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Marina Nemat
Marina Nemat

The Daily Review, Thu., Oct. 21

The perils of untold horrors Add to ...

When Marina Nemat was a little girl growing up in Iran, she was afraid of the dark. That was in the early 1970s, when Nemat lived with her parents and grandmother over a restaurant in Tehran. At night, after she went to bed, she imagined dark figures circling her room. Bahboo, her Russian grandmother, told her what to do.

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"Just speak to them," Bahboo said, "and they will go away."

"What shall I say?" Marina asked.

"How about a Hail Mary?" Bahboo suggested.

One night Nemat stirred up her courage: "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee," she spoke into the dark. Much to her surprise, the sound of her voice scattered the ghosts and dispelled her fears.

Nemat is the renowned author of Prisoner of Tehran, a harrowing memoir recounting her incarceration as a teenager in Evin, Iran's notorious political prison. Her crime: Asking her calculus teacher to follow the course outline rather than extolling the virtues of the Ayatollah. She survived torture, faced execution, was forced to marry her interrogator and witnessed his assassination. She was released after two years.

Yet almost as shocking as this brutal ordeal was her parent's refusal to acknowledge it. For 20 years, Nemat followed their lead. She shrouded her disturbing story in a cloak of silence that drove her to the brink of madness. By writing Prisoner of Tehran, Nemat discovered once again that her own voice instills her with courage.

After Tehran: A Life Reclaimed is a sequel to Prisoner. It recounts Nemat's struggle to break the silence surrounding her captivity. It depicts the portrait of an artist, the evolution of an activist and the formation of a Canadian whose experiences illuminate our highest national ideals.

After her release from prison in 1984, Nemat and Andre, her long-time boyfriend, decide to marry. A devout Catholic, Nemat had been forced to convert to Islam while in prison, and her marriage thus places her in danger. By 1991, however, the couple has resettled in Canada. They are joined by Nemat's parents, and her elder brother lives nearby, so the family is together again. Still, tensions linger, the subject of Evin remains taboo and Nemat continues to repress her emotions.

In 2000, Nemat experiences her first psychotic break. It occurs after her mother's funeral, when Nemat lets loose a series of bloodcurdling screams, releasing years of pent-up rage. From that moment, nightmares, flashbacks and visions interrupt her sleep. Finally, Andre suggests she write down her feelings, and she eventually produces 80 pages of disjointed prison memories. Andre is in shock - he had never asked what happened at Evin.

Nemat makes a generous effort to understand her father: What could be worse than watching helplessly as guards drag your child away? Yet he does not help her when he can. Instead, he projects on her his own shame. Nemat's struggle with guilt complicates the situation. She despairs at having left her fellow prisoners behind. The family trauma offers insight into why both individuals and nations find it difficult to address the horrors of the past.

With the first draft of her first book, Nemat not only embarks on a writing career, but launches a new persona. She has been a low-key wife and mother (she has two sons), but in writing class she introduces herself as "a political prisoner who was tortured and came close to execution." The class is silent. No one says a thing.

In 2007, Penguin publishes Prisoner of Tehran. It is a walloping success, Nemat receives invitations to speak around the world, and she wins humanitarian prizes. Her exciting new path puts her in touch with old friends with familiar histories. But not everyone admires her work. Some former prisoners of Evin call her a traitor, a tavvab, for failing to remain true to her political beliefs.

Nemat's response: What political beliefs? Before her arrest, she was a kid. She loved Donny Osmond, she watched Persian-dubbed episodes of Little Ho use on the Prairie and did things kids do. It is time that has developed her into an outspoken activist, a highly regarded voice for victims of torture and imprisoned youth. Nemat expresses pride in Canada's reputation as international peacekeeper and defender of human rights. Even so, she denounces RCMP actions that led to the torture of Canadian citizens abroad, and decries, as well, the federal government's position on former child soldier Omar Khadr, still being held in Guantanamo Bay.

Yet, all in all, After Tehran proves to be a surprisingly upbeat immigrant story. Nemat's early encounters with Canada are charming. She pounces on the opportunity for happiness. At the same time, she embodies the immigrant experience central to our national identity. Canada is merely the latest stop for a family that has crisscrossed borders for generations. Both of Nemat's grandmothers married Iranians working in Moscow. When the revolution broke out, their husbands took them back to Iran. Andre's father was a Hungarian at work in Iran when the Second World War began. He ended up at a camp in India, while Andre's mother remained in Hungary, only managing to escape during the 1956 uprising. Finally the Islamic Revolution brings Nemat and her family to Canada.

After Tehran reminds us that we live in a world marked by revolution. It makes us wonder if some of our neighbours, co-workers and friends have suffered horrors such as those Nemat endured, but aren't talking about it.

Donna Bailey Nurse is a Toronto writer and editor.

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