IN NOVEMBER I was in Iran, in the northeastern province of Khorasan where much of my family lives, eagerly snapping photographs of a giant and gnarled tree, magnificent and ancient, that towers over the road running through the town of Gonabad.
A car pulled to a stop and three men, acquaintances, got out. They greeted me with several quick, self-effacing bows. My uncle told them I was visiting from America and was taking pictures of the tree as a souvenir.
One man thought for several moments, then, with a shyness I found touching, asked the question that was on his mind. "Excuse me," he said. "But are there no trees in America?"
I told him that America is full of forests. He was silent, drinking in every word of information about this land he had heard so much about. To him it was so remote, so different from Iran that he could not begin to imagine where the differences end and similarities began.
I went to see the new Sally Field movie, "Not Without My Daughter," a week ago, and after I got over the initial sense of violation and outrage common to Iranians who have seen this film, I was reminded of that sunny autumn day in Gonabad when I explained about trees and America. The movie, like that man's query, brought home to me the gulf of ignorance that separates Iran and the United States.
This man, like so many other Iranian friends and acquaintances I spoke to in my two months in Iran, wanted to know what America is really like.
It was that kind of curiosity, open and questing, that was missing in this movie. "Not Without My Daughter" is the real-life story of American Betty Mahmoody, whose Iranian husband, Sayyed Bozorg Mahmoody, took her and their daughter, Mahtob, to Iran in 1984 for a two-week vacation that became two years of virtual captivity. The mother and daughter escaped with the help of Iranian friends.
"Not Without My Daughter" does not seek answers, yet it offers them. Though the movie professes to depict Iran and strengthens that claim with its reliance on a real-life story, to anyone familiar with Iran or the Mideast it is more like listening to a conversation among Americans about what they think Iran is like.
Given the level of ignorance about that topic and the lingering ill will generated by the 1979 hostage crisis and Iran's anti-American rhetoric, it is not surprising that the result is offensive to Iranians -- and horribly misleading to those who would know us better. What makes this all the more pernicious is that the movie is well-acted, giving it an intense emotional impact that carries these poisonous notions of Iranianess and Islam directly into the heart of the viewer.
In fact, the only part of Iran I recognized in this movie was a brief CNN news clip of Iranian soldiers wearing "God is Great" headbands. The movie is based on one American's atypical and wretched experience in Iran in 1986, five years after the revolution. All of the central Iranian characters, along with many of the supporting cast, are played by non-Iranians, who, incidentally, speak atrociously accented Farsi. "Not Without My Daughter" was filmed in Israel and many "Iranians" are portrayed by Israeli actors.
Betty Mahmoody, as portrayed by Sally Field, mispronounces the name of the country in which her husband was born throughout the movie (Eye-ran, as in Eye-talian. The correct pronunciation is Ee-ran.) She has been married to him for seven years, but speaks no Farsi.
Mrs. Mahmoody has said in newspaper interviews that the film accurately represents a softened version of what she experienced. The viewer sees Iran as she appears to have seen it: a cacophony of noise (the extensive Farsi dialogue in the movie, unsubtitled, is as unintelligible to American audiences as it was to Mrs. Mahmoody); alien images; generally hostile and glum residents; joyless streets, houses and landscape; an Iranian family apparently devoid of warmth and compassion; a home life made violent and grim by the excesses of one man, her husband.
But Mrs. Mahmoody's experience of Iran was shaped by two distorting forces. One is her own acknowledged ignorance of Iranian culture, language and history, accompanied by that tinge of American superiority that has made many American tourists disliked in such "civilized" places as Canada and Europe. "This is a primitive, backward country," Betty cries in one scene.
The other is a dreadful marriage to a confused, unstable man whose family is, in Mrs. Mahmoody's experience, bigoted, unfeeling and hostile. In one Farsi sequence, Mrs. Mahmoody's sister-in-law calls her a hag.
The inexcusable affront of this movie lies in the fact that it presumes to describe a whole country through the depiction of one family. If there is such a thing as a typical Iranian family, the Mahmoodys are not it.
Every Iranian in the movie, other than those with some link or connection to the West and Western ways, is coarse, uncouth, unpleasant or downright violent. The inescapable message is that Iranians untouched by the enlightening influence of the West have remained in their original unredeemed state. This is a message that should have died with the Crusades.
This is not to defend what are distressing facts of life in the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is a fact that groups known as the Komiteh roam the streets on the lookout for violators of Islamic dress codes that forbid the showing of hair. In the early years of the revolution, when street fighting with opposition groups was common, they were indeed armed with machine guns. But they do not generally aim those guns at women who are showing their hair, nor do they tend to scream curses like "you slime" and "you filth" -- as the woman who rushed Betty Mahmoody did in this movie.
Among more fundamentalist families, men and women do sit separately within the home, the women retaining their veils. But in many religious families, they sit together, unveiled except in the presence of strangers. Others who are not religious mingle freely.
It is a fact that in the Islamic Republic, Iranian women officially lose custody to the father after a male child turns two and a female child turns six. Nor are women officially allowed to travel -- without their husbands' permission. But the penalty for the many who violate such strictures is not execution, as the movie suggests. And many men are hauled into court and punished for charges of spouse abuse.
Nor are Iranians oblivious to the problems within their society. Iranian women are not passive victims seeking a champion. They are active participants in a struggle that is complex and far-reaching. Fervent disagreements within Iran over the role of women represent a fault line in what is a deeper schism in Iranian society between religious and secular rule.
Though Iranian society, like most in the world, is male-dominated, women are a potent force in the family and in society at large. Many continually flout Islamic dress codes with impunity in a continuing push to liberalize society.
They are doctors, lawyers -- though not judges -- psychologists, teachers and members of parliament. Some are activists. One, Azam Taleghani, a former member of the Majlis (parliament) and the daughter of a much-revered ayatollah, told me in November that her top priority is winning a change in a law dating to before the revolution which allows men the right of uncontested divorce.
No society is free of problems. My Iranian cousins, who adore American rock stars, were shocked to hear about other aspects of American life, such as overflowing prisons, the astounding murder rate in inner cities, the teen-age pregnancy rate, the costs of growing old in a country without socialized medicine.
To understand any society it is necessary to know both the good and the bad. Although it is wholly appropriate to air what is wrong, the point is to seek understanding, not superiority. Superiority was asserted, in unsubtle ways, throughout this movie.
It should not be necessary for me as an Iranian to say that Iranians as a group are not crude, primitive, violent and cruel. "Not Without My Daughter" strips Iran and Iranians of what makes a people and a country human -- humor and cynicism, ambivalence and conviction, love and hope, sadness and joy. It fills the void of ignorance between Iran and the United States, but only with prejudice.