Two decades ago, millions of readers worldwide thrilled to the story told in the international bestseller Not Without My Daughter—subsequently made into a film starring Sally Field—that told of an American mother and her six-year-old child’s daring escape from an abusive and tyrannical Iranian husband and father. Now the daughter returns to tell the whole story, not only of that imprisonment and escape but of life after fleeing Tehran: living in fear of re-abduction, enduring recurring nightmares and panic attacks, attending school under a false name, battling life-threatening illness—all under the menacing shadow of her father.
This is the story of an extraordinary young woman’s triumph over life-crushing trauma to build a life of peace and forgiveness. Taking readers from Michigan to Iran and from Ankara, Turkey, to Paris, France, My Name Is Mahtob depicts the profound resilience of a wounded soul healed by faith in God’s goodness and in his care and love. And Mahmoody reveals the secret of how she liberated herself from a life of fear, learning to forgive the father who had shattered her life and discovering joy and peace that comes from doing so.
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|Publisher:||Nelson, Thomas, Inc.|
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My Name Is Mahtob
A Daring Escape, a Life of Fear, and the Forgiveness that Set Me Free
By Mahtob Mahmoody
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2015 Mahtob Mahmoody
All rights reserved.
Thirty-two moves in as many years. This last transition has been perhaps my most joyful. For the first time I am a homeowner. I have put down roots and resolved to stay put a little longer than usual — I hope. I sit in my sunroom basking in the rays of light that stream in through the windows. A mug of my favorite Berres Brothers coffee, creamy with milk, warms my hands and I think, How is it that I should be so blessed?
Outside the birds sing their thanks for newly hung feeders brimming with seeds. Spring in Michigan is magnificent. The snow has receded, laying bare a blanket of matted brown earth tinged with wisps of yellowish-green. Beside me stands an end table resplendent with the illustrative trinkets of No-ruz, the Persian New Year celebration. Known as the haft sin — literally the "seven s's," — this symbolic table setting serves as a map of ancient wisdom intended to guide the transition from one year to the next. Chief among the tasks of No-ruz is cleansing: cleansing one's mind of negativity, cleansing one's body, and even cleansing one's home.
I sip my coffee and feel a surge of ambition. I don't know if it's all the chatter of spring cleaning or the sight of my haft sin, but today, I decide, will be the day I tackle the last few boxes thrown in the basement marked "misc." Three months is long enough to ignore them.
I make my way down to the basement, feeling more than a little delighted that these softly carpeted steps actually belong to me. Lingering at the sliding glass door in the empty room that will one day be a den, I inspect the nearly vacant strip of dirt along the perimeter of my patio. Just the first hints of tulips and daffodils poke through the semifrozen soil. The lilac bushes are still bare. I look forward to filling this space with flowers and herbs, maybe even some tomato plants. That however, is a task for another day.
At the back end of the basement is an unfinished section, a perfect hiding place for clutter. Even before I open the door, a sigh escapes. There aren't that many boxes to unpack, I tell myself walking in. I'll feel better once this is done.
My workstation is ready for me. There's even a box waiting at the end of the folding table begging to be opened. Digging in, I find letters, newspaper clippings, photos, ticket stubs, the red keychain I won at my high school talent competition — random items of little or no worth other than their sentimental value. That is why these boxes are so difficult to unpack. They're filled with relics of my past that don't quite fit into my present, yet I can't let them go.
I sift through the layers, spotting memories that span the length of my life, and realize this is not going to be a quick task. It will require a comfortable chair and another cup of coffee. Balancing the box on my hip, I turn off the light, close the door, and head upstairs to the sunroom.
The first thing that captures my attention there is a photo album. Its cover is dark blue with a smattering of stars and a yellow crescent moon, because "Mahtob means moonlight." I smile as I think of my friends teasing me with that movie line. As I lift the book from the box, an envelope slips out, and my mind wanders back several years earlier to the last time I tried to finish filling it.
I was working then as the community relations liaison for a mental health organization in Michigan. I loved my job, my coworkers, my town, my quirky and eclectic group of friends. Life was good but just incredibly busy. When the opportunity came to get away for a long weekend, I jumped at it, and on a whim, as I packed, I threw in this album and the envelope of photographs. As the plane took off, I started loading the stack of pictures into the album and contemplated why I just couldn't find time for these little chores at home. Does life really need to be so busy, I wondered amid the roar of the plane's engine.
As soon as I had a place of my own, my sentimental mother had begun filling my house with carloads of treasures from all aspects of my heritage, including boxes filled with a lifetime of loose photographs. Brazenly bounding across the backs of the photos that marked the first months of my life was the stamp of a fox — the same fox that haunted my dreams in the years following our escape. It was just his outline printed in red ink, but the likeness was unmistakable. He lunged through the air with paws outstretched, ears back, tail extended behind him. Beneath him in block letters were the words Fox Photo.
