“I saw (…) people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening (…) and no one dared disturb the sound of silence”. Simon and Garfunkel, “The Sound Of Silence”, 1964.
40 years ago, in January 1982, 16-year-old Marina Nemat was arrested and imprisoned for her views on the Iranian revolution. In 2007, exactly 25 years after her arrest, Marina Nemat published the troubling story of her past : Prisoner of Tehran : A Memoir.
In an era of communication, freedom of speech, and excess of information, citizens of western countries do not hesitate to speak up and break the silence that comes from fear or fight against injustice. It is important to remember there are places where the situation is different, and where silence cannot be disturbed.
A Story of Survival…
The popular uprising of 1978 in Iran led to the end of the monarchy on February 11th 1979 and the establishment of an Islamic Republic by Khomeini. The new regime returned to conservative values, used violence, and reduced women’s rights.
In her memoir, Marina Nemat recounts the days before the revolution. She writes about growing up in a Russian Orthodox family in Tehran, going to church, to school, and even about her first relationship. As a member of the school newspaper, after the revolution, she published articles denouncing the school curriculum that the new regime put in place. Speaking up against propaganda, she asked her math teacher to continue teaching math instead of giving the class an Islamic lecture. The teacher replied that she should leave if she was unhappy, which she did, followed by some of her classmates.
Shortly after these incidents, she is arrested and sent to Evin prison, known for its torture practices and atrocities. The prison holds many of the regime’s political prisoners, and was once called “Evin University” by the media because of the number of intellectuals detained there.
At Evin prison, Marina is beaten, tortured, and sentenced to death. As she is about to be executed, she is instead taken back into the prison. She was saved from death by one of the guards, but now faces life in prison. Months later, Marina Nemat realizes that she was saved for a reason : the guard who saved her had fallen in love with her and wants to force her to marry him and convert her to Islam. He threatens her family and dear friend André, until she cannot refuse. She leaves Evin prison but does not regain her freedom. She recounts the horrors of the marriage, and the isolation.
Prisoner of Tehran ends with her oppressor’s death and her escape to Canada with André Nemat, whom she marries.
… and of Resilience.
In 2010, Marina Nemat published a second memoir about life after horror, entitled After Tehran : A Life Reclaimed. She deals with grief, survivor’s guilt, and the difficulty of speaking up after trauma.
In some of the conferences she gave on her memoir Prisoner of Tehran, Marina Nemat explains that she was never really able to communicate about her time in Evin Prison with those around her. She speaks of the desire she sometimes has to be “normal” and to not be looked at as a hero, because that heroism comes from immense suffering.
These memories from her life as a captive teach us about a time period we may not know much of, and of realities we sometimes prefer to ignore. Marina Nemat, through her writing, reminds us of the importance of embracing the freedom we have, the necessity of sharing our stories, and how hard it can be to break the silence.
- Couverture : Domaine Public
- Article : ©Pearl Pirie, Marina Nemat, 2011, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0