Marina Nemat: Testifying for Iran’s dead political prisoners

Posted on Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Marina Nemat was incarcerated in Iran's notorious Evin prison when she was just 16. / Photo courtesy of Marina Nemat.

Echenberg Family Conference Series on Human Rights runs from March 21-23

Editor’s Note: From March 21-23, the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, will host the third annual Echenberg Family Conference Series on Human Rights. Titled the Global Conference on Democracy, Human Rights and the Fragility of Freedom, the event will provide an interdisciplinary and international forum for exploring how to build and revitalize democracies, focusing on the protection of human dignity and the challenges of equitable participation and democratic accountability.

One of the speakers at the Conference, Marina Nemat, was born in 1965 in Tehran, Iran. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, at the age of 16, she was arrested and spent more than two years in Evin, a political prison in Tehran, where she was tortured and nearly executed. Nemat came to Canada in 1991 and has called it home ever since. Her memoir of her life in Iran, Prisoner of Tehran, was published by Penguin Canada in 2007, has been published in 28 other countries, and has been an international bestseller.

For more information on the Global Conference on Democracy, Human Rights and the Fragility of Freedom go to

By Neale McDevitt

As a teenager in Iran in the early 1980s, Marina Nemat had a world of possibilities stretched out before her. Curious, studious and ambitious, Nemat was already weighing career paths, including becoming a doctor.

Her delicate 90-pound frame also belied a fierce resolve, as the outspoken Nemat wasn’t going to let the Iranian Revolution get in the way of her dreams. She openly questioned her high school’s government-supplied teachers (“fanatics who weren’t qualified to teach,” says Nemat) for their continual espousing of religious doctrines. When one teacher responded to Nemat’s request to include more calculus and less government propaganda in the curriculum, the teacher challenged her to leave the class if she wasn’t happy. Nemat stood and walked out, bringing with her most of her classmates. It wasn’t the last time Nemat found herself on the frontlines of protest.

That kind of open defiance was seriously frowned upon by Iranian authorities at that time. People – mostly students – were being arrested by the hundreds of thousands and many were never heard from again.

Nemat remembers exactly when her life changed forever. “January 14, 1982. At about 10 p.m. the doorbell rang and my mother answered. I was upstairs about to have a bath. When I opened the bathroom door I had two guns pointing at my face. The Revolutionary Guard had come,” she says. She was 16.

Nemat was taken to Iran’s notorious Evin prison – nicknamed Evin University because it housed, and still houses, a great number of intellectuals in its wing for political prisoners.

But Nemat wasn’t put into the general population right away. Instead, she was interrogated over the course of several days (“To be honest, I completely lost track of time,” she says. “It could have been four, five, six days.”).

 Interrogation turns to torture

Soon into the interrogation, Nemat suffered a fractured wrist when she was violently handcuffed. Tying her to a bed, guards removed her shoes and socks and lashed her feet repeatedly.

“This is a popular method of torture in the Middle East because your nerve endings are in your feet,” says Nemat. “With every strike of the lash the pain is indescribable. It’s like your whole nervous system explodes – the pain is trapped in your body and you really feel like you’re going to blow up.

“I have been raised Catholic … and if the devil had appeared and said ‘Hey Marina, sell me your soul,’ I would say ‘Take my soul with ice cream on top, just get me home to my mom.’”

At the end of the first round of lashings, Nemat’s guards removed her blindfold. When she saw her feet, despite the overwhelming pain, Nemat laughed. “They looked like party balloons with toes. It was totally surreal,” she says.

How to break down a human soul

While the torture continued for days under the guise of gathering information, Nemat, who was never a member of a political organization, says her interrogators wanted something much more sinister than names and addresses.

“This torture is not designed to get information, it is designed to break the human soul,” she says. “What they are trying to do to you is immerse you into a space where there is nothing but distilled pain and in that space you lose your identity. You forget how to think, you forget how to count, you forget how to connect your brain cells to each other with those electrical impulses.

“They are not trying to kill you, because if they wanted to kill you they would just put you in front of the firing squad,” Nemat continues. “What they’re trying to do is kill your soul.”

Nemat’s resolve, however, wouldn’t allow for her spirit to be broken. Once released into the general population, she met old friends and made new ones. Despite the horrific overcrowding and appallingly unhygienic conditions, Nemat and her friends clung to their humanity.

“We were hungry all the time, but our group would save our very small rations of dried bread and dates over two or three days and we would make each other birthday cakes,” says Nemat. “As long as you are capable of being compassionate to people and generous with the little that you have, it’s a sign that your spirit is not totally dead.”

Emotional survival mode

Instead, she says, her spirit went into a “coma,” or a state of shock, in which she felt no fear. No fear when she was tortured, no fear when she was tied to a post in front of a firing squad, no fear when she was forced to marry one of the men who had tortured her after he got her a last-second stay of execution.

But while that emotionally comatose state helped her survive her more than two-year incarceration, it was difficult to turn off once back in the real world. No one, including her family, wanted to talk to her about her experience in prison. Not even Nemat wanted to talk about her time in Evin.

“I was in shock and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. You have these memories of torture, mass murder and rape and heaven knows what else,” she says. “These are not the kind of thoughts you want to go to bed with. These are not the kind of thoughts you want to have dreams. So your brain goes into the survival mode.

“You come out and you want to be normal. Your family wants to be normal. And nobody wants to talk about it because if you talk about it you’re going to go right back, so you have to act as if nothing happened. You have to act as if all is normal and that’s what I did,” says Nemat.

Nemat moved to Canada in 1991, but in 2000 she had a nervous breakdown. “[Holding onto my memories] was like carrying a really heavy backpack that is loaded with rocks,” she said. “It’s on your back and you can pretend it’s not there, but when you pretend it’s not there you don’t adjust the way you walk – and eventually you make a wrong move and something gives.”

Testifying for the dead

As part of her therapy, Nemat began writing about her experience in prison. Eventually, those notes became the basis of her book Prisoner of Tehran (2007), which was published in 28 countries and became an international bestseller.

When asked how she survived the atrocities and why she insists on retelling – and reliving – her horrific story over and over at conferences and in front of school children, Nemat is blunt.

“No matter how depressed I may get, I can’t close my computer and jump off the tallest building I can find. Why not? Because all of my friends who are buried in mass graves didn’t make the choice to die, it was forced upon them,” she says. “My life doesn’t belong to me. If it did belong to me I would probably end it. My life belongs to the people whose bones have already turned to dust in those graves.

“I have a responsibility and I respect that responsibility much more than I respect my personal comfort,” Nemat continues. “Yes, I feel like a tape recorder because I just repeat the same things over and over and over but that’s what I’m supposed to do. Because I’m a witness, and what do witnesses do? They testify.”

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