After I published my first memoir, Prisoner of Tehran, which deals with my imprisonment in Iran during the 1980s, I received many e-mails from readers who were born in the West and have spent most of their lives in relative freedom, only visiting Third World countries as tourists or never. They told me that, while reading my book, their "bubble burst" and they became much more aware of the gifts of freedom and democracy that they'd enjoyed but never truly appreciated. This means a lot to me; it's very easy to lose things that have become invisible to us.
After articles were published about the story of Hamid Ghassemi-Shall - a Canadian-Iranian man who was arrested in Iran in 2008 while visiting his ailing mother and ended up being sentenced to death - I found it disturbing to read comments from readers who believe that Canada shouldn't do anything to help him because he should have known better than to return to Iran, that his travelling there was unwise, and that he's now paying for his own mistake.
Canada is unique because of its diversity, tolerance and compassion - we should never take these attributes for granted because, once they become invisible, they might disappear altogether. Many Canadians have been born elsewhere, and a large number of them have dual citizenship. I was born and raised in Iran and, when asked, I always say I am Canadian Iranian, because my past is an important part of who I am, and I cannot and will not discard it; I am not ashamed of my background.
Even though Iran has a terrible government and has been ruled by a brutal regime for many years, historically, it is the cradle of civilization and, throughout its 2,500-year history, it has contributed a great deal to humanity. Since I came to Canada in 1991, I've never been back to Iran, because I know if I set foot on Iranian soil, I will be arrested for my outspokenness and writings and also because I have broken some of that country's current fanatical rules.
But I have many Canadian-Iranian friends who have lived in Canada for many years and have immensely contributed to this country but return to Iran regularly to visit family and friends. They come and go and do not get arrested. Simply because you choose a new country as your home, it doesn't mean you cannot visit your old one. There have been rare cases when visits to Iran have gone wrong, and innocent people have become victims of Iran's fanatical laws. Should we help these people or not?
Imagine you're standing by a river and someone decides to go for a swim. The current seems too strong, so you advise that person to reconsider. But they decide to go in. A few minutes later, they're in trouble and in danger of drowning. Will you stand there, shake your head and say, "Well, I told you so," and walk away? I doubt it! You will try to help. Even if you don't want to jump in and put your own life at risk, might you not start screaming for help? Maybe throw in a flotation device if you have one?
Unfortunately, the Canadian government has not been as engaged as it should be when it comes to Canadians with dual citizenship imprisoned abroad. I have spoken with Antonella Mega, Hamid Ghassemi-Shall's wife, and many times she's felt abandoned and ignored by Canadians. Hamid is innocent and he deserves our support. Antonella doesn't expect Canada to do anything extreme; all she's asking is that Canadians and their government pay more attention to this case and speak out for Hamid. This man simply went to visit his ailing mother and now he's under a death sentence on charges of espionage. He is not a spy. Let's show some compassion and support a fellow Canadian in need.
During the past few weeks, we have witnessed how people and governments from around the world have supported Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 43-year-old mother condemned to death by stoning in Iran. Brazil's President even went so far as to offer her asylum, and her lawyer, who had to escape Iran because he was under the threat of arrest, is now in Norway and has been offered citizenship. Sakineh does not have dual citizenship. But the world has chosen to speak out for her and try to save her life. Situations like this concern all of us because we're human beings; they have nothing to do with where we were born.
Marina Nemat's new book, After Tehran: A Life Reclaimed , will be published this fall.