Her voice is soft and lively, but determined at the same time. She tells her story with such zeal that I wished everybody had the chance to listen to her.
Iranian writer and teacher Marina Nemat’s life was brutally marked by a sentence to prison right after the beginning of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. A Christian, she was accused of conspiracy against the Islamic regime of Ayatollah Khomeini and of communism propaganda, and sentenced to death.
Having survived and emigrated, she lives in Toronto since 1991, where she is teaching a memoir writing class and continues to write and translate her own books into Farsi. Nemat is the author of “Prisoners of Teheran” (2007), published in 28 countries, “After Teheran” (2010), and several short pieces.
“I started to write it in 2002: it was a long process,” she says. “When I was released from Evin prison I was suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder. Nobody in my family wanted to talk about what I had experienced. Nobody in my community wanted to talk about it. Nobody in my country wanted to talk about it. Nobody in the world wanted to talk about it.
“As a result I was drawn and I did what most of the people suffering from PTSD do, which is to create a fictional self.”
NEMAT CONTINUED behaving as if everything was fine until she brought her parents to Canada, in order to protect them, and finally realized that the relationship with her mother was a non-relation. The trigger, as the psychologist said, was understanding that her mother was a total stranger to her. Only at that moment did she begin to write seriously and deal with her past.
“When I finished my first book I was thrilled, but in reality I didn’t feel any better: I realized that there is no ending. No closure with my past. The only thing I can do about it is to be engaged with it because the trauma will be there forever.”
"Nobody in my family wanted to talk about what I had experienced"
There is a constant suspense in Marina Nemat’s first book “Prisoners of Teheran”; what I like to call the waiting factor. When the revolution started in 1979, she was only 16. One day she discovers that she is on the list of a pro-regime professor who accused her and her friends of conspiracy.
From that moment on, the entire existence of that Iranian girl (before she fled to Canada at least) was marked by the inability to have an active role in her own life. Marina was waiting to be taken to prison, in prison she was waiting for the call from the guards, she was waiting for the execution, waiting to be freed, waiting to leave Iran. In these two years, Marina was constantly waiting to know what other people were going to do with her life. How is it possible to survive amid all of this?
“I didn’t have a choice. There were people who tried or did commit suicide in Evin prison, but it was rare,” she explains. “I would say that 99 percent of people who are in Evin, they just held it together, because there is just a will to exist. A will to live, and a hope for things to get better. That is what gets people going, because I know people who were in Evin prison for 7 or 8 years and who were freed. They made it, they got out. Of course very damaged, but when you are in that situation you don’t think about the damage, you just think of surviving.”
In a place like Evin, which she describes as “a place between life and death”, there is no space for the present. The only thing prisoners are left with is the past, the good memories. The connection between the women in prison was extremely strong, and telling each other stories was the only way to escape everyday brutality.
“We supported each other, we showed love to each other. If it was somebody’s birthday, we would share our part of food, which was bread and dates, and we would create a birthday cake with dry bread and dates. And we had to go hungry to do that. Even if Evin is a place of extreme and imaginable evil, it is at the same time a place of extreme and wonderful humanity. I think in a dark place like Evin, friendships shine the brightest.”
Still, under torture the girls were asked to give the names or the places where their friends were hiding. Sarah for example, a close friend of Marina, mentioned her name to the guards. The author writes that she would have “cooperated” with the torturers as well if she had had any information, but she did not.
“Under torture I was ready to do anything, I was ready to sell my soul because the pain was devastating me. They kept yelling at me and they were beating me very fast. I had difficulties breathing and thinking, I was just completely devastated by the pain. And they kept yelling at me ‘Where is Shahrazade?’ and I kept answering that I didn’t know.”
But as soon as the beating ended nobody asked her again to give names, because they already had them.
“Torture is not made to have information, the guards had already everything. The only goal is to devastate the human being. They knew I didn’t know where Shahrazade was, so they were beating me just for the pleasure of beating me.”
The “exception” in all this is Ali Moosavi, the prison guard who fell in love with her, “rescued” her and took her out of prison once she converted to Islam and married him. How come he chose her? She was a Christian, condemned for conspiracy against the regime: this would mean lots of trouble for him too. But Ali’s family took care of Marina more so than her own family. Ali is such an emblematic person: he is somehow a saviour, but he was also the one who forced her to change her beliefs, deciding what she should think, and ultimately unwilling to let her go back home once she was freed.
“Ali told me that when he walked into the hallway, hundreds of prisoners were sitting there, waiting to be interrogated. All the girls were wearing black chador and when he looked down the hall he saw a girl in a coat and a beige headscarf: me,” Marina says.
“I was like a Christmas tree for him. He had read my file, he knew I was the Christian girl, and when he came to me, he said he heard I was telling the girl next to me to be brave. I guess he was impressed. He had never ever had a conversation with a Christian in his all life. I was like a wonder to him: an exotic, strange and unusual woman…I was always arguing about everything, and he loved that cause he was bored, tired, exhausted. You know, torturing is not a funny job. He was depressed, tired and angry. Suddenly came entertainement: me.”
