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.