(WOMENSENEWS)–On the evening of Jan. 15, 1982, Marina Nemat was arrested in Tehran, the capital of Iran. She was sent to Evin prison, notorious for its political prisoners’ wing, and sentenced to death for political crimes. Nemat was 16 years old.
It was the early days of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution. Nemat didn’t consider herself to be an activist, but she protested when her calculus teacher taught a lesson on Islam instead of math. Her teacher said, “If you don’t like what I’m teaching, you can leave.” So Nemat did, and other students followed.
As a result, Nemat was rounded up and sent to Evin. She escaped execution at the very last minute, though, and was released from prison just over two years later. But Nemat kept secret the story of how she was saved and what happened in Evin. Even her parents and husband were in the dark.
Now, more than 20 years after being freed, Nemat is finally sharing what happened in Evin in her memoir “Prisoner of Tehran.” The rights to her book have been sold in 21 countries, providing a rare glimpse at the life of a political prisoner in Iran.
“My book isn’t political, but it’s ended up being portrayed as political,” said Nemat. “It’s about what happened to me as a young, clueless Christian girl who was thrown into a strange situation and happened to live to tell the tale.”
Marriage Behind Bars
When Nemat arrived at Evin in 1982 she was interrogated by two guards. One of them, Ali, fell in love with her. Just as Nemat was about to be executed Ali removed her from the firing squad. He got her death sentence reduced to life imprisonment. In exchange, though, he asked her to marry him, which required her to convert to Islam. Nemat spent the next two years as a prisoner in Evin and as her interrogator’s wife.
What’s most poignant about the book, said Lee Gowan, one of Nemat’s writing instructors, is the way she tells the story of how Ali made her marry him, and essentially raped her, without making him into a stock villain. “Objective writers need to understand the human heart and she does,” he added.
Nemat said that Ali, like her, was a good person who had been imprisoned and tortured, but he chose to focus his subsequent hatred and anger on those who were against his religion or beliefs. “We’re all in danger of becoming fundamentalists, whether we’re Christian, Muslim, et cetera, when we allow ourselves to become blinded by basic emotions,” she said.
Nemat’s relationship with Ali ended abruptly when he was gunned down by rival revolutionaries. When she was released from Evin in 1984 she never talked about her marriage, or what happened to her or the other women she lived with in Evin. Some of these women, unlike Nemat, didn’t escape execution; each had her own story.
“There was a wall of silence after I got out. There was an absolute fear that dominated us. The past is the past, we didn’t dare mention it, we just move on,” said Nemat.
Writing From Memories
Nemat married her teenage sweetheart and moved to Toronto in 1991 when she was 26. She worked part time as a waitress and was a housewife, raising her two sons. She wanted to forget Iran and put all her effort into being Canadian, she said. But her mother’s death in 2000 triggered something. She wondered if she should have told her mother about what happened in Evin. Once Nemat started to remember, the memories flooded.
In 2002 Nemat went to an office supply store, bought some notebooks and started writing it all down. At first she wrote for herself, but as time went on she decided she wanted to reach more people. She finally revealed the details of her time at Evin to her husband of 17 years, and then started taking writing classes.
“She was the most determined student I’d come across,” said Gowan, program head of creative writing at the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto in Canada. “She wanted to tell her story. Beyond anything personal to her, though, she wanted to tell the story of the other women in that prison, to give them a voice.”
Nemat wrote her story in English, though it’s not her first or second language, and completed the book in four years. Her memoir was published in Canada in April and in the United States in May. Since then she has spoken at many different high schools and universities across Canada and has sold the television film rights to her memoir.
Reminded of Prison
Nemat had just written the third draft of her memoir when Iranian Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi was arrested for taking photographs in front of Evin. Almost three weeks later, in July 2003, she died in Iranian custody.
In 2005 an Iranian doctor who had examined Kazemi’s body revealed that he found evidence of torture, including rape, broken fingers, missing fingernails, flogging on the legs and a skull fracture.
“When she died I felt guilty because I was a witness who never testified,” said Nemat. “But her death, as sad as it was, shone some light on political prisoners in Iran. All I can do is tell my own story, but by doing so hopefully also shed some light. Maybe then the world will be more willing to listen to other stories. Maybe a collection of these stories will eventually change things and the way people think.”
Michelle Shephard, Nemat’s friend and a reporter for the Toronto Star said Nemat’s book is important now, even though it recounts events from the past. “Iran is still a closed country to report on and her book is a little window, even though it was 20 years ago. It’s hard with Iran and other closed societies because it’s difficult for people to be brave enough to tell their story, since they assume risks by doing so,” Shepard said. “Hers is an important voice. She’s a mother of two who has lived through this and come forward. What she’s saying carries a lot of weight.”
Now that the book is complete, Nemat is ready to leave it behind. She is working on and off on a novel. She still lives in Toronto and has not been back to Iran.
“Iran has changed, but it’s not become better. People have learned to deal with the dictatorship and how to stay under the radar,” Nemat said. “Even Evin is the same, but the number of prisoners is lower since people aren’t getting into trouble as much. But if they get into trouble the evidence suggests people are as badly treated as back then.”
Juhie Bhatia is a writer in New York City.