The pictures I had with me on the plane were more recent. They hadn't been developed at Fox Photo. I knew there would be no predator on their backs and yet, without giving it a thought, I checked anyway. It was an unconscious habit born of a lifetime of hypervigilance. It is no coincidence this was the image my mind captured in childhood as a symbol of my father. He was, after all, the photographer of the family, and I was his favorite subject. My life very easily could have turned out differently. I wonder who I would have become if things had gone according to my father's plan.
I was lost in my memories when the glamorous woman seated beside me began to chat. I had noticed her immediately as she boarded the plane. She had a striking presence, dressed all in black except for her leopard-print stilettos. She carried an oversized satchel and a trendy straw hat. Her short blonde hair was held back with a pair of giant designer sunglasses. As often happens with me, the conversation quickly turned to literature, and before long I was scribbling her reading recommendations into the margin of the book of New York Times crossword puzzles I had brought with me for the trip: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, The Help, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.
It didn't take me long to give up on finishing my album. I slipped the rest of the photos back into the envelope and tucked them inside the back cover.
Complete strangers have a habit of pouring their hearts out to me. It's been a part of who I am at least as far back as second grade. My classmates would wait in line for their turn to swing beside me and, as we say in the mental health world, "process their feelings." If I didn't know better, I'd think there was a thought bubble floating above my head that read, "Psychiatric Help 5¢" or a placard hanging from my neck that proclaimed, "The Doctor Is In," in the style of Lucy in the Peanuts cartoon.
My seatmate and I talked nonstop for the rest of the flight and by the time we landed, we had covered The Glass Castle, Water for Elephants, and The Secret Life of Bees like long-lost friends.
"So how long's your layover?" she asked as we waited our turn to join the stampede toward the exit.
"About two hours."
"Then you have time for lunch." It wasn't a question.
I protested, but she was insistent. We made our way to a restaurant, where our conversation continued over wine and seafood. One topic led to the next, and soon this beautiful woman found herself telling me about a heartrending experience from her past. For years she had carried the emotional burden of her experience in silence, not sharing her pain with even her closest friends.
As her eyes filled with tears, I couldn't help but think of the tattered black picture frame that sat on the corner of my desk at work. On a sheet of ivory linen stationary, I had printed the words of "The Weaver's Poem." They were inscribed exactly as my friend Hannah taught them to me on the day of our high school graduation. I had been eighteen then, and it had been one of the saddest days of my life.
These certainly were dark threads that my new friend described. And like all threads, I was convinced, there was a blessing in them somewhere, whether we could see it or not.
"I can't believe I'm telling you these things," she sniffled. "I feel like I've known you for years, and I just realized I don't even know your name."
"My name is Mahtob," I said with a smile, reaching across the table to shake her hand with feigned formality.
"Mahtob. What a beautiful name. What's its origin?"
"Persian, like Iranian?"
I answered, sipping my Riesling. "My dad was from Iran."
"I read an interesting book several years ago," she began, dabbing her eyes with her cloth napkin. I knew instantly where this was heading. "It was about a woman from Michigan actually. She married a man from Iran. He took her and their young daughter back to visit his family and held them hostage. There was a war going on, and there were bombings. This really happened. Can you even imagine? The mother and daughter finally escaped. It was an amazing story — they even made a movie. What was it called?"
"Not Without My Daughter."
"Yes, Not Without My Daughter. That's it. Have you read it?"
"No." I chuckled. "I lived it!"CHAPTER 2
The tapestry of my life began in Texas in 1979, on the cusp of the Iranian Revolution and in the midst of a hurricane. On the day I was born, September 4, the front page of the Houston Chronicle announced, "David Smashes Central Fla. Coast." The barometric pressure drop from a tropical storm that made landfall more than a thousand miles away was enough to bring me into the world a month ahead of schedule.
Hurricane David was minor compared to the storm brewing even farther away in my father's homeland. A good part of the Chronicle's seventh page that day was dedicated to Iran's ongoing military skirmish — "Iranian Troops Breach Kurdish Defense Lines." From the article it was clear the secular democrats were crumbling under the lethal force of the rising Islamic regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini. The eye of the revolution's storm may have hit seventy-five hundred miles away, but it dealt a catastrophic blow in my family's home.
My dad, Sayyed Bozorg Mahmoody, had left his country at the age of eighteen to study English in London. From there he moved to the United States to attend university. Enjoying the world of academia, he became a university math professor, then an engineer. He worked for NASA in the 1960s. Then he went to medical school. Apparently still thirsting for knowledge, he went on to complete his residency in anesthesia.
My parents met in Michigan in 1974 while he was doing an internship at Carson City Hospital. Mom worked nearby in the administrative side of the automotive industry that at that time was thriving in the state. They married and moved to Texas in the summer of 1977.
At the time of the Iranian Revolution, my dad changed. His mild-mannered, charismatic charm was instantly replaced with a violent shade of political extremism. Once a lover of "the West" and the opportunities it offered, he now vehemently condemned the United States and everything for which it stood.
