American flag was 'point of safety' for mother, daughter held prisoner in Iran
March 26, 2010
- Betty Mahmoody's experiences as a prisoner in Iran are the basis of her Pulitzer Prize nominated book "Not Without My Daughter."
- "That American flag was a point of safety for me. When I saw the American flag and touched it, I then felt safe."
- "I pleaded, cried, begged, screamed. He said 'I will send your ashes back to America. I will burn an American flag over your casket."
- The Swiss embassy told Mahmoody 'You are an Iranian citizen. You have to return to your husband and abide by Iranian law.'
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- In the last scene of the movie "Not Without My Daughter," an American flag is seen fluttering in the wind outside the U.S. embassy in Turkey.
It's a patriotic scene that Betty Mahmoody fought for during the production of the movie, which is based on the true story of her 18-month imprisonment in Iran by her Iranian-born husband, and the daring escape she and her daughter made.
"You can't imagine how hard I worked with filmmakers to get that scene," she said, adding that producers felt the scene was too quaint and corny for the movie. "That American flag was a point of safety for me. When I saw the American flag and touched it, I then felt safe."
Her story began when, despite serious reservations, Mahmoody visited Iran in 1984 on a family vacation with her husband, an American-educated doctor, and their 4-year-old daughter, Mahtob. When it came time to return, Mahmoody's husband told them they would remain in Iran for the rest of their lives.
Her experiences as a prisoner of a husband rededicated to his Shiite Muslim faith and her 500-mile escape from an embattled country whose citizens were taught to hate America were the basis of her Pulitzer Prize nominated and bestselling book "Not Without My Daughter" and a 1991 movie of the same name.
Mahmoody and her daughter, who have lived for years under assumed names for fear that Mahtob would be kidnapped and returned to Iran, were the featured speakers during Team Redstone's Women's History Month 2010 recognition program on March 17.
Speaking to a packed auditorium, Mahmoody said she had no choice but to visit Iran with her husband. At the time, Iran was in a war with Iraq, had recently dismantled its U.S. embassy and held 53 U.S. hostages who were released in 1981, had strict laws that took away the freedoms of women and had come under the militant rule of dictator Ayatollah Khomeini, who spread hatred for Americans through public indoctrination. Americans were advised against traveling to Iran or the Middle East.
"I knew that I had to get on that plane (to Iran) in order to save my daughter," Mahmoody said. "I didn't have a choice. If I didn't go, he (her husband) would have taken her without me and I would never see her again."
Arriving in Teheran was the "biggest culture shock" in Mahmoody's life. Both in dress - women wore long, loose robes called chadors that covered their entire bodies and heads - and lifestyle, Mahmoody felt the oppression of women wherever she went. For two weeks, she participated in family gatherings, where she did not understand the language or the customs.
"When I was packing to come home, I was proud of myself. I thought 'Ah, I did it.' I coped. And I was excited to go home," she recalled. "But then my husband came into the room and told me I was not going home, that I would be in Iran until I died. He said 'You are in Iran now and you will live by my rules.'"
"I fought back. I pleaded, cried, begged, screamed. He said 'I will send your ashes back to America. I will burn an American flag over your casket.'"
From then on, Mahmoody was a prisoner of her husband's family. A month after her captivity, she and her daughter escaped to the Swiss embassy.
"I told Mahtob we were free, we were going home," Mahmoody recalled. "But then the woman at the Swiss embassy told me 'You are an Iranian citizen. You have to return to your husband and abide by Iranian law.'
"No one told me when I married an Iranian how it would affect my citizenship. I became a dual citizen of the U.S. and Iran. But Iran did not recognize dual citizenship. I believed if I traveled anywhere in the world, I could go to an embassy for help. But we don't pack our Constitution in our bags and take it with us."
Mahmoody recalled the beatings she endured, the nights of terror when the city of Teheran was bombed, the rationing of food and all goods, the smelly bathrooms that became the only place of privacy for herself and Mahtob, and the strict control of women and children.
"All reading material had to be approved. I saw young boys taken away at gunpoint (to walk through fields in search of bombs placed by the enemy) because they were playing volleyball, which was forbidden," she said. "There was no freedom of speech. But there also was no freedom to be silent when you were told to speak."
During one particularly rough time, Mahmoody was locked away for two weeks while her young daughter was slowly and unassumingly interrogated by family members.
