced to wear.
In male-dominated Iran a woman was expected to show modesty by wearing a chador – a large, half-moon shaped cloth entwined around the shoulders, forehead, and chin – designed to reveal only her eyes, nose and mouth. A large scarf tied in front completely covered the neck, and a montoe (a long coat with no waistline) was worn over everything else, covering her entire body. If a woman went out on the streets improperly dressed, the pasdar, a special police force stopped and harassed her.
Betty writes: “It was difficult for me to comprehend this insistence upon propriety. Women nursed their babies in plain view, caring little how much they revealed of their bosoms, as long as their heads, chins, wrists, and ankles were covered.”
Americans were looked upon with suspicion and disgust, as members of a corrupt society. Iranian news depicted America as the “Great Satan.” Furthermore, Betty automatically lost her rights as an American citizen once she touched Iranian soil.
At times she was forced to cover up even inside her home. One evening a religious leader came to the door and Betty was asked by her husband to cover herself: “There was … no opportunity to object to Moody’s demand that I wear a chador, but as I donned the cumbersome robe I realized that it was filthy. The veil that covers the lower part of the face was caked with dried spittle. I had seen no handkerchiefs or tissues in the household. What I had seen was the women using these veils instead. The smell was repulsive.”
Betty’s sister-in-law, Ameh, thought it utterly wasteful to shower everyday; she rarely bathed and always seemed to wear the same clothes. There was also a lack of cleanliness in the kitchen, which even upset Moody: “A pot of food stewed incessantly on the stove for the convenience of anyone who was hungry. Many times I saw people take a taste from a large ladle-like spoon, allowing the residue from their mouths to drip back into the pot or simply dribble onto the floor.
Countertops and floors were honeycombed with trains of sugar left by careless tea drinkers. The roaches flourished in the kitchen as well as in the bathroom.” Betty would find quantities of bugs in every cupful of cooked rice.
Then, one day, hoping that the long-extended vacation had finally come to an end, Betty was informed that a mistake had been made: someone had forgotten to confirm their flight reservations, and they had been cancelled. Betty realized what she had not wanted to believe until then: her husband had planned this all along. “Moody held our American and Iranian passports as well as our birth certificates.” Now all her fears were confirmed – Betty and her daughter could not leave Iran. Moody would never allow it.
Moody had turned into a jail-keeper. He watched Betty’s every move and, whenever he went out, he had his sister’s family stand watch over her. Finally, one afternoon when everyone in the house was napping, Betty took Mahtob into her arms and quietly walked out. She presumed she could seek asylum at the US Interest Section of the Swiss Embassy (the US Embassy having been closed since the Shah’s departure). But when Betty arrived at the Swiss Embassy she met Helen, an Iranian woman dressed in Western style clothing:
“Give us refuge here,” Betty pleaded. “Then find some way to get us home.”
“What are you talking about?” Helen responded. “You cannot stay here! … You are an Iranian citizen.”
“No, I’m an American citizen.”
“You are Iranian,” Helen repeated, “and you have to abide by Iranian law.”
Betty wrote: … From the moment I married an Iranian I became a citizen under Iranian law. Legally, both Mahtob and I were, indeed, Iranian. The simple, chilling fact was that Mahtob and I were totally subject to the laws of this fanatical patriarchy.
Helen further informed Betty that even if there were any chance of her getting out, no one would risk smuggling a child. But Betty insisted, “I would not return to America alone, not without my daughter.”
Throughout her stay in Iran, many of the people who tried to help Betty exit told her the same thing: she would have to leave her child. And Betty always responded the same way: she would never leave Mahtob in Iran.
There were times when Betty hardly recognized the man she had married. Moody’s attitudes altered almost hourly. His treatment of Mahtob pushed the child away from him. He would experience fits of anger, swearing at them both and sometimes beating them. Things gradually grew worse. Once, when Mahtob became very ill, Moody took her away and locked Betty up in a small room. Through jet attack air raid sirens and antiaircraft fire, Betty described her solitary, dark state:
I paced back and forth in anguish, not bothering to protect myself. … I cried for my daughter, the deepest darkest, most painful tears I had ever – would ever – could ever – shed.
After this incident, Betty often found herself praying that Moody would die. However, she reversed her wish upon examining Iran’s constitution, which stated that if Moody died “Mahtob would not belong to me. Rather, she would become the custodial child of Moody’s closest living relative, Ameh Bozorg!” With seemingly nowhere to turn, “I [silently] renewed my vow. I would get us out. Both of us. Somehow, someday.”
Betty now began to stroke Moody’s ego and build up his trust in her. On one occasion, as he searched for a decent apartment for them, she said, “Things will work out. At least we have one another. … ” “Yes,” Moody replied as he hugged and kissed his wife.
And during the few minutes of passion that followed I was able to disassociate myself from the present. At that moment my body was simply a tool that I would use, if I had to, to fashion freedom.
Betty commenced making friends and secret contacts, working around appointments, shopping trips or visits to the park. There was Hamid, the owner of a menswear store, who allowed her to use his phone. There was Mrs Alavi, who, with her brother, also tried to help. And finally, there was Amahl, businessman and part-time smuggler, who laid his life and his money on the line to organize her eventual escape.
Others were more than willing to assist her, but for a terrible price. Several times people came to her with elaborate escape schemes, which Betty declined to attempt because of the dangers involved. Instead, she waited patiently, calling Amahl every day to see what he had been able to arrange.
One day Moody told Betty that he had obtained an exit visa and wanted her to go back to liquidate their assets in America. She understood only too well that what he really wanted was for her to return alone, without Mahtob. Betty was frantic. The plans Amahl had tentatively made for her to flee through Pakistan had been put on hold because of bad weather; and she sensed that if she left, Moody would never let her back to see Mahtob again.
Only three days before she was to leave, Betty, with Mahtob, went into hiding. Amahl, still without all of his secondary contacts lined up, instructed her to phone Moody and tell him that she would only come home after the plane on which she was scheduled had left. This interlude bought Amahl and Betty enough time to fine-tune the details of her escape.
Since Moody had been practicing medicine in Iran without a license, Betty used his belief that she would turn him in to the authorities to keep him from going to the police. She also kept him hanging on to the hope that she would return with his daughter. Meanwhile, Amahl finalized the intricate chain of people and events that would take them from “hell” to “heaven.”
So, putting all her trust in Amahl and his line of contacts, Betty and Mahtob, clinging to each other’s courage, set out for their long, arduous journey: through villages, past menacing border guards, and over precarious snowy mountain passes; traveling on foot, by truck, car, bus, and horseback; in the company of men who could have, at any time, abandoned them, raped them, or slit their throats.
Finally, frozen, exhausted, and near starvation, they plodded and stumbled over the mountains into Turkey. From there they traveled on to freedom and family – to America.