Delving into Culture

This is an (updated) post I wrote on an earlier blog regarding the story of Betty Mahmoody told in Not without my Daughter.

Story Recap

Betty is an American woman who marries an Iranian-American. The courtship and the first few years of marriage were wonderful. Her husband ‘Moody’ is a successful doctor. Together they have what most would consider a successful life. After several years of marriage around the Iraq/Iran war, Moody falls into depression (no pun intended). Moody is increasingly critical of the US, and his old life and loyalties are a powder keg between his new life and wife in America. The relationship becomes strained.

Moody decides the family should have a 2 week holiday in Iran. Betty fears that if she goes she will be trapped in Iran if her husband refuses to let her leave (in accordance with Iranian law). If she doesn’t go, she fears she will never see her daughter again.

She goes, and as expected he admits that none of them will ever leave Iran. She is beaten repeatedly and locked in a room as her husband tries to break her will and turn her into a submissive Iranian wife. To her horror, she is in a foreign country hostile to women, hostile to Americans. Her captor is empowered through law, culture and religion. She escapes to the Swiss embassy, only to find that under Iranian law she is Iranian. and the embassy can’t help. Thus begins her journey to escape Iran before she is beaten into submission, killed or her young daughter becomes indoctrinated into Iranian culture.

While the writing style is satisfactory, the true story is engaging. It is a good read.

Cultural Differences

However, as a writer it was even more interesting. Growing up in the West without much exposure to other cultures, it was a good insight (albeit vicariously) into another culture. Not being particularly well-traveled, I naturally assume that some things are universal, but that is not the case.

Here were a few of the culturally interesting things:

  • The concept of taraf which is basically a polite offer of something, but with no intention of delivering. For example, as an avid reader of my blog I would be pleased to offer you a place to stay if you ever come to my country. Sorry, but that’s an insincere offer. Using taraf you can offer something, and the receiver will accept it politely, but know that they are not do actually expect it.
  • General cleanliness and hygiene. Bathing irregularly, not caring about spilling food all over the floor or having cockroaches scurrying around the floor. Insects in the rice? No worry, don’t bother trying to sift them out, just cook the lot!
  • A male relative in the house automatically becomes ‘the boss’ if the husband is not around.
  • Under Iranian law the wife and the children belong to the husband. If the husband dies, the children belong to a relative. They never belong to the mother.
  • A wife and children must absolutely obey her husband. If a promise is given to a man it will not be broken.
  • An alternative idea of modesty. In public a woman must completely cover up and be displaying no face or hair. The most devout women only show one eye. However breast-feeding can be in public without covering the breast. Betty also recounts seeing a live birth of national TV – showing all of the woman’s ‘bits’ except for her head and arms!
  • Making do. Cramming 10+ people into a car we would only seat 5.
  • Religious police who enforce the miniscule or nit-pick.
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