A recent American college graduate was traveling in Chad, a Muslim-majority nation in North Africa. The pickup truck broke down. Passengers rested in a roadside stand of hammered-together boards. A Chadian man was traveling with his wife. She was fully veiled, in spite of the Saharan heat. Her husband did not speak to her. He controlled her with gestures and sounds, as if she were a dog. At his command, she squatted on the dirt floor, her covered face against an interior wall of the shack. As her husband conversed animatedly with the American, and bought him drinks and snacks, she squatted silently, hour after hour, probably both hungry and thirsty, until another conveyance arrived.
It’s been thirty years since that young American told me that story. I think of that squatting, silenced, shrouded Chadian woman often. I think of millions of other captives like her. One of the first things I saw in Africa, before I had even unpacked my bags, was a female genital mutilation ceremony. Peace Corps Volunteers tend to be young Kennedys: very left-wing, often affluent and recent graduates of elite colleges who make worshipful references to progressive professors and other heroes. How did volunteers reconcile their culturally relativistic ideals that forbade any condemnation of non-Western culture, with the non-Western world’s often atrocious treatment of women? This is how. They told themselves and each other, “The women here like how things are. These women are happy.”
In private and in whispers, village women in Africa and Asia confided secrets to me that did not square with this item of Peace Corps dogma. When I published village women’s transgressive truths in essays, one of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers threatened to beat me up. A Peace Corps trainer accused me of being a “terrorist.”
Mahtob Mahmoody is the eponymous daughter of the 1987 international publishing phenomenon, Not Without My Daughter, and the 1991 film by the same name. Not Without My Daughter tells the story of Betty and Dr. Sayyed Mahmoody. Betty and “Moody” met and married in the US. He had been charming and Westernized. He drank alcohol, forbidden in Islam. After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, he became a zealous, observant Muslim. Exploiting first amendment rights to freedom of speech, Moody organized demonstrations against the United States. In 1984, the Mahmoody family traveled to his native country. In Iran, Moody told Betty that he’d never let her leave. After eighteen months, Betty managed to get herself and her daughter smuggled out of the country.
Betty had asked American officials for help, and her case became a cause célèbre. Neither Betty nor Mahtob ever had the chance of anonymity. The William Morris Agency began aggressively petitioning Betty for a book shortly after her arrival in the US. Betty could escape Moody by disappearing into something like the witness protection program and never having contact with her extended family again, or by using fame to protect her. She opted for fame. She became a published author and campaigner for parents of kidnapped children.
Mahtob is now 36, and able to tell her own story. My Name Is Mahtob is superb. It is more than a page-turner that addresses sensational, headline-making family scandal and international intrigue. It is a flawlessly written, exquisitely intimate memoir of the coming of age of a timid introvert who had to find her own version of strength after fame was thrust upon her. It is a record of how someone who suffers more than outsiders might imagine reconciles her trials with Christian faith. It is a heart-rending account of the irrational ugliness of child abuse, and the Catch-22, dead-end mazes that abusive parents force upon their own innocent children. It is, in places, a terrifying account of being stalked.
If you are a father, I ask you to imagine how your daughter would write of you in her memoir. Through you, your daughter learned how to love and trust a man. Your daughter learned that men have beards, and deeper voices, and are good with tools. In any memoir I’d write of my dad, I’d mention his ferocious dedication, no matter how old he got, to keeping his sidewalks clear of snow. I’d mention my confidence that no matter where or when my car broke down, he’d rescue me.
Young Mahtob Mahmoody, on the other hand, dreams of her father as a wild animal. He is “in midair, paws outstretched, on the verge of tearing my body to shreds. Drool dripped from its fangs … I hugged my Cabbage Patch doll … I had wet the bed.” Mahtob quotes her dad talking to her mother, “If you ever touch the telephone, I’ll kill you … If you ever walk out that door, I’ll kill you … I’ll send the ashes of a burned American flag back over your body.” Mahtob describes Moody beating Betty. “He took clumps of her hair in both hands and brutally bashed her head against the wall.” “His fists pounded into Mom, calling her a saag, a dog, a most detested and filthy creature in the Persian culture.” “I wanted to get away from my dad and his threats, his beatings and the terrifying sound of his angry footsteps.” Mahtob describes her mother sleeping. “first came the snoring, and when the snoring stopped the screaming began. ‘Moody, no,’ she’d beg…She kicked, scratched, and pleaded.”
Even after return to America, Mahtob lived “every day of my life with the intense dread of my world being turned on end with the flip of a switch … the threat of my dad lurked in every shadow.” Eventually, Mahtob is diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus. “I was quite literally under the constant threat of attack from my own flesh and blood.” Mahtob understands the illness as a physical manifestation of the threat her father.
I am reminded of culturally relativistic Peace Corps dogma: “The women here like how things are. These women are happy.” Mahtob Mahmoody certainly did not intend her memoir to be a window into and an indictment of Muslim gender apartheid and patriarchal privilege. It is, unavoidably, that.
Here’s what My Name Is Mahtob is not. It is not an anti-Muslim or anti-Islamic or anti-Iran racist screed. Agitators have accused Not Without My Daughter, both book and film, of being “racist.” Websites that host discussions of the book and the film include comments by angry Muslims that the story is the product of all-powerful “Zionists;” see, for example, here. In fact the same Western publishers and audiences who championed Not Without My Daughter also supported very affectionate depictions of Muslim father-daughter relationships in the critically acclaimed and financially successful I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.
