Quill and Quire

Marina Nemat

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A story of Iran, written in Canada

Marina Nemat’s memoir tells of her years as a political prisoner in Tehran

Marina Nemat knows that questions are powerful things. In 1982, as a 16-year-old student tired of hearing propaganda about Ayatollah Khomeini from members of the Revolutionary Guard – who had replaced the teachers in her Tehran high school after the 1979 revolution – she asked the woman in charge of her calculus class if she could please get back to the main subject. “If you don’t like what I am teaching, you can leave the classroom,” the woman answered. So Nemat packed up her books and left the room. To her surprise, so did her whole class; it was the beginning of a schoolwide three-day student strike.

Powerful, but unfortunately, so was the new regime’s reaction. Shortly thereafter, Nemat was arrested and taken to the notorious Evin prison, where she was tortured and later forced to convert to Islam and marry a guard who had fallen in love with her. Prisoner of Tehran, published by Penguin Canada in April (reviewed in the January/February 2007 issue of Q&Q), is the story of how she survived those years, reclaimed her life, and eventually came to Canada.

Although the story of her journey to freedom is extraordinary, Nemat’s arrest was far from an isolated case. According to some estimates, she says, between 1981 and 1991, there were about 35,000 political prisoners in Iran at any given time, most of them 15 to 20 years old. Many were executed. “The people of Iran really did want democracy.” Nemat says. “Well-educated people followed the Ayatollah and it went wrong. It turned into something it wasn’t supposed to be, and then it killed all its children.” She says her story cannot represent the stories of all of the prisoners. “This is such an extreme human experience that each one of us needs to write a book in order for it to be complete.”

Fear created a culture of silence in Iran that Nemat says prevented her from telling anyone, even her family and friends, what had happened to her during the two years she was imprisoned in Evin. She began to write her story only years later, when she was living a safely suburban life in Aurora, Ontario, where nightmares and flashbacks were increasingly haunting her and interrupting her sleep. But once she had filled a notebook with scattered memories, she began to think that maybe her private therapy could become a book. Nemat had always read English literature, but she had no formal education in English, so she took creative writing classes at the University of Toronto’s school of continuing studies, which helped her shape her manuscript. One of her instructors, author Rachel Manley, contacted literary agent Beverley Slopen, who loved the story and sold it to Penguin Canada last year. Rights have also been sold in 15 other countries. U.K.-based Tiger Aspect Productions has bought film rights, and Nemat is co-writing the screenplay for a TV movie.

Nemat believes it is important to make history personal. “Imagine if Anne Frank had never written her diary. The human side of history would be lost,” she says. History texts serve their purpose, but “if [people] have read Anne Frank, they never forget that. If they have read Elie Weisel’s book Night, they never forget that,” she says. “All the books that I have read about Iran hardly mention the experience of the political prisoners. They are about Iran, but not about this generation, so I really felt that gap.”

Nemat’s story is a complex mix of light and darkness, love and violence – of human paradoxes that defy simplistic labels of good and evil. She grew up in a seemingly cosmopolitan and multifaith Iran where, as a young Christian girl, she fell in love with a Muslim boy. That boy was shot dead by the Shah’s forces during a protest. Then the Islamic government that promised to end the corruption of the Shah’s rule imprisoned and tortured Nemat. And yet she would not have lived to tell this story if the guard who forced her to marry him had not fallen in love with her, pleaded for her life, and rescued her from a firing squad. After he was killed by political rivals, she was returned to prison and would not have been released without help from his family, who had lovingly accepted her as a daughter.

She’s brought to Canada a hard-won ability to see human beings beyond the politics and experiences that have shaped them. She has spoken about human rights issues for a University of Toronto lecture series and doesn’t limit the subject to abuses abroad. At a library in Markham, she says, “a few people were really upset that I said human rights are for everybody, that torture is wrong, that you cannot just put people in jail and wait five or six years and see what happens.” But Nemat is still asking powerful questions. “How far are you willing to go to protect what you [believe in]?” she asked. “As far as it takes,” a man in the group answered. “Unfortunately, I had to say, ‘That’s what Hitler said,’” she recounts. “If you follow that path, it will take you to places where nothing is sacred – when you can do anything, you can torture, you can murder, and you won’t even have a second thought. That is a very dangerous place to be.”