Thursday, February 11, 2016

My Name is Mahtob

I only vaguely remembered the escape of mother and daughter from Iran, so when I saw My Nameis Mahtob I was compelled to read it. This is the daughter’s story, based on her memories. Mahtob states expressly that even when she had the chance to read her mother’s book, Not Without My Daughter, she didn’t. She’d lived it and she wanted to move forward. She was nearly six years old when she, along with her American mother and Iranian father, went to Tehran for what was supposed to be a two-week vacation. Betty (mom) wasn’t happy about this because at the time Iran was at war with Iraq and Americans were hated. However, her husband swore upon the Koran that they’ll be back in two weeks. He lied.

Mahtob remembers everything clearly. How her father changed from a loving husband and father to one who was abusive, hitting and threatening them. She was terrified not only by her father but the school teachers and soldiers and bombings. She recounts the 18 months they were in Iran, the local school where she was made to say things like “Death to America” and the soldiers with their guns. They waited patiently for the opportunity to plan an escape. As time wore on, her father became more lax and allowed his wife to do the shopping, a time-consuming chore with much standing and waiting in lines to get the most basic necessities. But this allowed Betty to ask for help from some shopkeepers, and praise God that they didn’t turn her in.
The day of the escape is so vivid in Mahtob’s memory. They got a tiny window of opportunity and under the pretext of buying flowers, they left with only the items Betty threw in her bag. Betty tells Mahtob it is her choice, that if they leave to go to America, they might never see Daddy again. Mahtob considers this and asks for her bunny, her closest companion. Betty is matter-of-fact and lets Mahtob know what the options are: go back to get the bunny and stay here or leave the bunny and go to America. “What do you want to do?
The choice was mine and mine alone.
And she wanted to go home to America.
The escape over the snowy Zagros mountains into Turkey is presented as snapshots of memory.
A busy square – or perhaps a circle – in Tabriz. Traffic everywhere, absolute chaos. Mom and I sit in the backseat.
Mom and I are alone in a ramshackle stable, sitting on the dirt floor.
Riding gingerly along the narrow, icy edge of the mountain, I don’t know if it’s the same night or the same horse or if I’m riding with the same stranger. What I do know is that Mom and I are separated, and I don’t like it.
The first quarter of the book is fascinating and fast-paced because of all that Mahtob remembers living in Iran. But life in the United States isn’t peachy. They live under a constant threat of being found and kidnapped. Even so, Betty writes her memoir as a way to support herself and also gain public protection. She also helps others in similar situations. Mahtob is enrolled in a Lutheran private school and you can see how much the love of Jesus was a balm to this poor, suffering soul. Sometimes I wish she had it before they left Iran, but I am grateful she was consoled by Jesus in due time. It is great testament to Betty’s love that Mahtob is as forgiving as she is. It is Betty who gets Mahtob to embrace her Persian half and remember the good times they had together with Daddy before he turned into a radical Muslim. Mahtob is careful to say that she doesn’t think all Muslims or Iranians are wicked just because her father was the way he was.
The pace slows down as Mahtob recounts growing up in America, the many times they have to move because they are afraid they’ve been found out, of never feeling safe. She feels guilty for putting her friends and extended family in danger. She is trailed by a student for a documentary that her father makes. And if this isn’t difficult enough, she is diagnosed in her early teens with lupus, an auto-immune disease. Mature for her age, she takes responsibility for learning all about managing her disease.  
Her experiences lead Mahtob to study psychology in college. She wants to understand why some people crack and why some are resilient. One of the exercises in her studies is especially therapeutic: counting happy moments, one by one. This was a turning point for her. Mahtob was able to notice the little things that made her happy and it became a habit. She was grateful not just for the big things, like being free, but for the little things as well, like rolling a pomegranate, drinking Turkish coffee, watching children play. This reminds me so very much of Ann Voskamp's One Thousand Gifts.
Towards the end of the book, the narrative is more random. Mahtob shares a variety of thoughts and letters, including a couple from her father, and ends up diagnosing him as having narcissistic personality disorder. She writes, “It doesn’t excuse him. It doesn’t justify him. It doesn’t in any way make what he did okay, but it does help me make sense of it.” Further, she writes, “These letters in so many ways validate my decision to exclude my father from my life… I didn’t need to talk to my dad to make peace with his place in my life. I did that years earlier, and I laboriously repeated the process each time he resurfaced. This was no exception.
I really enjoyed this memoir of two very brave and courageous women. My hope is that Mahtob will have a peaceful life after all she has endured, that no one will try to take up her father's cause (he's deceased) and exact revenge for not being the Muslim daughter he so wanted. 
Thanks to BookLook for providing a review copy. I am posting this on Amazon as well. 


Yanting Gueh said...

Oh wow, I must get to this book.

Mirka Breen said...

I remember the mother's story. How interesting that the daughter told hers. How tragic such families are, divided by religion and politics and personal stife. And to be the child in the middle is heartbreaking.

Vijaya said...

Claudine, you will be inspired by it.
Mirka, I feel a little guilty for enjoying such a story because it is so heartbreaking, but what I really admire is her resilience.

Johnell said...

Looks fascinating. Thank you for sharing.