Sunday, February 15, 2009

Homage to Betty Mahmoody

Part V

When Betty Mahmoody got to Iran with her husband and their small daughter, “Moody” as her husband was called, began to change from the loving American husband and father he’d been in Maine into a dictatorial Iranian man, ultimately becoming a monstrous stranger Betty believed would kill her. Trapped in a country with no American Embassy, she was beaten and locked up when she refused to stay in Iran. To buy time she finally agreed to attempt to become a good Iranian wife and make a life for the three of them, all the while searching for a way out. With the help of a shop keeper she met in a Tehran bazaar she was able to make a harrowing trip north and west through the Elbruz Mountains, the last leg of which was done on horseback through the snow, something you don’t see in the Hollywood rendition of her book Not without My Daughter. The title of Betty’s book refers to her refusal to leave Iran without her six-year-old Mahtob. Because of Betty’s bravery to go on American national television and tell her story I kept my wits about me when I went toe-to-toe with my Iranian father-in-law. They had arrived and decided that my husband was to divorce me. Moreover now they were saying that I could not return to Washington with my son.

I was shaking as I dialed 911 and was connected with the Union City Police Department. I explained as briefly and coherently as possible what was going on and asked for my in-laws to be removed from our house. I said that I wanted protection because my Iranian father-in-law had threatened my mother. The dispatcher said that an officer would be sent to help sort things out.

I know it sounds prejudiced, but I was relieved to open the door to two big Union City Police Officers looking very, very American—one so tall he had to stoop to get in the door. I was hoping that the sight of these two big policemen would put some fear in my father-in-law and it seemed to as he shut up immediately. Iranians don’t have a good relationship with law enforcement people. The CIA trained Savak under the Shah had been ruthless. The Revolutionary Guard that replaced them had not been an improvement. At this point my husband had dissolved into a puddle of tears on the floor.

I explained what was going on and the officers asked some questions. It seemed that as long as my in-laws had not broken any laws they could not be made to leave our house much less the country. As long as their visas were good and they didn’t do something illegal they could stay. The fact that my father-in-law had threatened to hit my mother wasn’t enough to get them removed to a motel. Well, I wasn’t going to stay in a house with people plotting to break-up my family. What if they talked my husband into returning to Iran and taking our son with him? I just wanted away from these people, particularly my father-in-law. I told the police that I wanted to take the children to a shelter. They gave me some phone numbers and I went to the kitchen to make some calls.

The phone numbers proved unhelpful. Either the shelter was full or wouldn’t take my thirteen-year-old son from a previous marriage. Twelve was the cut off for males in shelters for abused women. I wasn’t going to have any of the four children split from me. The situation was nightmare enough. I went back out into our front hall. “Did you find someplace to go?” one of the officers asked me.

“Yes,” I lied. “Can I get a few things?”

“Make it quick,” one of the officers said. “We need to get back to catching bad guys.” They are here, I thought, you just don’t realize it.

Quickly the children, my mother and I dressed. My thirteen-year-old took care of his youngest brother and I got my daughter ready to leave. We basically got into the car and left with the clothes on our back, not even thinking to take toothbrushes. We did not know when we would see our house or our belongings again, but in that moment all I cared about was getting the children and my mother away from my father-in-law.

We drove to the bank where I got what little money was in our checking account out of the ATM, about $200. Then we drove to a motel, but when I heard what it was going to cost for just one night I decided that I didn’t want to drain what little we had that might have to serve as gas money to get back to Washington. My mother was ready for us to just drive away right then, but I wasn’t walking away from everything I had, including family heirlooms that were of no value to anyone but me. I had to find a way to get my in-laws out of my house and I knew that if we ran that night it would mean having to really disappear.

That night we spent in the car in the parking lot behind my mother’s Episcopalian church in Castro Valley. None of us slept. The children were quiet in the back seat while my mother and I talked about what to do. I nixed the idea of running away. If we did that it would mean going somewhere where no one knew us and we knew no one. It would mean cutting ourselves off from all our friends and relations for my husband’s extended family had the means to look for us and might be looking for us right then.

When morning came the priest let us into the church to use the bathroom and the phone. Immediately I called the State Department in an effort to get my in-laws visas, the visas I’d two weeks earlier been begging for, revoked. I explained my fear of losing my son and was advised to have my son’s name red-flagged in case my husband applied for a passport for him. Since I didn’t have a custody agreement they couldn’t prevent him from getting the passport, but they could call me if he applied. “Frankly,” the woman on the other end of the line told me, “your husband won’t bother getting an American passport. He can go to the Iranian Interests Section of the Algerian Embassy and get your son an Iranian passport and get on an airplane with no questions asked. Don’t let him be alone with your son. We’re glad you called us before you lost him. Most parents don’t call us until their child is gone and we can’t do anything about it. There are 10,000 American children being held outside of the United States by foreign, noncustodial parents and we can’t help them come home.”

