RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It’s been almost 25 years since a film called “Not Without My Daughter” captured the world’s attention and thrust a Michigan mother and her child into the international spotlight. The movie starred Sally Field and was based on a memoir written by Betty Mahmoody. It’s the true life tale of how Betty agreed to leave the U.S. with her Iranian husband and their daughter to visit his family in Tehran. She thought it was for a short visit, but when they arrived, Betty realized he was never going to let her and her daughter, Mahtob, return to America.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “NOT WITHOUT MY DAUGHTER”)
ALFRED MOLINA: (As Moody) I know it seems harsh but it’s the best thing for all of us. Mahtob could learn real values here.
SALLY FIELDS: (As Betty Mahmoody) No, I won’t stay here. You can’t keep me.
MOLINA: (As Moody) Now you listen to me. You’re in my country now. You’re my wife. You do as I say, you understand me?
MARTIN: After more than a year in Iran, Betty and Mahtob did escape. And they carved out a new life for themselves back in the U.S. Mahtob has now written her own reflections of that harrowing experience. Her new memoir is called “My Name Is Mahtob.” She joins me from member station WGVU in Grand Rapids, Mich. Thanks so much for being with us.
BETTY MAHMOODY: Thank you. It’s my pleasure.
MARTIN: Let’s go back, if we could, to where this story began, the day that you left the U.S. with your parents to go to a Iran. It was 1984. You were 4 years old at the time. The Iranian Revolution had happened just a few years prior and your dad had been swept up in this movement, even though he was living far away from his homeland – he was here in the states with you and your mom. How did he convince you and your mother to come with him? Because it wasn’t exactly a stable time to travel to Iran with a young child.
MAHMOODY: No, not at all, not at all. I was 4 years old. I didn’t really have much of a say in the matter (laughter).
MAHMOODY: My mom was very much apprehensive about going. But she was also afraid that if she didn’t go, my dad would kidnap me and take me. And then she would have no way to get me back.
MARTIN: What happened when you did arrive?
MAHMOODY: Well, at first, it was a two-week vacation. So there was a lot of family and there was (laughter) – it wasn’t entirely seamless. But it was very much a celebration. They were very happy to have us there. They treated us very well.
MARTIN: When did it start to dawn on you that you were not going home?
MAHMOODY: So it was the night before we were to leave to return to America. Mom was packing. And there had been talk about our passports and our papers weren’t in order and, you know, there were issues. But everything was going to work out. It was going to be all right. And then the night before we were to leave, we were in the bedroom. Mom was packing. And my dad came in and said that’s it. We weren’t leaving. We were in Iran until we died. And we were in his country. We had to abide by his rules. And from then on, he was a completely different person. To me, that’s when my daddy died. You know, he was, from that moment on, completely changed.
MARTIN: He was violent. And from time to time, he physically attacked your mom. You described one gripping scene in the book near the beginning of your time in Tehran. And he’s having this violent episode. You – this very young child – you jumped in to try to separate them. That’s a horrible thing for a child to have to witness.
MAHMOODY: It is. It’s wrong on so many levels but, you know, it was. That was the reality of the situation. And it was worse for me to see my dad beating my mom than for him to hit me, and he did that too. I mean – but I would rather he hit me or he throw me across the room than to see him hit her.
MARTIN: The escape story is amazing. I’ll summarize it. The two of you pretended to be on an errand outside of the house. And a string of couriers, essentially, put you in one car, then another car and they drive you to the border. You were smuggled outside of Iran through a perilous journey through the mountains. Eventually, you make your way to Turkey. And from there, the Embassy – the U.S. Embassy – helps you get back to the states. I wonder – I mean, it’s a long, complicated, emotional journey. But can you recall a couple of details that you could share, either moments or emotions, people?
MAHMOODY: Sure, it was very, very cold. The man who helped us – I remember he had a sofa table with little figurines on it. I remember playing with them and listening to him and my mom talking. And I remember being so sad to leave him because this was a symbol of security to me. This was someone safe, someone loving and kind.
MARTIN: You got home. When did you finally stop looking over your shoulder, living with the fear that someone working for your dad or your dad would come to get you?
MAHMOODY: For the first few years after I escaped, I had terrible nightmares. And I felt like he was chasing me in life and he was chasing me in my dreams. There was no peace. But Mom enrolled me in a small parochial school. And there, I learned the lessons of God’s grace and God’s love. And that – they helped me learn to forgive my dad. At the same time, Mom was working really tired hard to help me let go of the hatred that had taken hold of me and help me to love my dad again and remember that he had loved me.
MARTIN: Your father has since passed away. And there was an opportunity you had to see him. You chose not to do that. Why?
MAHMOODY: Well, I think there’s a big difference between forgiveness and trust. You know, I forgave my father very early on, within the first year or two after our escape. And then every time he would reappear in my life, I would have to work through those emotions and, you know, forgive him all over again. And Mom always made sure that I knew that if I wanted to communicate with my father, it was always my decision. She actually really thought it would be good for me. If nothing else, to learn about my family’s health history (laughter). But I didn’t trust him. I know how dangerous he could be when he was provoked. And I knew he would never get from me what he wanted. And it would be torture for him and it would be dangerous for me and for Mom. So really I thought it would do more harm than good.
MARTIN: Mahtob Mahmoody, her new book is called “My Name Is Mahtob.” Thank you so much for talking with us.
MAHMOODY: Thank you. It was an absolute pleasure.
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