Prisoner of Tehran: A Memoir
By Marina Nemat
Penguin Canada ($18.00)
By the age of 20, Marina Nemat had lived through an ordeal most North Americans couldn’t imagine. Imprisoned at 16, she was tortured, forced to marry and denounce her Christian faith, and widowed before fleeing to Canada. Though remarkable, her story isn’t much different from those of thousands of political prisoners who lived in Iran in the lead-up to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. What makes her story incredible is not only her strength in living through it, but her courage to experience it again by telling the tale.
A Russian Orthodox Christian raised in the bustling downtown core of Tehran, Nemat describes an idyllic childhood filled with bike rides, books and summers by the Caspian Sea. But when the revolution changes the political winds of her country, Nemat’s outspokenness puts her at risk. A spat with her calculus teacher over the school curriculum gets her arrested and sent to Evin prison, notorious for its brutal treatment of inmates. She is questioned, whipped and sentenced to death. Ali, a love-stricken guard, offers a way out, but for a price: she must convert to Islam and marry him. What follows is a two-year struggle with her faith, sanity and preconceived notions about good and evil.
Simple and incisive, Nemat’s writing spares no detail when describing the horrors she and her prison mates endured. At times, these details are hard to swallow. At others, they seem improbable. Nemat herself admits that memory has a funny way of blocking, sharpening or merging events as time goes by. But this makes Prisoner of Tehran no less important a read.
Last June, the world watched Iran erupt over the disputed results of its 10th presidential election. The protests and street riots reminded many of the Islamic Revolution, which happened only 30 years ago. In that time, there’s been little public discussion about the millions of lives affected by that upheaval. Maybe the memories are too painful to put on paper. It certainly wasn’t easy for Nemat.