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A Prisoner of Tehran Looks Forward

An Interview with Marina Nemat

Marina Nemat was born in 1965 in Tehran, Iran. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, she was arrested at the age of 16 and spent more than two years in Evin, a political prison in Tehran, where she was tortured and came very close to execution. She came to Canada in 1991 and has called it home ever since. Prisoner of Tehran is a memoir of her imprisonment and life in Iran and is an international bestseller.

In 2007, Nemat received the inaugural Human Dignity Award from the European Parliament, and in 2008, she received the prestigious Grinzane Prize in Italy. In 2008/2009, she was an Aurea Fellow at University of Toronto's Massey College, where she wrote her second book, After Tehran: A Life Reclaimed. Nemat regularly speaks at high schools, universities, and conferences around the world and sits on the Board of Directors at CCVT (Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture) as well as on advisory boards at ACAT (Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture). She delivered the keynote address at Acton University in 2013. Nemat also teaches memoir writing, in Farsi and in English, at the School of Continuing Studies at University of Toronto. She was recently interviewed by managing editor Ray Nothstine.

R&L: Marina, why did you write Prisoner of Tehran, what really inspired you to write this account?

Marina Nemat: I find when people ask me what inspired me, it doesn't speak to my experience. J.K. Rowling was inspired to write Harry Potter or Jane Austen was inspired to write Pride and Prejudice. If you ask Elie Wiesel if he was inspired, he might get upset.

I wish I could be inspired to write a book, but when some people write memoirs, they write because there has been some serious trauma in their life. Serious trauma causes something that nowadays is called "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder." PTSD, unlike what some may think, is not limited to soldiers who come home from war zones. When I was released from prison after two years, two months, and 12 days of imprisonment between the ages of 16 and 18, I was suffering from PTSD.

Post Traumatic Stress is basically a silent killer and it is often worse when the society is not ready to recognize it, which is often the case for non-soldiers. When you are put in prison because you were a danger to national security, it's a different story. So when I came out and my family sat at the dinner table with me and talked about the weather and the community and avoided what happened at any cost, that had a deep impact. If you're walking down the street and these people don't make eye contact with you, you're not allowed to go to school, it has an impact. You're not even allowed to get a job. You become quite isolated and in the meantime your community, your family, they expect you to be normal and you expect yourself to be normal because life goes on.

And that is the scenario you fit yourself into, you pretend to be normal, you act normal, you behave normally for as long as you can maintain that charade. I maintained it for many years until we finally left Iran, went to Canada, landed in Toronto with $200 in our pockets and when we got there, I had a child who was ill. We had to get jobs. We had to start making money. We had to take care of our family. My family was too busy surviving and then in 2000, I brought my parents to Canada with me and they had avoided talking about the past. I avoided talking about the past.

In 2000, my mother became ill with cancer and I sat by her bedside and looked at her and I realized I didn't know this woman because we had never talked about anything but the weather. She died and after her funeral at my brother's house in Toronto, I had my very first psychotic episode. This was in 2000, 16 years after my release. I went to sit down next to my father and he looked at me and he said, "Marina, your mother forgave you before she died," and I suddenly realized he means my mother forgave me because of my imprisonment.

So I opened my mouth to ask, "What do you mean?" and what came out was a horrific scream and then I collapsed. Eventually there was a doctor there, she came over me and she helped me. I realized I had to take this matter into my own hands so I started writing as a way to tell my story. My experiences gradually came out and I was having more and more psychotic episodes and it was just getting worse. I thought maybe writing will help. It actually made it worse, so then I thought I should publish my experience so that the world will know what happened.

How do you feel like your imprisonment and experience of being tortured strengthened your Christian faith?

It completely broke me at the beginning, as a Christian and as a human being. That is the point of torture. Torture is not designed to get information. Torture is designed to break the human soul. It is designed to strip your dignity. That is what torture did to me. And then I was given a death sentence and then I was left in this very strange place called death row prison; it is this surreal feeling of limbo between life and death. I had to come up with a way to understand what was happening and why was it happening. I tried to discern what my role in this whole bizarre and indescribable scenario was for my life.


Marina Nemat giving her keynote address titled, “Finding Christ in an Iranian Prison,” at this years Acton University.

In solitary confinement, I gradually started to use my writing in a very philosophic way. How much philosophy did I really know at the age of 16? Almost nothing, but I had this practical way of dealing with everyday matters. I found out my sentence was commuted to life in prison. I learned that it doesn't matter what your sentence is; they could kill you tomorrow or in five minutes. People had served their time and instead of being released, they were executed.

When I was on death row, I thought a lot about when they decide to kill me; would my captors give me a choice on how I would die? That was one of the thoughts that actually preoccupied me for quite some time and I would wonder if they were going to shoot me, hang me, or stone me? I even thought they might crucify me. I thought which one would I choose if there was an option?

So all of these thought processes, they each led from one thing to the next and in solitary confinement, people would tell you that it's easy to go insane and I was so bored out of my wits and I had no books. I had nothing. It was a period of picturing a never-ending canvas board with nothing to fill it with except really dark thoughts. I started thinking that I really needed company really badly. That is when I began conversing with God. I started wondering what my family and friends were doing without me and I just had this feeling that I had been erased by the regime.

