NOT WITHOUT MY DAUGHTER A True Story By Betty Mahmoody with William Hoffer St. Martin's Press. 420 pp. $19.95
"You are not leaving Iran. You are here until you die." Betty Mahmoody's husband "pushed my shoulders, slamming me onto the bed ... Was this real? Were Mahtob and I prisoners? Hostages? Captives of this venomous stranger who had once been a loving husband and father?"
If that sounds like an organ roll on the way to further fevered cliche's, Mahmoody, author of "Not Without My Daughter," has a right to pull out the stops. Her situation was real, a considerable horror story of abuse and repression in a land where it's socially acceptable for friends to stand by silently as an emotionally unstable man beats his wife and child.
So readers will cheer as Mahmoody, no shrinking violet, shouts back lustily, "I will get even with you someday," and, three years later, does so in this book. Besides settling her private accounts, she throws into the bargain a riveting inside look at everyday life in the Ayatollah Khomeini's revolutionary paradise and ends up dramatically with an escape over snow-covered Turkish mountains. It's good adventure with a happy ending, and no one should ask for his money back.
In 1984 Mahmoody's husband Sayyed, an American-educated doctor, took her and their 4-year-old daughter Mahtob on a two-week vacation to Iran to meet his family. Her misgivings were confirmed when she found out that, feeling rejected by America and attracted to the tempestuous climate of the Iranian revolution, "Moody" had planned all along that they would never return to the United States.
For 18 months, Betty Mahmoody struggled frantically to hold onto her sanity as she pursued the possibilities for escape from a country where all women, even foreign citizens, are legally their husbands' chattels, and where most of the women cooperate in their own repression. The few avenues that did open up were blocked by her gritty resolve not to leave Mahtob behind. Her progress amounted to hardly more than an increased faith in God and herself until she met Amahl, who for reasons not entirely clear undertook in the nick of time to set them on their way to freedom.
The picture of a bicultural marriage under strain is instructive, and the escape is exciting, but Mahmoody's impressions of life as it is currently lived in Iran are the most interesting aspect of this book, which was written with William Hoffer, coauthor of "Midnight Express."
"No one ever seemed to be happy" in Iran, she maintains, noting too that the omnipresent crowds in the streets seem always to be "scowling." There can be no doubt, from her testimony, that the condition of women is most unhappy. Every aspect of female life is controlled or subject to "criticism," from clothing to the amount of sugar in one's tea. A special police force of women patrols the streets day and night; Mahmoody was stopped twice, once for letting a wisp of hair show, once for wearing wrinkled socks.
Mahmoody has reason to despise Iran and does not always rise above it, but her observations are often perversely interesting, including various insights on the Iranian male ego: For instance, one of her husband's relatives, living in America, would accept no job "unless I can be president of the company," and "Iranian men always open the gifts for the children." The accounts of Iraqi air raids are harrowing.
Mahmoody reports that the State Department knows of more than 1,000 "cases of American women and children held against their will in Iran and other Islamic countries." A pity they can't all share in Mahmoody's good fortune, because, judging by her experience, they can't get a whole lot of help from the United States. The reviewer is a writer and critic living in Cumberland, Md.