Monday, November 2, 2009

Marina Nemat: Prisoner of Tehran

Reading about the resurgence of European anti-Semitism brought to mind something that Marina Nemat said at a recent lunchtime lecture in downtown Toronto. Ms. Nemat, author of the book, Prisoner of Tehran: One Woman's Story of Survival Inside an Iranian Prison, is often invited to address groups of students.

In her talks, Ms. Nemat likes to read from the fictionalized memoir of a Holocaust survivor. A student once asked her how this could have been done to Jewish families and why their neighbours didn't do something to stop it.

Ms. Nemat replied that, if she hadn't seen it happen with her own eyes in Iran, she would not have been able to comprehend it. It begins, she explained, with small changes: your liberties are taken away, one after another, and by the time you realize what is happening, it's too late to act: if you speak up, someone will come and shoot you or, worse, torture and rape your children in front of you.

So now, in Canada, Ms. Nemat is speaking out. She speaks of her own experiences during the Iranian Revolution and we would be wise to learn from her.

Marina Nemat grew up in Tehran, Iran. Her father taught ballroom dancing; her mother was a hairdresser. They lived in an apartment in downtown Tehran, in a modern neighbourhood that looked much like parts of Toronto look today. When she was growing up, 95 percent of the women in central Tehran did not wear the hijab. The decision to wear it depended on location and level of education: fewer women wore the hijab in the north than in the south.

Her childhood and adolescent years were similar to the typical Canadian's: on Thursday nights she watched Little House on the Prairie and on Friday nights she watched The Donny and Marie Show. (Like me, she was in love with Donny Osmond. I am sorry to report that neither of us won his heart.)

Her family loved to spend time at their cottage on the beautiful Caspian Sea. Ms. Nemat and her young teenaged friends wore bikinis, had beach parties, listened to groups such as the BeeGees and had lots of fun times together.

Ms. Nemat attended a Zoroastrian high school because it was a good school and close to home; the student population was about 60 percent Muslim, 39 percent Zoroastrian and one percent Jewish, Christian and Baha'i. (Both of Ms. Nemat's grandmothers were Russian and her family was Russian Orthodox; the family converted to Roman Catholicism.) She was a strong student and hoped to become a doctor. Unlike in her grandmother's time, this was a valid career choice for a woman; when Ms. Nemat was young, Iranian women served as judges and cabinet ministers.

Her grandmother's experiences had been very different: when she fled to Iran from Communist Russia in the 1920s, all women in Iran wore the hijab, the country had no universities and it was common to see camels in the streets.

In 1925, Reza Shah became Shah of Iran. Despite his many failings, he managed to bring some modernity to Iran, with the building of roads, the trans-Iranian railroad and the University of Tehran. He also banned the hijab in 1935 out of a belief that the custom was holding women back from fully participating in society. Unfortunately, Ms. Nemat said, he did not prepare society for this change, and the law banning hijabs was later reversed.

As far as she knew, Ms. Nemat's family was not political. One day in 1978, when she was a 13-year-old Grade 8 student, her family returned from the beach to see a military tank parked in front of their house; their lives were never the same: they were now living in Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic Republic.

Suddenly, there were people in the streets yelling, "Death to America!" and "Death to Israel!" She witnessed violence in the street and "cat and mouse" games between protesters and police. Schools were shut down for two or three months.

An 18-year-old friend helped Ms. Nemat understand what was happening. He told her about Ayatollah Khomeini and said that people who rebelled against him were put in prison.

School was not the same when it reopened. The principal was gone: she had been executed, so the vice-principal took over.

At lunch and recess, Grade 11 and 12 students sold Marxist publications in the schoolyard.

"If you wanted to be with the cool kids," Ms. Nemat said, "you had to be with the Marxists."

There was also a separate group of Marxist-Islamist students.

Teachers started to disappear. The students were told that one 39-year-old female teacher had retired. The teachers were replaced with 18- and 19-year olds who were not qualified to teach; school became nothing more than daily propaganda sessions.

Students put their heads down and "didn't analyze too much" what was happening. They accepted each teacher's absence and tried not to think too much about it but over time, it bothered them more and more.

One day in calculus class, Ms. Nemat was fed up with listening to the endless propaganda, so she asked her teacher to actually do her job and teach them calculus.

The teacher said, "If you don't like it, leave."

Ms. Nemat walked out of the classroom and was surprised to discover that 30 classmates had followed her.

Thus began a three-day student strike, "a revolution with a revolution," that ended when their 19-year-old school principal (a member of the Revolutionary Guard) said she would call the Revolutionary Guard and have the students shot if they refused to return to class. Their three days of unstructured fun was over: the students went back to school.

Unlike the recent uprising in Iran which the world followed via Facebook, Twitter and blogs, in the 1980s, "the world did not hear" about their protests. And so the world did not know that the first arrests, in 1981, were of outspoken teenagers, those rebellious ones who persisted in reading banned books by authors such as Jane Austen, Marx and Lenin.

"Every day you would go to school and there was a desk empty," Ms. Nemat said. "And then they came for me."

She was at home, all of 16 years old, getting ready for a bath, when she heard the doorbell ring. She knew by the way her mother called her name that something was wrong. She opened the bathroom door and saw two guns pointed at her face.

"I think I left my body," she said.

She went into a state of shock that lasted 20 years.