I had grown up as a Christian so I had taken a lot of catechism, but the next step was questioning God. I go to this point where I could decide to be really angry with God but then I began to think about the crucifix and what Christ suffered. And then there was this surrendering process where I knew only God was going to be able to get me out of this situation.

I think a lot of Americans and Christians in the West feel powerless about the amount of persecution going on in the Middle East and other parts of the world. How can the average person make an impact in fighting against persecution and torture today?

I think feeling powerless is the greatest enemy to us as human beings. I think the moment we feel helpless and we stop engaging, that is the moment that we allow evil to thrive and become empowered. It is the silent majority that allows atrocities to happen. Think about Germany and think about the Holocaust, if millions stood up and intervened to stop Hitler from shipping Jews to concentration camps, the Holocaust would never have happened. The war might have ended sooner. But the average citizen is usually discouraged, usually feels helpless, usually feels insignificant and usually feels afraid, and that is an obstacle too.

First of all, the important thing is to not to forget morality and the dignity of the person. Justifying any evil act, including murder and torture, is wrong. We do evil, we become evil, we allow evil to thrive in us and that is not what is meant for us. So the first step is to understand that when you want to fight evil, you cannot do it by doing evil. We have to get our morality straight first to make sure we know what's right and why it is right. The only way to proceed on these issues is to follow Christ and his example. He told us that it is in meekness that we find strength.

Obviously I wouldn't say sell everything you own and move to the Middle East. I would say look around you, look at the circle around you, look at the talent and gifts that God has given you and considering your own talents, do something to make the world around you a better place.

I think what the world needs more than anything is the change of heart in the person. Goodness doesn't need to just happen in the Middle East. We have a desperate need for moral clarity all around us. Start making an impact where you are and then work your way up and then allow God to take you to where you have not considered going. Start it right where you are and then if you're supposed to go where you have never considered going, it will happen gradually if you remain open to it.

It was just a few years ago that people were protesting the government in Iran and we saw action being taken in the street. Do you feel like maybe America or the West did enough to support them?

No. America has really made some harmful decisions in the Middle East. In 1953 there was a CIA coup staged in Iran. Mohammed Mosaddegh, who led the first democratically elected government in Iran, was overthrown. The CIA staged a coup because Iran wanted to nationalize the oil.

America, like any other country, looks out for its own interests first. I understand that is the way it goes, but at the same time we have to keep morality in mind. We have to ask ourselves if we want oil at any cost? Many Iranians remembered that America was much more concerned about cheap oil than the will of the people. So at the first opportunity they got in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini came along and said, "You know what? The U.S. has really damaged us and I'm going to free you from that." They believed it! The people of Iran were very naïve back then and they believed him because he was a man of God.

I mean we had these terrible governments, let's say for example in Egypt with Hosni Mubarak, who was propped up by America. So now is Egypt moving toward democracy? I certainly doubt it. Probably one dictator replaces another one.

When you look at the world around you, you have to remember that human dignity should be the number one priority. If you don't focus on that, the West will reap the whirlwind. Unfortunately, America is making many of the same mistakes again.

With what has happened in Cairo with the Arab Spring and some of these revolutions conducted by the Syrian rebels, what lessons can they learn from Iran? There are some leaders and Americans that feel like it's going to result in democratization.

Iran did what the Arab world is doing today. Mubarak, the Shah, a Westernbacked government with a lot of money and weaponry poured into it. The West stood by the Shah the same way that it stood by Mubarak and, of course, it eventually backfired.

If you look at the culture of Iran and the culture of the Arab world, you would see that Iran is really the Persian Empire. It is the cradle of civilization. Iran has always been ahead when it comes to everything, when compared to its Arab neighbors. Iran is doing everything 30 years ahead, and it did that too by choosing an Islamic government.


Marina Nemat at this years Acton University signing copies of her memoir about growing up in Iran, serving time in Evin Prison, and speaking out against the Iranian government.

Political Islam really began in 1979 Iran. There's a lot to learn from that. Several countries are trying the exact same route. Now we are 30 years ahead, so is the result of these movements going to be the exact same as it was in Iran? Not necessarily, but the possibility is there.

I think it's quite remarkable what has been going on in Turkey. It is the model of stability and yet the people of Turkey are getting worried and thinking some of the dissidents mirror Iran. So they're thinking, do we want to try an Islamic government? Let's look at Iran. No, we don't really want to try the Islamic state, but there are divisions in the country. Turkey still has a certain degree of democracy, but is it strong enough to allow the people to steer it in the right direction? I don't know. We'll have to wait and see.

You talked a lot about your passion for reading in your book and some of the books that you read growing up. What are a couple books that sustained you through hardship and have been meaningful for you?

I read a lot of Jane Austen and C.S. Lewis and it allowed me to escape to a world where things were beautiful and magical and made sense. Then the Iranian Revolution happened and reading anything except Islamic texts became illegal, so I basically stopped or read a whole lot less.

And when I was released from prison, I discovered that my mother had washed my books because she had no other way to destroy them, so she washed them in the washing machine and mixed the pages in with the garbage. That was her way of destroying them. But when I'm in real trouble, when things get cloudy and I'm not quite sure what to do, the only book that relieves that pressure is the Bible. There's no substitute for the Word.