Author tells of escape from Iranian captivity

NEW ULM – An American author who wrote an autobiographical memoir “My Name is Mahtob” about her and her mother’s escape from 18 months of captivity in Iran talked to a large crowd at Martin Luther College Wednesday night.

Mahtob Mahmoody, on her own and with her mother, Betty Mahmoody, has spent much of her life sharing a message of hope and inspiration with audiences around the world. Mahtob talked of peace, not hatred; forgiveness, not bitterness; and celebrating the good and bad experiences of life that mold character.

At age 4 in 1984, Mahtob and her mother traveled to Tehran for what they thought was a two-week family vacation. In Iran, Mahtob’s father refused to allow them to return to the United States.

The women were trapped in a nation hostile to Americans. Mahtob said her father Sayed Bozorg Mahmoody, a doctor, assaulted and threatened them with death if they tried to leave.

With help from many Iranians, including drug smugglers who helped them over mountains on a 500-mile escape to Ankara, Turkey, where they found a U.S. Embassy, the women returned to the United States in 1986.

Mahtob told a harrowing story of attending school in Iran as a small child.

“It was like a military compound with walls and gates,” she added. “We spat on the American flag, lined up on a courtyard and said things like ‘death to America.’ We were taught to hate and never think for ourselves. My dad was very abusive and violent. Other Iranians risked their lives to help us out.”

Back in the United States, Mahtob’s mother sent her to a private Christian school.

“My teachers really nurtured me, telling me I was safe and won’t be outside of God’s reach. They taught me about forgiveness,” Mahtob said.

Mahtob said she forgave her father but never saw him again before he died of kidney disease complications at age 70 in 2009.

“I learned about life with a Savior who died for me. What a great, beautiful gift to forgive and be saved,” Mahtob said.

Mahtob assumed another name in America in an attempt to avoid her father from finding her, but he eventually did, while she was a Michigan State University (MSU) student. He was placed on a terrorist watch list by the U.S. government and never came into contact with her, although he called her mother at one point and asked her where Mahtob was.

“I was told I had a stalker at MSU and got a staff parking pass,” Mahtob said. “It was an ongoing battle until my father died. In Iran I’ll always be family property. In the U.S., we’re free at age 18. I feel sad for my father wasting his life by being angry and resentful.”

Mahtob said she and her mother could be executed if they return to Iran or to any country with extradition agreements with Iran.

She talked fondly of her time in Iran with other family members.

“People there have very little but they shared so much and were so happy. We enjoy gathering here with other Iranian-Americans and eating Persian food,” Mahtob added. “Customs there include always taking flowers to hosts you visit.”

Mahtob said it’s difficult to receive what she called “unbiased” news from Iran.

“The media was censored when we were there, and I suspect it’s still a reality,” she added.

Betty Mahmoody is best-known for her book “Not Without My Daughter,” which was made into a film of the same name. She is president and co-founder of One World For Children, which promotes understanding between cultures and offers security and protection to children of bi-cultural marriages.

She compiled stories of other parents whose foreign spouses estranged them from their children in the book “For the Love of a Child.”

Alexis Kouros collaborated with Mahmoody’s ex-husband to create a documentary, “Without My Daughter,” to counter the claims in Betty’s book. Mahtob said the documentary can be found on YouTube.

Fritz Busch can be e-mailed at fbusch@nujournal.com.

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