Interview / Discovering the night sky
It took two decades for Marina Nemat to begin to contemplate, and write down, her memories of two years of imprisonment and torture in the notorious Evin prison in Tehran. But once she started writing, she found she couldn't stop.
Marina Nemat, an Iranian-born Canadian refugee from Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, and author of the memoirs "Prisoner of Tehran" (2007 ) and "After Tehran: A Life Reclaimed" (2010), comes to Israel as a guest of the Jerusalem International Book Fair (Monday, 4 P.M., at the Literary Cafe) at an uncanny moment.
"The images we have been seeing in Cairo are very, disturbingly, similar to what we saw on the streets of Tehran: an ocean of people ... Marxists, liberals, everybody," she says of the anti-Shah demonstrations then and the anti-Mubarak demonstrations now. "[In 1978-79] different political groups that just a minute before could not see eye to eye were suddenly all there together, hand in hand, calling for democracy and yet for an Islamic republic, without really understanding what an Islamic republic would mean."
Had she been able to address the sea of demonstrators gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square, I asked Nemat in an early-February call to her home in suburban Toronto, what would she have said to them?
"I'm very pro-democracy, and I would definitely encourage the people of Egypt. But at the same time I would warn them to look at and learn from Iran," she replies. "[President Hosni] Mubarak has destroyed the opposition in Egypt; the only opposition left is the Muslim Brotherhood. And while I certainly can't say that the [democracy movement] will lead to another dictatorship, I am saying there's a possibility - a real danger - that it will go the wrong way. So I'd ask them to please learn from history. Iranians are still suffering from a revolution that turned into much more of a dictatorship than the Shah's. So please don't dismiss the possibility that things can go wrong."
Just how wrong things went for Nemat herself is the subject of "Prisoner of Tehran" (Free Press, 336 pages, $15, paperback ), which details, through a series of dramatic twists, her arrest at age 16 for defying the Khomeini regime's new order by sparking a student strike in her high school and writing anti-regime articles in its newspaper; her torture in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison; and her last-second rescue from execution by her interrogator, the well-connected Ali-eh Moosavi. Salvation was hardly at hand for the teenager, however. Smitten with the comely Marina, Moosavi proceeded to force her into marriage - which also entailed her conversion from Christianity to Islam - by threatening harm to her parents and her boyfriend, Andre Nemat, if she rejected his proposal. Only through his family, which proved remarkably caring toward his child bride, did she learn that Moosavi himself had earlier been imprisoned in Evin and suffered torture at the hands of the shah's agents, introducing an even more ironic element into Marina's relationship with her protector-captor.
It was by appealing to no less a power than Ayatollah Khomeini himself that Moosavi had managed to get Marina's death sentence commuted to life in prison, and then, after arranging for her retrial in Evin, from life to three years. After Moosavi's assassination, apparently by rival elements in Evin, his father - again by appealing to the Supreme Leader - succeeded in getting Marina released from prison after having served two years. As an ex-prisoner, Marina - who again risked arrest by marrying Andre, a Catholic, despite the regime's explicit prohibition on Muslim women marrying outside the faith - was blocked from receiving a passport for three years. Once that period expired, however, she left Iran with Andre, an electrical engineer, and their toddler son to resettle in Toronto, where her older brother had been living for years. Her parents followed three years later.
More than a decade after she left Iran in 1990, and two decades after her arrest in January 1982, Nemat finally began setting her experiences to paper. Her books are threaded with themes - survivor guilt and shame, the reliability of memory, and the aftereffects of severe trauma - that resonate in Israel. ("Prisoner of Tehran" was published in Hebrew last year by Dvir. ) While still in prison, Marina told her parents, whom she describes as having been self-absorbed and judgmental as long as she could remember, that she had converted to Islam but she did not tell them why. And neither during her stay in Evin nor afterward did she reveal to them, or to Andre, that she had married her interrogator under duress in order to protect them. What's more, neither did her family or her boyfriend ever ask her about what she had endured during those two years in Evin. Not that she was emotionally prepared to go into detail upon her release, when the wounds of coercion and loss were still so fresh, Nemat explains, "But it would have been nice if someone in my family had said: Marina, we understand that what you went through was very difficult. But we need you to know that when you're ready to talk about it, we are here to listen," she says.
