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.

The ANZAC Experience

It’s now been a little while since Australia celebrated ANZAC day; to commemorate the day I pulled from my to-read list “Great ANZAC Stories” by Graham Seal.

I read war stories for several reasons. Firstly, I think it is important to remember the horror of war. As George Santayana said, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ Only through attempting to recognise the true depth of their sacrifice can we truly honour those who died for us. Secondly, and a long way down the scale of importance: such stories help to inform and flavour my writing. I have never been in combat so reading such stories is research.

One of the good stories in Great ANZAC Stories so far is that taken from a letter from a Private on the Somme (1916):

On July 28th at 7:30 p.m. a party of us were called to carry bombs, bags and water to the battalion who were charging that night. From the dump to the firing line – about a mile – was enfiladed by German artillery fire, and as the communication trench was shallow they could see us moving through, and peppered us properly. We had several of the party killed and a lot wounded. We had to make six trips in, and after the first trip it was left to me to take charge of our party. … We had three officers with us but they stayed behind to look after the dump … we had to make our way in and out over dead bodies and pass other crowds going in and out. We were hung up in the trenches at midnight for hours, while a big bombardment and a charge were on, and I could see waves of our men charging over the ridge. We were in again three times early next morning, and the sight was dreadful. The trenches were almost level, and the dead were lying everywhere. We found one of the lads from my section and buried him in a shell hole. His name is Charlie Carter from Pomborneit, and he was my section bomber. It seems wonderful how any of us came out alive. They call it the night of horrors, and a good name, too.

The next night we went into the trenches, and the shell-fire was worse than it had been the night before. As the lads had advanced 300 yards and dug in on the previous night, we had to go over the open right to the new line. The shells were bursting everywhere, and you would think it was impossible for anybody to live. However, with the exception of about ten casualties, we got into the trenches all right and were fairly comfortable for the night. At daybreak we moved further along the trenches to where they were not so deep. Fritz kept putting in his shells, and kept us busy dressing and sending away the wounded. We were very fortunate and had but few deaths. Our sergeant was wounded going into the trenches, and I had to act as platoon sergeant. I had some miraculous escapes from death.

When I left only 17 of our platoon remained out of 50. On the last night I was out in ‘no man’s land’ with a party preparing communication trenches to charge from, and as Fritz did not see us we had a good time. The last job I did was to bury an Australian officer, whom we found lying out in the front. After that I was about to have a sleep when a shell burst over me and cracked me in both legs.” (page 52, 53).


Recommended Read: Gabrielle Giffords Shooting

Recently I downloaded True Crime by Lee Gutkind as a free-bee on GooglePlay. The book is a compilation of true stories from the different perspectives of perpetrators, victims, bystanders and affiliated individuals.

One of these stories which is worthy of special mention is Gabrielle Gifford’s Shooting: A Fatal Chain of Events Unfolds by Shaun McKinnon. After a quick google it looks like you can also read it online. It is well worth investing the 15 minutes or so it will take to read.

It is an emotional story told from the perspectives of many people caught in the maelstrom of violence. It tugs at the heart-strings as the reader is confronted by many aspects of humanity. I was reminded of humanity’s frailty; we should not take today or tomorrow for granted. Though gripped by a sense of sadness and loss, it is also heart-warming to see the strength of humanity as people cared for strangers or protected loved ones. Though the incident was terrible, it was a miracle more weren’t killed.

An excellent, emotive and informative piece of writing.

Disclosure: Shaun McKinnon did not pay me for my kind words, but he is welcome to.

What did you think of it?