Betty Mahmoody loved her husband and his world. Many Iranian Muslims, from shopkeepers to smugglers to a complete stranger met on a park bench, planned and carried out Betty’s flight to freedom. She can’t name these heroes but she describes them indelibly. No one who has read either book could help but be moved by these heroes’ courage, compassion, and dedication. Mahtob’s Iranian honorary “Uncle” Kombiz is one of the wisest and most endearing characters of her book.
Mahtob is herself proudly half Persian, as she makes clear from the opening to the closing pages of My Name is Mahtob. The Persian No-ruz, or New Year’s custom of haft-sin is the framing device for the entire book. Mahtob, now a mental health professional, diagnoses her father as suffering from the ethnicity-neutral condition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The word “Islam” barely appears. We all know that there are men of all nations and creeds who abuse their wives, and that there are parents everywhere who abuse their children. We know, too, that not all Muslims nor all Iranians abuse their wives and children.
It’s impossible to forget, though, that Moody’s abuse was sanctioned by his religion and his culture. Iranian law and Muslim custom supported his absolute dominance. Mahtob does not mention this, but Koran 4:34 advises men to beat their wives, and male dominance in the household is so thorough in Islamic jurisprudence that even a woman’s breast milk is her husband’s property. Moody’s extended family watched him beat Betty and did not intervene. Mahtob watched Iranian boys and girls play house; the boys ordered the girls around. The girls allowed their chadors to slip, and the boys threatened them with punishment for this infraction.
After Betty and Mahtob escaped, Moody, still in Iran, deputized allies in the US to stalk Mahtob. One stalker broke into her apartment and left his scatological calling card in her toilet. There were hang-up phone calls, gunshots, and the disappearance of a family dog. Mahtob had to live with the fear of being the victim of an honor killing.
Moody could not bring himself to apologize to Mahtob, even as he obsessed on her accomplishments. It was important to him publicly to claim a relationship to a daughter who had been named valedictorian of her college class. When he finally phoned, all he could say is that Mahtob is Muslim, and he will never allow her to be anything but Muslim. She responded sarcastically, “I thought he might say he misses me and he hopes I’m happy.”
Moody’s inability to apologize, his insistence on dominating Mahtob’s spiritual life, and his grandiose obsession with worldly markers of success are certainly the signatures of narcissism, but they will also be familiar to anyone who has read Raphael Patai’s The Arab Mind and Bernard Lewis’ What Went Wrong and The Crisis of Islam. These books discuss the importance of honor and the discomfort many Muslims feel when confronting the gulf between the economic and cultural failings of their own nations and the advance of the rest of the world, and attempts to compensate for shame with grandiosity.
Mahtob uses Christian disciplines like forgiveness, gratitude, love and prayer to find peace. Moody’s Islam did not bequeath to him the incredible graces of unconditional love, humility, and ritualized confession. To his last, Moody cultivated anger, self-pity, and revenge. He obsessed on Betty and Mahtob, but he could never experience that peace that he would have known had he merely humbly confessed to his loved ones that he had failed, he had hurt them, and he needed to be forgiven. He could not love Mahtob no matter what she decided to be; he had to love a Mahtob who submitted to Islam.
Though Mahtob gives every indication that she does not want her book to be a microcosm of Islamic gender relations and relations between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds, it is. Even the paranoid and hostile reaction of too many Islam-apologists to the books is a reflection of Islam’s lack of emphasis on confession and forgiveness and the excessive emphasis on keeping up worldly appearances of grandeur. Betty and Mahtob are telling true stories that need to be told. It will benefit Muslims when they can say, “We welcome these women’s testimony. Their frankness will help us to clean our own house.”
In addition to her personal story, Mahtob offers insightful descriptions of both Iran and the US. Mahtob describes being a child in Iran. The Pasdar, or virtue police, armed with automatic weapons, threaten women whose socks droop. Schoolchildren are daily forced to desecrate an American flag and chant “Death to America.” They are also encouraged to inform on mothers who don’t wear hijab at home and parents who drink alcohol or listen to music. In class there is only chanting by rote, no questioning, no working through intellectual challenges. Given a plastic “key to paradise,” many Iranian children are seduced into the suicidal service of clearing landmines. Gunshots are a common sound; there are public executions and there are simple disappearances. These passages bring to mind George Orwell’s 1984 and Bernard Lewis’ essay “Communism and Islam.”
It would be nice if Mahtob could report that she never encounters such indoctrination in American schools; such is not the case. Mahtob’s American professor asks her how the universe came to be. God created it, Mahtob replies. Her American professor “berates, humiliates, and cruelly rebukes” her so badly that other students approach Mahtob after class to comfort her. Mahtob learns that the famous quote about not agreeing with an opinion, but defending to the death the right to express an opinion, does not apply on American college campuses. “Christianity had become taboo. I vowed never to open my mouth in class again … Maybe this class is a means to an end. Maybe it’s better to just keep quiet, pass the class, and move on.”
My Name Is Mahtob is one of those memoirs that is so well written that this reader found it impossible not to come to love the author. Mahtob is a quiet introvert and one senses how hard it was for her to get this story down, and to share it with the world. She has aroused in this reader not just awe for her writing skills, and compassion for all she has endured, but also gratitude.