Mom had known him only as a nonpracticing Muslim. That, too, changed with the revolution. She was shocked when he came home one day and threw out all the alcohol in the house. He was the one who was accustomed to imbibing it, yet she was the one he castigated because of the evils of these spirits. From that day on he insisted she buy only kosher food, as it was as close to halal (food sanctioned by Islamic law) as was available, and his fervent anti-American rants became commonplace.
There's a picture of me as an infant — one of the many images bearing the mark of the fox. I'm cradled in the arms of a young man whose head is wrapped in a white gauze bandage. He was one of the dozens of Iranian men who brought the Iranian Revolution to the streets of Texas. My dad was their leader.
While taking full advantage of the US Constitution's assurance of the freedom of speech, my father helped organize demonstrations that lambasted the United States, which he saw as having a Westernizing and immoralizing influence on his country. The irony is confounding. The man holding me in the picture had been stabbed in the head while marching in an anti-American protest my father had helped facilitate.
My parents and I moved to Michigan when I was six months old. My mother, fed up with my father's fanaticism, had threatened divorce. In an effort to salvage the marriage, he promised to leave the cause of revolution behind and to make a fresh start in Mom's home state. That would prove to be just another promise he neglected to keep.
Michigan looks like a mitten. Ask anyone from Michigan where they live and, as if compelled by an innate reflex, they'll lift their hand and point to the precise freckle or knuckle or hangnail that represents their location. I've lived all over the mitten, but from the time I was six months old until I was four, I lived near the uppermost joint of the pointer finger, in Alpena.
The east side of my state is fondly referred to as the sunrise side. It is practical, spartan, and built on industry, as opposed to the sunset side of the state, where the coastline has been commercialized and the economy built on tourism. It would be many years before I would learn that what smelled like home to me as a child was really the saccharine odor of pollution escaping the massive smokestacks of the Abitibi-Price mill, which manufactured wall paneling.
My family's house was on Thunder Bay River. The water that flowed through our backyard wound its way along the banks of my favorite park, past Alpena General Hospital, where my dad worked as an anesthesiologist, through town, and over the Ninth Street Dam before emptying into Thunder Bay. From the pier at the marina, you could gaze out over the open water and watch the giant freighters inch their way toward the horizon, loaded down with the stuff of industry. Somewhere out there on the water was an invisible border where Thunder Bay washed into Lake Huron. And beyond the line where the sky and the water met was Canada.
The park at the bend of the river was one of my favorite spots. Mom took me there to feed the birds, and it was through such experiences that she passed on her love of ornithology. Whereas some parents would draw a young child's attention to "the pretty birdie," my parents, both eager to impart their wisdom, taught me the proper names of each species. We saw Canada geese, swans, herons, and all kinds of ducks. When the weather warmed, we watched robins pull worms from the soil to eat. The spotting of the first robin of the year was pure joy, signaling the close of northern Michigan's seemingly endless winter and the birth of spring, which would give way to an all-too-brief summer.
The first babysitter I remember was Patty, a teenager who lived across the street. She was one of a host of family friends who liked to polish my fingernails. I loved having my nails painted. Though young, I happily sat still and soaked up their pampering. There are photos where I'm barely big enough to stand beside the coffee table, yet I have glittery red fingernails and gold stud earrings. My parents had pierced my ears when I was just six weeks old. Mom marked my earlobes and Dad pulled the trigger on the piercing gun. Mom cried more than I did.
Besides painting my nails, Patty took me to a ceramics studio to paint pottery. She chose a bud vase for me to decorate. She worked in shimmery pastels appropriate for the decade, while I went for one of my two favorite colors, grape purple. My other favorite, of course, was ballerina pink.
The kitchen is the heart of the home, and that truth has been one of the few constants in my life. Many of my earliest recollections revolve around the kitchen. At two or three, I sat on the linoleum floor with a wooden spoon, stirring orange juice in an avocado green Rubbermaid pitcher, chasing the frozen chunk of concentrate around until it dissolved. All the while, Mom fluttered to and fro flipping eggs, frying hash browns, buttering toast as it popped out of the toaster, and not minding one bit that I had sloshed juice on the floor. Making messes is how children learn to cook, and it was important to her that I felt at home in the kitchen.
Another time I remember giggling with Mom over my dad and his silly, self-imposed misery. He loved spicy food, the kind that cleans out your sinuses and makes you sweat. On this particular occasion he sat at our kitchen table crunching raw hot peppers until his mouth was afire and his face flushed. He mopped the perspiration off the top of his bald head with a handkerchief, huffing and puffing, yet clearly exhilarated by the experience. He wore a pale blue Lacoste shirt with the signature green alligator appliqué on the chest.
Excerpted from My Name Is Mahtob by Mahtob Mahmoody. Copyright © 2015 Mahtob Mahmoody. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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