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Marina Nemat, author of Prisoner of Tehran, poses at her Aurora home, Feb. 8, 2012. (J.P. MOCZULSKI/J.P. Moczulski for The Globe and Mail)
Marina Nemat, author of Prisoner of Tehran, poses at her Aurora home, Feb. 8, 2012. (J.P. MOCZULSKI/J.P. Moczulski for The Globe and Mail)

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Marina Nemat: 'I live to testify' Add to ...

When I was 16 years old, in January, 1982, in Evin Prison in Tehran, two men took me to a small room and tied me to a bare wooden bed. I was lying down on my stomach. One of them, Hamehd, lashed the soles of my feet with a length of cable. With every strike, I felt like my whole nervous system would explode and then would magically be put back together again, ready for the next strike. I hoped to lose consciousness, but it never happened. After a few strikes, they untied me and made me walk. It was painful and difficult. Why did they do this? Walking makes the swelling go down a little. If they continue beating prisoners for too long, the skin would rupture, and, as a result, the prisoner could die relatively quickly from bleeding or infection. This staggered method of torture helps torturers maximize the amount of pain they can inflict. Torture is not designed to get information; it is designed to break the human soul.

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On Feb. 6, at the Canada Reads debates, Anne-France Goldwater called my first memoir, Prisoner of Tehran, untruthful. It's so easy to point a finger at another human being, claim that she has not told the truth, and walk away. But what if that person, the bullied, is a survivor of torture?

Suggesting that an account of torture is untruthful is like picking up the lash and beating the victim again. My feet literally hurt as I heard Goldwater's comments.

I have been called a liar, a traitor, and a whore before, but on those occasions, I knew exactly where those comments were coming from; I could understand their origins. They either came from the agents of the Iranian regime, a regime that has a long history of running smear campaigns against dissidents abroad, or from members and supporters of extremist Iranian political groups. By writing Prisoner of Tehran, I stepped on many toes, and it was only natural to get a reaction from those who saw me as a threat for political, religious, or ideological reasons. But why was Goldwater calling me untruthful? I couldn't see a reason for it. No reason at all. She was a Canadian lawyer. She was supposed to protect the innocent – or so I thought.

While I was in Evin, my parents came to the prison for limited and very brief visitations once a month. They sobbed as they looked at me from behind the thick glass barrier in the visitation room. I smiled. I had to hold back my tears, because if I showed any sign of distress, I would be tortured or maybe even executed for it. There were (and are) thousands of prisoners in Evin prison, and, in the eighties, the vast majority of us were teenagers. One of the priests from my Catholic church in Tehran brought a copy of the Bible to the prison gate, but the guards refused to take it and deliver it to me. I had been disconnected from the world and was drowning in a black hole of despair, injustice and pain. In Evin, I broke under torture. I signed every piece of paper they told me to sign, because I just wanted to go home and sleep in my own bed. I was only 16 years old. They told me that I had to marry my interrogator or my parents would be arrested. I complied. They told me I had to convert to Islam. I did. Then they changed my name from Marina to Fatemeh. I had lost my family, my religion, my freedom, my dignity, and even my name. How much can you take away from a person before she crumbles into dust?

It took me about 20 years to be able to look back at my past and write about it. It took me 20 years to discover that the Marina I was before Evin had died and that the new Marina I had become was a witness. No more. No less. I live to testify. Without it, my life loses all meaning.

Canada took me when I had nowhere to go. It allowed me to gradually find my way back to myself and to the reality of the person I have become, a woman who breathes because she has a story to tell, a story that is not only hers but, in a humble and imperfect yet honest way, is also the story of thousands of others who have been terribly wronged. People are being tortured and executed in many countries as we speak because they have dared speak against oppressive regimes and demand the freedoms that many of us take for granted.

Dear Ms. Goldwater: The witness is the cornerstone of the justice system. If we throw stones at her, we have taken a step toward burying freedom and democracy. Canada and Canadians deserve better than this.

Marina Nemat is the author of Prisoner of Tehran and After Tehran: A Life Reclaimed.

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