"She never broke. She never told anyone we went to the embassy. She never told anyone that I was searching for help," Mahmoody said. "They believed her and brought her back to me ... A lot of moms would do what I did for their child. But not many kids can do what she did. It was amazing."
Mahmoody worked to regain the trust of her husband while at the same time searching for Iranians who would help her. Eventually, she met a sympathetic smuggler who helped her and her daughter escape.
"I asked total strangers for help. They were Muslims and Shiites. But they weren't the fundamentalists I lived with. It was amazing how many would risk their lives for us," she said. "I was determined to get us out. I could not let Mahtob grow up in a place where being a prisoner was a way of life."
On Jan. 29, 1986, "God opened a door for us. He didn't just open the door. He gave me the courage to walk through that door," Mahmoody said.
She and her daughter endured the most dangerous route to freedom, traveling through Iran and into Turkey during a time of bad weather and civil war. Mahmoody was threatened with discovery, abuse, rape and death. They had to walk and travel by horseback much of the way, and were shot at by Kurds. She traveled without written permission from her husband and was fortunate enough to elude border officials.
"No one asked for documents until we were in Turkey near the embassy," she said. "Do I believe in miracles' Only by the grace of God did we make it back home ... At the embassy in Turkey, I was sitting under the American flag and I said I would not leave it until they got me on a plane back home."
Though the recollections of Mahmoody's ordeal were riveting, it was her daughter's
childhood memories and her feelings about her time in her father's country that were revealing of a nation struggling against its own people.
"Iran is not bad. Iran is not good. I am proud of my Iranian heritage," Mahtob said. "Not all Iranian families are like my dad's family. Iran is a country of war and government oppression. The Iranian people at the time were suffering at the hands of their own government and the effects of the Iranian war."
Some of her most memorable moments of her time in Iran were of being afraid.
"The sound of my father's footsteps changed," she said. "In America, I was daddy's girl. He was a people person. He was charming. In Iran, he was angry, bitter. I could hear his footsteps coming down the hall, and they were deliberate and angry. I was so frightened. I thought he was going to kill my mother. It is so vivid to me."
Mahtob recalled her school experience, where students had to spit and stomp on the American flag before entering the school courtyard. Students had to march in formations and yell "Death to America" in cadences. They were told what colors to color pictures, and were only allowed to speak the same words and intonations of their teachers during lessons.
"Children were taught to follow, not to think or lead," she said.
Coming back to America was difficult for Mahtob, then 6, who was filled with confusion, anger and hatred toward her father and his country.
"I remember my mom telling me there was a plane crash in Iran that killed Iranians," she said. "I remember saying 'Good. I hope my dad was one of them.'"
"My mom says I'm the heroine of this story. But she is really the heroine. She set aside her feelings and anger, and said 'No way am I going to let her be a prisoner of her own anger.' She took out pictures of my father when he was loving and kind. I didn't want to look at them."
But she did, and the anger and hatred melted, and she remembered her father as someone who would always love her. He died last year.
"My mom allowed me to forgive and go on with my life," she said.
Mahtob is now a grown woman, married to a U.S. Soldier, who will be deploying to a war zone this summer. And she still appreciates and celebrates the freedoms of America.
"What a blessing that we have opportunities here to decide, to make our own decisions. It's overwhelming the amount of freedom we have here. It's incredible," she said.
"Last July, I got married. I decided to marry and who I would marry, and I chose an American Soldier."
In her role as an Army wife, Mahtob teaches a preschool Sunday school class with her husband. Through the children in that class, she has seen the sacrifices they are making for American freedom.
"Most are from military families. They are without their father for a year ... When I see what sacrifices our children are making, it really is amazing. And the most amazing thing is people are doing it voluntarily," she said. "The military is a life of sacrifice. But, more than that, it is a life of honor."
In closing, Mahtob thanked her audience for their sacrifices in supporting Soldiers. And she urged them to "Please pray for world peace."
Redstone commander Maj. Gen. Jim Myles told Mahmoody and her daughter that he was "thankful you shared your story. It helps us understand what we do and that we should appreciate our freedoms."
In his opening comments, Myles said the military is an instrument of change that is showing society that it "has no glass ceilings for females ... You have the power to be all you can be. If you have capabilities to participate at a higher level then you have that opportunity. Our Soldiers deserve the very best people to empower them around the world."
He said America must be the best example to the world of a nation that "empowers its people to be the best they can be."