Oddly enough, what induced Nemat's 2002 decision to tell her story - indeed, to commit it to paper - was likewise the dynamic of what she now refers to as her "dysfunctional family." It began with what she describes as "a screaming fit at my mother's funeral, like a psychotic episode, after my father told me that she had forgiven me before her death, but he didn't say for what." Nemat could think of no recent matter for which she might require her mother's pardon. Then she realized that her father was referring to events that had occurred two decades earlier in Iran and understood that her parents had actually harbored a grudge against her for the suffering her arrest and imprisonment had caused them. That was when Nemat resolved that, "even though my family didn't want to know what had happened to me, I was going to write it all down." The beauty of writing, she adds, "is that when you write, you are not judged: It's only you and that piece of paper, and you can say whatever you want."
"Prisoner of Tehran" began as 80 handwritten pages that Nemat initially kept hidden in her underwear drawer. After she had warily shown them to her husband, who asked forgiveness for never having inquired about her tribulations, they ultimately grew into a 300-page manuscript crafted and re-crafted with the aid of instructors and critiques from fellow students in the creative writing courses Nemat enrolled in at the University of Toronto. Though written long after the fact, the narrative is told, in unadorned language, from the perspective of the teenaged Marina, according it a sense of immediacy, if also an occasional tinge of melodrama. "I wasn't even aware of this perspective as I was writing," Nemat recalls. "But after one of my teachers pointed it out, it made sense to me, because that 16-year-old girl never had the opportunity to bear witness."
Names of flowers
Nemat's rendition is also remarkably detailed, down to the names of flowers encountered in specific places and the clothing worn by people she encountered on various occasions. Asked how she was able to conjure up such detail after so many years, Nemat invokes the unique legacy of trauma. While writing her second book, "After Tehran: A Life Reclaimed" (Viking Canada, 272 pages, CDN$34 ), Nemat relates, she asked a noted psychiatrist about the degree to which one can trust the accuracy of one's memories. The doctor replied that exercising the memory is like looking at a patch of the night sky: "At first you just see a few stars, but the more you look, the more you discover."
"My first draft was not at all detailed. But as I continued writing, I would close my eyes, concentrate, and look back as carefully as I could," Nemat continues. "And I found that when you have experienced trauma, your brain works almost like a camcorder." Of course, some victims deliberately suppress memories, she notes, and no one can say exactly how accurate are the memories of those who choose to evoke them. "But my book is how I recall and have recorded my experience," she says. "And that is my right as a survivor."
Following her arrival in Canada, Nemat bore a second son and worked for years as a waitress to help support her family. Now her days are dedicated to public appearances, writing articles, and human rights work as a member of the advisory committee of Christians for the Abolition of Torture and of the refugee committee of her local church, which is involved in bringing Iraqi refugees to Canada. Next fall she also plans to teach a memoir writing course, in Farsi, at the University of Toronto to encourage other local Iranians to come forward and tell their story.
Especially because she has become a figure in Canadian human rights circles, I ask Nemat whether she had any qualms about accepting the invitation to the Jerusalem book fair - as well as a second invite from the Israeli Tourism Ministry to return next month as its guest - given the movement in Canada to impose an economic, cultural and academic boycott on Israel. "No qualms at all," she replies, adding that her decision was even supported by some of her Palestinian friends.
"I cannot say that I understand the situation between the Palestinians and Israel one hundred percent," she says. "And I see this as an opportunity to study the issue more closely." But whatever the nature of the disagreement, Nemat posits, "there is always the possibility to sit down and talk it out. So if I have a chance to visit any country - except Iran, of course, where I would surely be arrested and tortured again - and to speak to the people and to political figures and promote dialogue, of course I'll go."
Ina Friedman is an Israel correspondent of the Dutch daily newspaper Trouw.