Prisoner of Tehran : One woman's story of survival inside a torture jail

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9780719522390: Prisoner of Tehran : One woman's story of survival inside a torture jail

What would you give up to protect your loved ones? Your life?

In her heartbreaking, triumphant, and elegantly written memoir, Prisoner of Tehran, Marina Nemat tells the heart-pounding story of her life as a young girl in Iran during the early days of Ayatollah Khomeini's brutal Islamic Revolution.

In January 1982, Marina Nemat, then just sixteen years old, was arrested, tortured, and sentenced to death for political crimes. Until then, her life in Tehran had centered around school, summer parties at the lake, and her crush on Andre, the young man she had met at church. But when math and history were subordinated to the study of the Koran and political propaganda, Marina protested. Her teacher replied, "If you don't like it, leave." She did, and, to her surprise, other students followed.

Soon she was arrested with hundreds of other youths who had dared to speak out, and they were taken to the notorious Evin prison in Tehran. Two guards interrogated her. One beat her into unconsciousness; the other, Ali, fell in love with her.

Sentenced to death for refusing to give up the names of her friends, she was minutes from being executed when Ali, using his family connections to Ayatollah Khomeini, plucked her from the firing squad and had her sentence reduced to life in prison. But he exacted a shocking price for saving her life -- with a dizzying combination of terror and tenderness, he asked her to marry him and abandon her Christian faith for Islam. If she didn't, he would see to it that her family was harmed. She spent the next two years as a prisoner of the state, and of the man who held her life, and her family's lives, in his hands.

Lyrical, passionate, and suffused throughout with grace and sensitivity, Marina Nemat's memoir is like no other. Her search for emotional redemption envelops her jailers, her husband and his family, and the country of her birth -- each of whom she grants the greatest gift of all: forgiveness.

Les informations fournies dans la section « Synopsis » peuvent faire référence à une autre édition de ce titre.

About the Author :

Marina Nemat grew up in Tehran, Iran. In 1991, she emigrated to Toronto, Ontario, where she now lives with her husband, Andre, and their two sons.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :


I was arrested on January 15, 1982, at about nine o'clock at night. I was sixteen.

Earlier that day, I woke before dawn and couldn't go back to sleep. My bedroom felt darker and colder than usual, so I stayed under my camel-wool duvet and waited for the sun, but it seemed like darkness was there to stay. On cold days like this, I wished our apartment had better heating; two kerosene heaters weren't enough, but my parents always told me I was the only one who found the house too chilly in winter.

My parents' bedroom was next to mine, and the kitchen was across the narrow hallway that connected the two ends of our three-bedroom apartment. I listened as my father got ready for work. Although he moved lightly and quietly, the faint sounds he made helped me trace his movements to the bathroom and then to the kitchen. The kettle whistled. The fridge opened and closed. He was probably having bread with butter and jam.

Finally, a dim light crawled in through my window. My father had already left for work, and my mother was still sleeping. She didn't usually get out of bed until nine o'clock. I tossed, turned, and waited. Where was the sun? I tried to make plans for the day, but it was useless. I felt like I had tripped out of the normal flow of time. I stepped out of bed. The linoleum floor was even colder than the air and the kitchen was darker than my bedroom. It was as if I would never feel warm again. Maybe the sun was never going to rise. After having a cup of tea, all I could think of doing was to go to church. I put on the long brown wool coat my mother had made for me, covered my hair with a large beige shawl, and climbed down the twenty-four gray stone steps leading to the front door, which connected our apartment to the busy downtown street. The stores were still closed, and traffic was light. I walked to the church without looking up. There was nothing to see. Pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini and hateful slogans like "Death to America," "Death to Israel," "Death to Communists and All the Enemies of Islam," and "Death to Anti-Revolutionaries" covered most walls.

It took me five minutes to get to the church. When I put my hand on the heavy wooden main door, a snowflake landed on my nose. Tehran always looked innocently beautiful under the deceiving curves of snow, and although the Islamic regime had banned most beautiful things, it couldn't stop the snow from falling. The government had ordered women to cover their hair and had issued edicts against music, makeup, paintings of unveiled women, and Western books, which had all been declared satanic and therefore illegal. I stepped inside the church, closed the door behind me, and sat in a corner, staring at the image of Jesus on the cross. The church was empty. I tried to pray, but words floated meaninglessly in my head. After about half an hour, I went to the church office to say hello to the priests and found myself standing face to face with Andre, the handsome organist. We had met a few months back, and I frequently saw him at the church. Everyone knew we liked each other, but we were both too shy to admit it, maybe because Andre was seven years older than I. Blushing, I asked him why he was there so early in the morning, and he explained that he had come to fix a broken vacuum cleaner.

"I haven't seen you in days," he said. "Where have you been? I called your house a few times, and your mother said you weren't feeling well. I was thinking about coming to your house today."

"I wasn't well. Just a cold or something."