Marina is not sympathetic with the sentinels who were working in Evin, but she is aware that being a torturing guard is also a damaging job.
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Marina has forgiven them. If she had not, she would not be able to talk about it. Anger is exhausting and she was just tired of being angry. She has no difficulties in forgiving the people who tortured her, because she knows they have probably been tortured themselves.
“Under torture I was ready to do anything, I was ready to sell my soul"
“I can forgive them for what they did to me, cause I survived it. But I can’t forgive them for what they did to others, that’s not my jurisdiction. Every crime should be punished, not with torture or capital penalty. They need education and psychiatric help. Of course forgiveness is a very difficult thing to achieve, but not impossible.”
I am curious about her aunt Zenia, who escaped the Russian revolution in 1917, and who was a pillar in Marina’s life. She was a smart, attentive, and alert woman. She felt something was coming, winds were blowing and Iran was about to face a big change. Zenia shouted: “No communism, no religion: none of them works. When one dictatorship goes, another one comes.”
Zenia would have had lot to say about the Arab uprising for sure. Regarding that, Marina tells me: “I have never called it ‘Spring’, spring is such a naïve word! Spring is something colourful and breezy. A revolution is never a spring, it’s a storm. It’s a nasty, bloody, ugly, and devastating event.”
Marina is astonishingly positive, deeply believing that societies nowadays are less passive because information travels incredibly fast and if something is decided against the people, they will simply not accept it: they will immediately go down the streets and protest.
STILL, my question is: if people create revolutions or take political power “in the name of God”, and they think they are doing it rightly because they are acting in the name of God, how is this ever going to end?
“Everything has a solution. Everything will end,” she answers. “In the Middle Ages, Christians were killing others in the name of God, we were burning witches at every street corner in the name of God. Nothing stopped us from massacring, torturing and killing in the name of God. But it did end. Because this is what history does, because history evolves: it needs to respond to the human desire that demands a better life.”
Lying leaders will sooner or later decay. It might take 30, 50, 100 years, but sooner or later the system will collapse because it doesn’t satisfy people’s needs, Marina elaborates. But as long as blasphemy laws are permitted, there is never real choice: “religion and politics, and ideology and politics need to be separated. We need a secular law that is not based on a certain idea but based on the fact that all human beings are equal and that all human beings deserve to enjoy their rights and freedoms.”
Let’s go back to the first part of “Prisoners of Teheran”, dedicated to Marina’s everyday life when she was a kid, to the hours she used to spend at Albert’s bookstore, the place where she could read English books and escape from what she calls her “very limited life”. The discovery of the bookstore, when she was nine, changed her life.
“I loved books. Albert’s store was like a treasure chest… It was a bottom-less treasure box. Albert was an older gentleman, he was lonely as well. His children left the country to study, and he was sitting on a chair in his bookstore the whole day. Not too many people visited his bookshop. You would find him just sitting there, reading, he needed a companion as badly as I needed one.”
Once he discovered that she loved reading too, they spent entire days talking about books, pretending sometimes they were the characters of the stories.
“I was the dragon… or I was the sleeping beauty… and then he would make me imagine if I was the writer of the sleeping beauty, and what changes would I have made to the story. And I came up with all these imaginary ideas, and I found it fascinating, because everyone was always telling me not to make up stories. And Albert was always encouraging me to use my imagination, make up stories, and write. I loved imagining”.
The day Albert told her he was moving to the United States, Marina was devastated. She owns her love for writing to him, the one who taught her to dream and always search for happiness.
There is a passage in the book where she states: “If winning involves killing I’d rather loose… I refuse to give in to hate and to violence and maybe someday somebody will find a peaceful way to defeat evil.”
“I loved books. Albert’s store was like a treasure chest"
Is she an idealistic or simply a positive person? “I think I am getting more idealistic every day. I love beauty and I believe that beautiful ideas are connected to human nature. I really don’t think that the threat of death stops us achieve the goal of beauty. To me it is all about integrity: if something feels wrong to me, or out of place or against my moral beliefs, I would say something. Without any fear of consequences. This might be idealistic, or even stupid, but all my life I have been doing it and all my life I have been proud of it.”
We see today lots of youngsters taking part in manifestations all over the Middle East and North Africa region. They are rebelling, as Marina and lots of other young people did at the time of the Islamic Revolution.
“Teenagers are there to rebel. Teenagers by nature they need to clash with everything, imagine when you are a teenager during a revolution that takes away all the liberties you had. As a teenager, you are going to explode, and this is exactly what happened to my friends and I. The beauty of all that is that we were right, sometimes the rebellion is stupid, but this rebellion was about rights, human rights, about freedom, about women’s freedom, democracy and justice.”
Youngsters’ energy during the revolutions can be used positively or negatively, she explains, it depends on the people leading the movement.
“When you take teenage rebellion and a good dash of social justice into it, you are going to get a weapon of mass destruction! Or mass construction!” depending on how the energy is contained.
Drawings by Hélène Aldeguer.