On a cold January evening in 1982, two Iranian Revolutionary Guards burst into the Tehran home of 16-year-old Marina Nemat and placed her under arrest. Her crime? She had criticized the Islamic government in her school newspaper and had asked her calculus teacher to teach math instead of propaganda. The young woman was taken to the notorious political prison Evin, where she was blindfolded, handcuffed and tortured, her soles whipped with a cable.
Nemat was also sentenced to execution. Set in front of a firing squad, her life was spared at the last moment by a guard named Ali. He gave her the option of marrying him and living under house arrest. The alternative, he threatened, was to arrest her parents and execute her boyfriend. The 15-month marriage ended only after a rival political faction assassinated Ali.
Twenty-five years later, Nemat has detailed her experiences in Prisoner of Tehran (Viking Canada). After immigrating to Toronto with her husband, Andre (the boyfriend Ali had threatened to execute), and son in 1991, the couple had a second son and moved to a house in the suburbs. But after the death of her mother, Nemat experienced nightmares and violent flashbacks.“There was a jumble of images in my head, and I couldn’t take it anymore,” she says.“I either had to go jump off a bridge or do something really stupid, or I had to make sense of all the memories. Being a reader, the most logical thing that came to mind was putting it on paper.” Nemat found time to write most afternoons after waitressing the lunchtime shift at Swiss Chalet. She would head over to Second Cup, buy a hot chocolate and write in her notebook for an hour before picking up her sons from school. She didn’t intend to publish her writings. But Nemat’s nightmares continued, and she realized it was because many of her memories were still secret. (No one in her family – including her parents – had ever asked her about her experiences in prison.)
In 2002 Nemat enrolled in U of T’s School of Continuing Studies, where she took classes ranging from grammar to non-fiction, and earned a certificate in creative writing over five years. Instructors helped her revise her manuscript (there were seven drafts in total), and introduced her to an agent.
Nemat’s book is now a bestseller in Canada, and has been published in 17 languages. She is writing her first novel, about an Iranian woman who has a baby while imprisoned. But her biggest success,perhaps, is creating her own psychological freedom by breaking out of “a cycle of hatred.” “I have watched good people turn into bad people – very bad people,” says Nemat. “And I have watched them do terrible things to each other because they hate one another.When you watch that, you feel helpless. And if you are lucky enough, you are able to separate yourself from that hatred, you are able to overcome all the reasons to hate and pull yourself out of it. I don’t know how it’s done.How does a human being pull himself or herself out of the cycle of hatred? People do it all the time. I’m not the only one.”