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Journey Into Darkness and Despair : A Nightmare Awaits a Family of Three Returning to Iran

In the summer of 1984, Betty Mahmoody, her daughter, Mahtob, and husband, Sayyed Bozorg (Moody) Mahmoody left the United States for what was to be a two-week vacation to her husband's native Iran. Betty did not want to go to Tehran; her marriage had been rocky for several months and she was contemplating divorce. Her greatest fear, however, was that if she divorced her husband, he would simply take their daughter to Iran and she would never see her again. Betty Mahmoody gambled that a two-week vacation would be the beginning of a reconciliation. In this, the first of a five-part excerpt from the book, "Not Without My Daughter," she describes the nightmare it became instead. Next: The embassy can't help us.

November 26, 1987|BETTY MAHMOODY and WILLIAM HOFFER | From " Not Without My Daughter ," by Betty Mahmoody with William Hoffer. Copyright 1987, Betty Mahmoody and William Hoffer. Reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press Inc

My 4-year-old daughter dozed in her seat next to the window of a British Airways jetliner, her red-brown curls encircling her face, tumbling haphazardly below her shoulders. They had never been cut.

It was Aug. 3, 1984.

My darling child was exhausted from our extended journey. We had left Detroit on Wednesday morning, and as we neared the end of this final leg of the trip, the sun was already rising on Friday.

'You Better Get Ready'

My husband, Moody, glanced up from the pages of the book that rested upon his paunch. He pushed his glasses up to his balding forehead. "You better get ready," he said.

I unbuckled my seat belt, grabbed my purse and made my way down the narrow aisle toward the lavatory in the rear of the airplane.

This is a mistake, I said to myself. If only I could get off this plane right now. I locked myself in the restroom and glanced into the mirror to see a woman on the ragged edge of panic.

I freshened my makeup, trying to look my best, trying to keep my mind busy. I did not want to be here, but I was, so now I had to make the best of it. Perhaps these two weeks would pass quickly. Back home in Detroit, Mahtob would start kindergarten classes at a Montessori school in the suburbs. Moody would immerse himself in his work. We would begin work on our dream house.

Just get through these two weeks, I told myself. I hunted through my purse for the pair of heavy black panty hose Moody had instructed me to buy. I pulled them on and smoothed the skirt of my conservative dark green suit over them.

Once more I glanced at my reflection, dismissing the thought of running a brush through my brown hair. Why bother? I asked myself. I donned the heavy green scarf Moody said I must wear whenever we were outdoors. Knotted under my chin, it made me look like an old peasant woman.

What was an American woman doing flying into a country that had the most openly hostile attitude toward Americans of any nation in the world? Why was I bringing my daughter to a land that was embroiled in a bitter war with Iraq?

Try as I might, I could not bury the dark fear that had haunted me ever since Moody's nephew, Mammal Ghodsi, had proposed this trip. A two-week vacation anywhere would be endurable if you could look forward to returning to comfortable normalcy. But I was obsessed with a notion that my friends assured me was irrational--that once Moody brought Mahtob and me to Iran, he would try to keep us there forever.

Oppressive Heat

We stepped off the airplane into the overwhelming, oppressive summer heat of Tehran--heat that seemed to physically press down upon us as we walked across a stretch of Tarmac from the plane to a bus waiting to transport us to the terminal. And it was only 7 o'clock in the morning.

Mahtob clung to my hand firmly, her big brown eyes taking in this alien world. As we entered the airport terminal, stepping into a large reception room, we were struck quickly by another disagreeable sensation--the overpowering stench of body odor, exacerbated by the heat. I hoped that we could get out of there soon, but the room was jammed with passengers arriving from several flights, and everyone pushed and shoved toward a single passport control desk, the only exit from the room.

Some four hours after our plane had landed, we stepped outside. Immediately Moody was engulfed in a mob of robed, veiled humanity that clawed at his business suit and wailed in ecstasy. More than 100 of his relatives crowded around, screaming, crying, pumping his hand, embracing him and kissing him, kissing me, kissing Mahtob. Everyone seemed to have flowers to thrust at Mahtob and me. Our arms were soon full.

Why am I wearing this stupid scarf? I wondered. My hair was matted to my scalp.

Tears of Joy

Moody wept tears of joy as his sister, Ameh Bozorg, clung to him. She was cloaked in the omnipresent heavy black chador, but I recognized her from photographs anyway.

Moody's parents, both of them physicians, had died when he was only 6, and his sister had raised him as her own son. Now Moody introduced us and she poured out her affection on me, hugging me tightly, smothering me with kisses, chattering all the while in Farsi. Moody was her little boy once again.

As the days passed, Ameh Bozorg grew less cordial. She complained to Moody about our wasteful American habit of showering every day. In preparation for our visit she had gone to the hamoom, the public bath--for the ritual that takes a full day to complete. She had not bathed since that time, and obviously did not intend to do so in the foreseeable future. She and the rest of her clan dressed in the same clothes day after day, despite the drenching heat.

"You cannot take showers every day," she said.

"We have to take showers every day," Moody replied,

"No," she said. "You wash all of the cells off of your skin and you will get a cold in your stomach and be sick."

The argument ended in a draw. We continued to shower daily; Ameh Bozorg and her family continued to stink.

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