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Prisoner of Tehran

by Marina Nemat

In one of those odd, inexplicable coincidences so common in publishing, two new non-fiction books confront an unimaginable horror: young women abducted (or “arrested”) and held captive for months, if not years, with little hope for release. The fact that both of these books are written by the victims themselves should lend them immediacy and force. Unfortunately, this should not be taken for granted.

Kidnapped: A Diary recounts the story of the year Leszli Kalli spent in captivity. In 1999, when the Colombian national was just 18 years old, her flight to Bogota (she was en route to six months’ work on a kibbutz in Israel) got hijacked by members of the ELN, the leftist National Liberation Army. The passengers and crew were taken hostage and held in a series of remote camps for 373 days, while their captors negotiated the terms of their release with the Colombian government.

The book begins with a harrowing account of the hijacking, but very quickly its form begins to work against the force of the events Kalli is recounting. By publishing the diaries she kept during her confinement, Kalli undercuts the inherent power of the story. There is little sense of scale to her entries, which not only become tiresome in their repetitiveness but are bogged down by a moodiness and angst that turns, eventually, to outright depression.

Ultimately, Kalli comes across as spoiled, with a strange self-centredness and sense of entitlement. While it is brave to reveal oneself in this way, it is difficult for a reader to either sympathize or empathize with her.

Like the book’s opening, the events surounding Kalli’s release are recounted in retrospect and offer a greater perspective and narrative pull, but it’s too little, too late. The banality of the events depicted through the bulk of the book gives little sense of peril or danger; Kidnapped resembles less The Diary of Anne Frank than it does a particularly fraught set of blog entries on a MySpace page.

Although it recounts events that took place more than 20 years earlier (and was written from the safety of the author’s Aurora, Ontario home), Marina Nemat’s Prisoner of Tehran is a much more immediate and visceral read. Nemat was 16 years old when she was arrested in Iran in early 1982. Having protested the new fundamentalist government in a minor way (leading a “strike” at her school, publishing an underground newspaper, participating in demonstrations), and having seen some of her friends arrested, Nemat was expecting the knock of the revolutionary guards at the door when it came. She was not, however, expecting the living hell she found behind the walls of Evin prison, which first became notorious during the reign of the Shah.

Prisoner of Tehran is unflinching and horrifying in its depictions of the cruelties Nemat suffered, from her brutal torture during the night of her arrest to the squalid living conditions in Evin to her near-execution, prevented only by an intercession from one of her guards and a pardon from the Ayatollah. And that’s just the beginning.

Prisoner of Tehran is a harrowing journey, an account of growth under the darkest of circumstances and a trial of faith in the face of overwhelming horror. It is skillfully constructed, with a keen sense of suspense despite the reader’s knowledge that Nemat not only survived, but emigrated to Canada in 1991.


Reviewer: Robert J. Wiersema

Publisher: Viking Canada


Price: $34

Page Count: 304 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 978-0-670-06612-4

Released: April

Issue Date: 2007-1

Categories: Memoir & Biography