He decided I looked too pale and should have stayed in bed for another couple of days, and I agreed. He offered to drive me, but I needed fresh air and walked home. If I wasn't so worried and depressed, I would have loved to spend time with him, but ever since my school friends, Sarah and Gita and Sarah's brother, Sirus, had been arrested and taken to Evin Prison, I had not been able to function. Sarah and I had been best friends since the first grade, and Gita had been a good friend of mine for more than three years. Gita had been arrested in mid-November and Sarah and Sirus on January 2. I could see Gita with her silky long brown hair and Mona Lisa smile, sitting on a bench by the basketball court. I wondered what had happened to Ramin, the boy she liked. She never heard from him after the summer of 1978, the last summer before the revolution, before the new order of the world. Now, she had been in Evin for more than two months, and her parents had not been allowed to see her. I called them once a week, and her mother always cried on the phone. Gita's mother stood at the door of their house for hours every day and stared at passersby, expecting Gita to come home. Sarah's parents had gone to the prison many times and had asked to see their children but had been denied.

Evin had been a political prison since the time of the shah. The name brought fear to every heart: it equaled torture and death. Its many buildings were scattered across a large area north of Tehran at the foot of the Alborz Mountains. People never talked about Evin; it was shrouded with fearful silence.

The night Sarah and Sirus were arrested, I had been lying on my bed, reading a collection of poems by Forough Farrokhzad when my bedroom door burst open and my mother appeared in the doorway.

"Sarah's mother just called . . ." she said.

I felt as if I were breathing shards of ice.

"Revolutionary guards arrested both Sarah and Sirus about an hour ago and took them to Evin."

I couldn't feel my body.

"What have they done?" my mother asked.

Poor Sarah and Sirus. They must have been terrified. But they were going to be fine. They had to be fine.

"Marina, answer me. What have they done?"

My mother closed my bedroom door behind her and leaned against it.

"Nothing. Well, Sarah has done nothing, but Sirus is a member of the Mojahedin." My voice sounded weak and distant to me. The Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization was a leftist Muslim group that had fought against the shah since the 1960s. After the success of the Islamic revolution, its members opposed Ayatollah Khomeini's unlimited power as the supreme leader of Iran and called him a dictator. As a result, the Islamic government declared their party illegal.

"I see. Then maybe they took Sarah because of Sirus."


"Their poor mother. She was beside herself."

"Did the guards say anything?"

"They told their parents not to worry, that they just wanted to ask them a few questions."

"So, they might let them go soon."

"Well, from what you're telling me I'm sure they'll let Sarah go soon. But Sirus . . . well, he should have known better. There's no need to worry."

My mother left my room, and I tried to think but couldn't. Feeling exhausted, I closed my eyes and fell into a dreamless sleep.

For twelve days after this, I slept most of the time. Even the thought of doing the simplest tasks felt tiring and impossible. I wasn't hungry or thirsty. I didn't want to read, go anywhere, or talk to anyone. Every night, my mother told me there was no news of Sarah and Sirus. Since they had been arrested, I knew I would be next. My name was on a list of names and addresses my chemistry teacher, Khanoom Bahman, had spotted in the principal's office -- and our principal, Khanoom Mahmoodi, was a revolutionary guard. Khanoom Bahman was a good woman, and she had warned me that this list was addressed to the Courts of Islamic Revolution. However, there was nothing I could do but wait. I couldn't hide. Where would I go? The revolutionary guards were merciless. If they went to a house to arrest someone and that person was not home, they would take whoever was there. I couldn't risk my parents' lives to save myself. During the past few months hundreds of people had been arrested, accused of opposing the government in one way or another.

At nine o'clock at night, I went to take a bath. As soon as I turned the tap on and the water began to steam, the sound of the doorbell echoed in the house. My heart sank. No one rang our doorbell at this hour.

Turning the tap off, I sat on the edge of the tub. I heard my parents answer the door, and a few seconds later, my mother called my name. I unlocked the bathroom door and opened it. Two armed, bearded revolutionary guards wearing dark green military-style uniforms were standing in the hallway. One of them pointed his gun at me. I felt as though I had stepped out of my body and was watching a movie. This wasn't happening to me but to someone else, someone I didn't know.

"You stay here with them while I search the apartment," the second guard said to his friend and then turned to me and asked, "Where's your room?" His breath smelled of onions and made my stomach turn.

"Down the hallway, first door on your right."

My mother's body was shaking and her face had turned white. She had covered her mouth with her hand, as if to muffle a never-ending cry. My father was staring at me; he looked as if I were dying from a sudden, incurable disease and there was nothing he could do to save me. Tears fell down his face. I had not seen him cry since my grandmother's death.

The other guard soon came back with a handful of my books, all Western novels.

"Are these yours?"


"We'll take a few of them as evidence."

"Evidence of what?"

"Of your activities against the Islamic government."

"I don't agree with the government, but I haven't done anything against it."

"I'm not here to decide whether you're guilty or not; I'm here to arrest you. Put a chador on."

"I'm a Christian. I don't have a chador."

They were surprised. "That's fine," said one of them. "Put on a scarf and let's go."

"Where are you taking her?" my mother asked.

"To Evin," they answered.

With one of the guards following me, I went to my room, grabbed my beige cashmere shawl, and covered my hair with it. It was a very cold night, and the shawl was going to keep me warm, I decided. As we were about to step out of the room, my eyes fix...

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