Prisoner of Tehran: A Memoir
tightly to a pole, Marina Nemat, age 17, watched the firing squad
level their rifles and prepare to end her life.
But they never fired at her.
Several fellow prisoners in Tehran's brutal Evin prison were
executed that night, but Marina was spared, literally at the last
minute. A pardon from Ayatollah Khomeini himself had commuted her
sentence to life imprisonment. One of her prison guards had fallen
in love with her and interceded on her behalf. But her salvation
came at a heartwrenching price: Ali, her protector, wanted to marry
her --- with the stipulation that if she refused him, her own
family would be subject to arrest, torture, perhaps even
Marina Nemat has no previous track record as a writer beyond
articles in her high school newspaper in Tehran, but she tells this
incredible story with grace and eloquence in this engrossing
memoir. She offers no outright acknowledgement of ghostwriting
help, so take her at her word --- this is her own account, subject
to the usual reservations about fading memory and the need to
protect the identities of others.
Marina, a member of Iran's tiny Christian minority, comes across in
her own words as a spunky teenage political activist, but also as
somewhat naïve. Born in 1965, she was dismayed by the excesses
of the radical Islamist regime that had taken over Iran when the
Shah was driven out. She attended anti-regime street demonstrations
and wrote protest articles in her school newspaper, but seemed
oblivious to the consequences of such actions. Like any teenager,
she was more preoccupied with adolescent crushes and summer
vacations on the shore of the Caspian Sea.
Her dream world collapsed in 1982 when she almost accidentally
fomented a student strike against teachers who ignored classroom
subjects in favor of nonstop Islamist and political indoctrination.
She was sent to Evin, brutalized and hounded for the names of other
student collaborators. Then came the night when she faced the
firing squad. As she was being driven away she heard the gunfire
that killed her fellow prisoners.
As dramatic as that episode becomes in her narrative, the
extraordinary emotional tangle of her relations with Ali, with his
family, and with her own boyfriend and parents is just as gripping
a story. Almost against his will, the reader actually finds
implacable Ali in many ways an attractive person, sincerely
concerned for the welfare of the girl on whom he has visited such
misery and fully understanding of her trauma. His family too
welcomed her with evident good will, in sharp contrast to the
coldness of her own parents, especially her unaffectionate and
Marina told Ali plainly that she did not love him, but she went
through a conversion ceremony and an Islamic wedding out of dread
for what might happen to her own family. In an unskilled writer's
hands all this could degenerate into macabre soap opera, but Marina
Nemat writes with such conviction that the reader agonizes with
her. I kept wishing she would rebel and denounce her tormentors to
their faces. She seemed oddly complaisant to her smiling enemies
--- until you remembered what rebellion surely would have meant for
her and her family.
The layers of irony only get deeper as events unfold. Ali is
suddenly assassinated by Islamic hardliners for his dalliance with
an "infidel." Marina is finally freed from Evin after two years
there, but only through the intervention of Ali's father, a
seemingly decent man who risked his own life to restore Marina to
her family in accordance with his dying son's last wish. Her savior
was the same man who had insisted that Marina convert to Islam
before he would allow the marriage.
Marina Nemat eventually married her faithful sweetheart Andre --- a
risky move but one she took unflinchingly --- and was allowed to
emigrate to Canada where she now lives.
This book is obviously a form of catharsis for her. That is a
worthy aim, of course, but beyond that she has drawn for us some
complex characters --- her unsympathetic parents, Ali's genuinely
human family --- with a sure literary hand. If you read this book
you will not forget them. What more could an author desire?
Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 22, 2011