Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Prisoner of Tehran: a memoir by Marina Nemat

Marina, aged 41 when this book was published, spent 2 years and 2 months in Evin Prison in Tehran, a place notorious for the torture and incarceration of those considered to be enemies of the state of Iran.  When she was 16 years old, Marina came under suspicion for leaving a calculus class in protest, after the Revolutionary Guard person teaching the class refused to teach calculus and instead recited a litany of great deeds done by Ayatollah Khomeini, the religious leader.   Although Marina had not expected such an outcome, almost the entire class followed her out, starting a school-wide strike against the Guard, who were in charge of the school after the Iranian Revolution.   After two days of students at the school refusing to attend class, they were forced to end their strike under pain of being turned over to the Guards, known for their harsh tactics.  Marina found it hard to grasp that she was really in danger when a teacher and family friend told Marina later that she was now targeted and should flee Iran with her family.  She knew her family had no money for such a trip, and she felt like she had to take her chances.

As her friends start disappearing, however, the whole narrative becomes more and more ominous.  There is a street protest against the government, and armed Guards shoot the protesters from rooftops.  In the face of this threat, few citizens are outspoken, and Marina’s mother warns her to just lay low and stop putting herself in harm’s way.  You can see the culture shutting down bit by bit under the regime, with people trying to live their normal lives while changing their practices to avoid recrimination and punishment.  

After Marina is arrested she is sentenced to be executed but is saved at the last moment by a prison interrogator who is impressed by her testimony and eventually falls in love with her.  He forces her to convert to Islam, as she is Catholic, and compels her to marry him by threatening harm to her family and former boyfriend.  The complexities of her status and her life through this ordeal are dizzying.  She spends some nights with her husband in a special room, when he is free, and even stays with him outside the prison, although she is still a prisoner.  Her husband becomes at odds with those running the prison who are practicing violence, and he asks Marina to help some other female prisoners before they are tortured to death. 
What you see in this book are the shades of terror and of anguish which are engendered by brutality.  Marina has a new life in Canada now with a new husband and family.  However, when the Iranian-born Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi was tortured and killed in Evin in 2003, Marina realized that it was time to tell her story. 

I found her story difficult and yet her writing opens up her heart, in terms of what and who she loved, and what this experience did to her.  Ironically, in an interview she had with National Public Radio, the questioner suggests that she must have had “Stockholm syndrome” – where a victim feels solidarity with their persecutor.  Although she agrees, she calls that syndrome, in the end, just a label.  And that is true.  Just as all these testimonies can be reduced to statistics, to events, to a story happening far away – what counts is whether we see it through her eyes, and hear it with the beating of her heart.  

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