A 'Prisoner of Tehran' tells her story
A memoir by a woman whose life was turned upside down by the tumult of the Iranian revolution.
Most Americans have some memory of the 444 days the world waited to see if Iranian revolutionaries would release 52 American hostages seized at the American Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979.
The bitter feelings from that event are just now beginning to lessen: It was only last month that the United States and Iran sat down for their first diplomatic talks in 27 years.
From a distance, the Iranian revolution remains in the realm of political power plays. But to the Iranians who lived – and loved – through it, it was as if the world had gone mad. Books were frowned upon. Public displays of affection became a crime. Schoolchildren were arrested and held prisoner. Many were executed.
In Prisoner of Tehran, Marina Nemat chronicles some of what it meant to come of age during this social upheaval.
For young Marina, childhood in Tehran has its simple pleasures: a special friendship with a used bookstore owner, a doting Russian grandmother, and summer-long trips to the Caspian Sea.
But as Marina reaches the edge of her teen years, the normal order of daily life begins to unravel. An Islamic revolution overthrows the reigning monarchy and establishes Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as supreme leader of the country. Adherence to fundamentalist Islam is brutally enforced. At first the upheaval does not touch Marina, who is Christian and more apt to lose herself in "The Chronicles of Narnia" than pay attention to politics.
But this changes with the first blush of teen love. Although Arash is five years older than 13-year-old Marina, they find a connection through similar family histories and a devoutness to religious faith.
Arash, however, believes Islam alone will save the world. Within a year he is a martyr, killed during a political rally on Tehran's streets.
Marina is now fully awake to the chaos taking shape around her. At school, she begins to gain courage in voicing her objection to being taught about the perfection of Islamic society instead of calculus. Other students follow her lead. They begin a small newspaper to report on the events they see happening around them.
Within a year, Iraq bombs Tehran. Iran's borders are closed, and no one is allowed to leave the country without a special permit. Marina and her friends join a rally to protest the violent ways Islamic principles are being enforced. Revolutionary guards on rooftops open fire on the crowd. Fleeing for home Marina contemplates swallowing her mother's jar of sleeping pills.
But this questions stops her: "What if everyone who believed in goodness decided to commit suicide because there was too much suffering in the world?"
The decision to stand for good becomes her North Star.
Well-meaning teachers and friends implore Marina to flee the country before she is sent to Evin, the infamous political prison. With no financial means, and not wanting to alarm her parents, Marina stays put and is arrested.
At Evin she is received by two prison guards. One beats her until she is unconscious. The other, Ali, falls in love with her.
The events that follow read like a grotesque Harlequin romance. Marina is scheduled for execution. Lovesick Ali uses family connections to win a pardon from Ayatollah Khomeini, changing Marina's death sentence to life imprisonment. But tormented by his love for a Christian, he leaves to fight in the Iran-Iraq War. Four months later, he is back with a wounded leg and a plan: He wants Marina to convert to Islam and become his wife. If she doesn't, things could get really messy for her loved ones.
Marina considers the alternatives, the psychological toll of imprisonment made obvious, and complies with his wishes.
Thus begins a weird double life where Marina alternatively gets carried to the outside world to be embraced by Ali's loving family and then sent back to Evin to be on call as Ali's secret wife. It isn't long before Ali is assassinated by his colleagues.
Because she proved herself a dutiful Islamic daughter-in-law, Ali's father once again makes an appeal and after two horrific years as a political prisoner Marina is released. She soon remarries a Christian and eventually relocates to Canada.
Nemat's story is not so much a political history lesson than it is a memoir of faith and love, a protest against violence that cannot be silenced. Following Nemat as she follows her intuition through these treacherous events is like watching a stalk of grass that repeatedly bends without breaking through the wind and rain of a violent storm only to rise and stretch toward the sun once more. Her persistence in standing for goodness is a lesson for us all.
• Kendra Nordin is a Monitor editor.