The police took her to Evin Prison in north Tehran, where guards handed her a strip of cloth and ordered her to blindfold herself. She felt no emotion, no fear, nothing: she was completely numb. She waited a long time, seated on the floor with hundreds of other people. She could see from beneath her blindfold that they were all wearing running shoes, which at that time were only worn by young people, not adults.

During her interrogation, she answered all questions truthfully because she that's what her family had taught her.

"The truth shall set you free," her grandmother had always said. But not this time.

Yes, she had written articles in the student newspaper: everyone knew it; why deny it? No, she didn't know the whereabouts of a certain Marxist student with whom she had had one conversation. She had the impression that their real interest lay in the Marxist student.

While still blindfolded, Ms. Nemat could hear a young man screaming "on the top of his lungs" in another room. Her state of shock was so great that, "I couldn't make any logical connections to the world around me."

The guards removed her blindfold, took her to another room and handcuffed her. When they saw that the handcuffs would easily have slipped off her tiny wrists, they forced both of her wrists into one handcuff. As she screamed from the pain, she realized that she would not be able to withstand torture. As Ms. Nemat said, although some adults in certain political movements have been trained to withstand torture and can lie despite the pain, she was a young Christian girl who had been raised to tell the truth and who was not prepared in any way for torture.

The guards tied her to a bed and lashed the bottoms of her feet. The pain she suffered was indescribable.

At some point, "I heard that I had been condemned to death."

She was one of 30,000 prisoners being held in a prison built for 3,000. All cases were heard by a sharia (Islamic law) judge who spent a maximum of five minutes on each case, regardless of the complexities or charges involved. Verdicts were passed quickly; defendants were not necessarily present at their hearing and sentencing. Not one of her friends in prison was sentenced to anything less than 10 years.

Eventually, Ms. Nemat's sentence was reduced to life in prison.

On her cell block, 90 percent of the prisoners were under the age of 18. They were overcrowded and given an insufficient diet of bread, dates and cheese. To try to make the distribution of food as fair as possible, the prisoners gave one girl the responsibility of dividing it between them all.

Three hundred and sixty girls shared one bathroom. Much of their time was spent standing in an endless line for the bathroom; after they used it, they'd need to line up so they could use it again.

At night, the floor was "carpeted with people" sleeping.

Every day, girls were called for interrogation and came back to the cell block "bloody and beaten." Sometimes they didn't come back.

The girls tried to "create hope" by talking about normal, everyday life. They fought despair by remembering all the good things about their lives back home.

Ms. Nemat loved to read but there weren't many books available in the prison. Copies of the Koran were plentiful, however, so she read it and was impressed by its beautiful language and poetry. However, some of the verses troubled her, in particular Chapter 4, Verse 3, which says:
"And if you fear that you cannot act equitably towards orphans, then marry such women as seem good to you, two and three and four; but if you fear that you will not do justice (between them), then (marry) only one or what your right hands possess; this is more proper, that you may not deviate from the right course."
"What your right hands possess" – Ms. Nemat knew this referred to prisoners. She wondered what, if any, relevance this verse had to her, since she was a prisoner. She would soon find out.

One day her interrogator, Ali, told her, "You are going to marry me or I am going to arrest your parents."

She agreed to marry him (as if she had a choice) because of his threat against her parents. When he said she'd have to convert to Islam, she agreed to that, too.

(During the Question & Answer period, she said that the first thing she did when she was released from prison was to go home; the second thing was to go to church and confess her sins. She is still a Christian but she is considered by some Muslims to be an apostate from Islam.)

At 17 years of age, the forced marriage "was nothing but legalized rape."

Her fellow inmates didn't talk about being raped "but you could see it in their eyes." Their personalities changed: "they'd get quiet." They all knew what was happening when girls were absent from their rooms between 2:00 to 6:00 o'clock in the morning. Ms. Nemat asked to go into solitary confinement so she wouldn't have to lie to anyone about what was being done to her.

In what has to qualify as the most bizarre trips home to meet the in-laws, Ms. Nemat's interrogator-husband took her on short leaves of absence from the prison to spend time with his parents. Ms. Nemat's new mother-in-law, seemingly oblivious to her situation, treated her well: she fed her, chatted about everyday life and taught her the perfect way to cook rice.

"Her kindness astonished me," Ms. Nemat said; "it was like a slap in the face."

She was horrified to learn that "my husband the torturer had been a victim" years earlier in the same prison. This news was shattering to her: she feared it meant that, one day, she too would become a torturer.

"Suddenly everything collapsed. I didn't know who I was anymore."

After her husband was assassinated, the court wanted to assign her to another husband, but her in-laws intervened on her behalf. It took time and a lot of bribe money but, after serving two years, two months and 12 days in prison, Ms. Nemat went home to her family.

Her return home and reintegration into normal life was made more difficult and painful when her family and the people around her would talk about everything under the sun except where she had been and what she had gone through. This issue will be explored in her next book, which will focus on the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution; it is scheduled to be released in the fall of 2010.

It took six years before she was permitted to leave Iran. She was finally given her papers after she did as she was told by the authorities and took a suitcase full of bribe money to the prison.

Marina Nemat addressed a small but attentive group of people at a lunchtime meeting in Toronto on October 22nd. It was a pleasure to meet her and hear her speak. I'm looking forward to reading her memoir.

When asked during the Q&A period about the Marxist-Islamist alliance, she mentioned a group called Mjuahadeen-e-Khalq which is active around the world, including Canada. Read what the Council on Foreign Relations has to say about the group here.