That night we slept on the floor of another church parishioner, but it was clear that we were not really welcome. The next day I was abke to find a homeless shelter that would allow us to stay together as a family, but we needed more than just the clothes we’d left the house with so once again I called the Union City Police and asked for an escort or “stand-by” to the house so I could get a few things. This time the officers were even more impatient than the night we’d left and I rushed through our bedrooms grabbing tooth brushes, diapers, and clothing as well as our photograph albums. I later discovered that my husband had removed most of our son’s baby pictures from them. He knew me well enough to know what was important to me.

“Where are you going?” my husband asked. He’d not gone to work and looked as bad as I felt.

“I’m not allowed to say. They don’t want crazy husbands showing up. I’ll call you.”

Our accommodations at the homeless shelter were not luxury. They didn’t even look clean, although they handed us clean sheets and blankets. It was a 1950s house in a non-descript neighborhood not that far from my work. I’d called to explain what was going on and that I didn’t know when I’d be back to work.

We shared a bedroom that had a double bed mattress on the floor and a set of bunk beds. There was one other family staying in the house. The rest of the “clients” were recovering drug and alcohol folks. No one was allowed to be in the house during the day except during lunch, the theory being that everyone was to be out attending AA or NA meetings or looking for work. Breakfast consisted of huge bags of day old pastry donated by a local grocers. Our roommates, mostly recovering substance abusers, devoured them with lightening speed.

Everyone had a job and took turns helping to cook and clean up. No one was allowed to fix themselves evening snacks. During the day I took our family to parks so the children could play. We bought bread, lunchmeat and mayo and picnicked in the park. This was frowned on by our “housemother,” but the drama of our particular situation was enough to get us some slack.

The only phone for client use was in the living room so there was no opportunity for private conversations, but I called our house each night and spoke with my husband. It always went along the line of where are you? I can’t tell you. When are your parents leaving? I’m working on it. Are you taking my son away? I thought that if my husband could talk them into moving to one of his cousins’ we could straighten things out. I thought I knew my husband well enough that sanity would kick-in, but gradually dawn began to break about why he hadn’t wanted his parents to come. He knew something like this might happen.

One day I managed to get an appointment with a lawyer at a legal aid society. Ironically she had been in the Peace Corps in Iran in the 1960s and my story did not surprise her in the least. She had seen something similar happen in a family with whom she had lived there. The son had been in love and became engaged to a girl the family did not approve of. A family meeting was called and he was hounded by all of his relatives until he was convinced to break off the engagement. A picture formed in my mind of what had gone on that night at my husband’s cousin’s house. The lawyer advised me not to agree to unsupervised visitation if we did in fact get a divorce. I drove back to the shelter feeling like a stranger in my own land.

We spent the Fourth of July, 1987 in the homeless shelter. The shelter had a party for everyone with hotdogs and hamburgers in the barren backyard. I stood out there watching the Blue Angels roar overhead and thought how ironic it was that this was America’s birthday and I was living in a homeless shelter because my Iranian in-laws refused to leave our home.

After a week in the shelter the day I had been praying for arrived when my husband told me that he and his parents would be moving the next day to his cousin’s house in Santa Clara. I was mildly disappointed that he was going with them, but not surprised. Clearly the veneer of Westernization had been just that. It had been peeled away to reveal a stranger whose culture was at logger head with mine.

The children were excited we were going home. I was, too, but also I felt creepy. For over a week my in-laws had had free reign in my house. If I was missing photographs what else might be gone? And what were we going to do? I’d promised my husband that I wouldn’t go home to Washington, that I would try to get a position with the library system that had more hours and find a house I could afford somewhere, but even before the words were out of my mouth I was pretty sure I’d lied. More than anything I wanted to go home.

I felt like McArthur returning when I walked into our house. We opened all the doors and windows and let out all the bad energy as well as the smell of someone else out of our house. I discovered that my in-laws had taken the brand new towels I’d purchased for the master bathroom in honor of their visit. They wouldn’t move to a motel, but they were willing to take my towels as though our house were one. It turned out that besides the pictures my husband took that was all that was missing. Almost immediately I went to the liquor and grocery stores and got boxes. One way or another we were going to have to move. Without my husband’s income we couldn’t afford even our blue collar neighborhood.

In self defense I will say that I did attempt to find a position with more hours and cheaper living quarters somewhere. We drove all the way over the Altamont to Tracy and I interviewed for a library position there. Houses were a little less expensive than the $900 per month we were paying in Union City (remember this was 1987), but not much and there were none for rent the day I interviewed. Maybe they sensed my lack of enthusiasm for moving to another strange town where I would know even fewer people than I did in Union City. Maybe they looked into my heart and knew that if I was going to uproot the children again it was going to be toward home, not uncertainty. I began to plot my own journey back. I wouldn’t be making it on horseback, but my rattletrap 1978 Buick station wagon wasn’t much better. I wasn’t even sure it would make it, but I wasn’t going to be happy until I’d shaken the dust of California from my feet.

1 comment:

Stephanie Frieze said...

Only one more part to go.