Book review: My Name Is Mahtob

Billy O’Callaghan reads the sequel to Not Without My Daughter — My Name is Mahtob — the account of a mother and child’s escape from Ayatollah Khomeni’s Iran, back to a world of book deals and celebrity interviews.

Mahtob Mahmoody

Sphere, £14.99;

e-book, £7.80

IN 1984, an American woman named Betty Mahmoody travelled to Iran with her husband, Sayyed (better known as ‘Moody’) and five-year-old daughter, Mahtob, for what she believed would be a two-week holiday, visiting her in-laws. 

But once the fortnight had passed, Moody, who was holding the family’s passports, made a terrifying announcement: “You are in Iran until you die! Now you’re in my country. You’ll abide by my rules.” 

What followed was an 18-month horror story; while a ferocious war raged with the country’s eternal enemy, Iraq, and with Tehran a constant target for bombing raids, Mahtob and a malnourished and rapidly weakening Betty, virtual prisoners in their tiny apartment home, were forced to endure some of the most brutal physical and mental abuse imaginable. 

But the protective instinct of a mother for her child led to a desperate and audacious plan of escape, by land and at the mercy of others, including mercenary drug smugglers, through the snow-clad mountains to the north, and eventually into Turkey.

In 1987, the story was brought to the world’s attention through the shocking and controversial Not Without My Daughter, a book that quickly topped best-sellers lists around the world and would go on to sell a staggering 15 million copies.

Four years later it was adapted, albeit in somewhat less successful fashion, for the big screen, starring Sally Field.

My Name Is Mahtob is an attempt not only to cover the same ground from a different perspective — through the recollections of that earlier story’s title character, the daughter, Mahtob — but also to stand as a consideration of the almost equally traumatic and thoroughly compelling aftermath years. 

A reader familiar with the Not Without My Daughter’s story might feel that the impact of this new volume’s first quarter is inevitably lessened, but as an unflinchingly authentic study of childhood trauma and vulnerability, as well as the enduring quality of the human heart, it is a tale that deserves retelling.

An anecdote kicks things into gear. 

Some years ago, while grabbing the chance of a long weekend away from her busy schedule as a community relations liaison for a Michigan mental health organisation, Mahtob found herself drawn into conversation with a neighbouring flight passenger. 

In answering the woman’s query as to the origin of her name, and at the mention of Iran, a question is put to Mahtob about a remembered book. 

“Not Without My Daughter. That’s it. Have you read it?”

The answer brings a chuckle. 

“No… I lived it!”

From here, recollections unfurl.

Inevitably, being so young, these flashes of past are not always certain of specific details, but the memories that suggest themselves are imbued with a sense of authenticity, fragments so visceral that they teem with flavour, dust and apparently almost constant dread.

For the sake of narration there is a little necessary filling in the background, setting the scene in an effort to explain that while what was soon to happen would come as a thunderous shock, there were certain early warning signals.

The reader learns that Moody had left Iran at eighteen to study English in London, then moved to the United States and, enamoured with academia, became a university maths professor, then an engineer. 

He worked for NASA during the 1960s, then went to medical school and became an anaesthesiologist.

He embraced the lifestyle too, and met Betty in Michigan and they married and moved to Texas in 1977. 

A year later, Mahtob was born, the name in Persian meaning ‘moonlight’, just as the Iranian Revolution was under way. 

Within months the Shah was overthrown and Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile to grab power.

The shift in Moody’s personality was dramatic. Previously a non-practising Muslim, comfortable with the American way of existing, his behaviour now took a dangerous turn.

Keeping to a halal diet and eschewing alcohol quickly escalated to the point where he was organising anti-US demonstrations. 

Finally, under the threat of divorce, he agreed to pull back from the revolutionary movement and to relocate to Betty’s home state of Michigan. 

He retained his faith, but life for the next few years was relatively stable.

The early memories are, to Mahtob, analogous to the snapshots within that red plastic View-Master toy that she so treasured throughout her early childhood, the circular disk studded with slides rotating scenes to each new click. 

What comes to life in her mind’s eye, and on the page, are good days in Thunder Bay, varnishing her fingernails with a wonderful young babysitter in favourite shades of violet or pink, or helping to prepare food for the parties that the family so proudly hosted. 

Later, unhappily celebrating her fifth birthday in Tehran with a crowd of strange relatives and seeing her cake fall to the floor.

And as things worsened, attending school as the odd one out, having to trample a painted pavement image of the Stars and Stripes upon entering the gate and then joining with her classmates in the daily brainwashing chant of “Maag Barg Amrika” — Death to America. 

Or huddling in bed between her parents when the siren sounds to signal yet another coming onslaught of Iraqi bombs. 

Or trying to get between her screaming father and as he dragged her mother by the hair and slammed her head repeatedly into the apartment wall.

“I have no doubt that the memories in my head are my own,” Mahtob writes. 

“They are the pictures of my past captured through the lens of youth and understood first from a child’s perspective.”

Returning home to the embrace of a loving family, Betty and Mahtob soon find themselves at the unexpected centre of a national media frenzy, and the subject of in-depth interviews with the likes of Barbara Walters and Maria Shreiver.

A book deal is offered, with an advance that is too good to be refused, but the sense of dread continues, as mother and daughter struggle to cope with the trauma of what they’ve undergone. 

“My dad’s vow to find us — to kill Mom and take me back to Iran — hung over us and our loved ones.”

What follows then is a second story of survival, one that in its way is just as remarkable as the flight from the Middle East. 

Accompanying Mahtob from her childhood as a quiet, introverted outsider, through hatred, anger and fear into a womanhood defined by sensitivity and compassion is a journey worth miles of bad road. 

In the search to find a place for herself in the world, she has to overcome not only her past, a debilitating illness (following a diagnosis of lupus) and the constant anxiety as to who or what might be lurking in the shadows. 

Her own religious explorations lead to a conversion to Christianity, which helps her endure and ultimately grants her the strength to confront her life’s demons, and to forgive. And in this way, she begins to save herself.

“This book has given me a beautiful gift,” Mahtob writes in the book’s parting epilogue. 

“The memory of the pain and anguish of my past that I have carried with me all these years, I no longer have to carry... I relinquish my mind and my heart from the duty of remembering. 

"Tamoom…it is finished. I am hunted no more. Now I am free.”


Tinfoil hats were the headwear of choice at Keith Barry's enjoyable show, writes Esther N McCarthyREVIEW: Keith Barry at the Everyman in Cork

Columnist and trained counsellor Fiona Caine advises a woman whose husband’s controlling behaviour is making her feel trapped.Ask a counsellor: Why has my husband become so jealous and possessive?

More From The Irish Examiner