Marina Nemat on speaking out

Every week leading up to the debates in February, Canada Reads will put the spotlight on one of the five books in contention. From January 16 to January 22, we are exploring Prisoner of Tehran by Marina Nemat. Prisoner of Tehran is being defended by Arlene Dickinson in the Canada Reads debates.

We asked the authors to write a post that offered insight into their work. Below, Marina Nemat writes about why she chose to speak out.

When I was released from Evin Prison in 1984 and returned home after two years, two months and 12 days of incarceration, I sat at the dinner table with my parents and they talked about the weather as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. I was astounded. Not that I was ready to speak about the torture I had experienced, but I was looking for a sign of acknowledgement of what had happened to thousands of teenage political prisoners. It would have been nice if someone had asked, "When you're ready to talk, we're here to listen," but the offer never came. I played along; I became an accomplice in creating a wall of silence that concealed the atrocities committed by the Iranian regime. I just wanted to be normal. After all, I was only 18 and was desperate to find some happiness.


Marina Nemat as a child, outside her father's dance studio. Image courtesy of the author.

Unlike what torturers claim, torture is not designed to get information; it is used to break the human soul. Also, dictatorships use it to create fear and to control their populations. Torture is meant to leave a silent trail behind. If anyone talks about it, acknowledges its existence or bears witness, they would be tortured, too. Silence follows survivors as they escape their countries, and it plagues them hundreds of miles away and for many years to come. The few who dare to speak out in exile usually face personal attacks that label them as traitors and liars. It sometimes takes decades for the truth to surface and for mass graves to be opened. In the case of Iran, the same system that imprisoned me for speaking against it in the '80s is now as brutal, or even more so, as it was back then, and it is still imprisoning, torturing and executing dissidents.

My family and I remained silent for many years. We came to Canada in 1991 and eventually built a new life. We were and are always grateful to Canada for giving us a home when we had nowhere to go. In 2000, in Canada, my mother died of cancer. We had never talked about my prison experiences. At my brother's house right after her funeral, I sat next to my father. For the past 16 years, we had not talked about much except for the weather. But the good thing was that in Canada, unlike Iran, it actually made sense to talk about the weather. My father, who was very distraught because of my mother's death, turned to me and said, "Marina, your mother forgave you before she died." Even though I knew exactly what he meant, I opened my mouth to ask, "What do you mean?"

But what came out was a horrific scream that finally shattered the silence that had imprisoned me for so long. It carried the pain, anger and frustration that had finally found a way out of my soul. I couldn't stop screaming and soon realized that I couldn't breathe. Everyone was standing there, staring at me with fear in their eyes. I ran and collapsed in the front yard. A friend of mine who is a physician from Iran came over me and began to speak to me and shake me. I finally stopped. My husband put me in the car and drove me home. I didn't even get a phone call from anyone the next day. This was when I realized that I had to somehow dig my way out of the silent prison that I was in. One option was to jump off a bridge, but I decided to write. Literature had always been my saviour. It had saved me from a very lonely childhood in Tehran, and it had opened the doors of the world to me. In prison while I was in solitary confinement, the only book available to me had been the Koran. I am a Catholic and wished I had a Bible, which the authorities refused me, but reading the Koran gave me some comfort and distracted me a little from the pain and suffering that was everywhere.

In 2002, I took creative writing classes at the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto and wrote draft after draft of my memoir, Prisoner of Tehran, which was published by Penguin Canada in 2007 and has so far been published in 28 countries in 25 languages. I watched the silence shatter into dust.

One of the very important things I have learned during the past few years is that there is no such thing as closure. The kind of trauma that I experienced never entirely vanishes. But I have looked straight into its eyes, acknowledged it and been an active witness. This is a journey that will not end as long as I live. Being a witness is a full-time and demanding job. After Prisoner of Tehran, I wrote another book, After Tehran. Without it, my first book would have been incomplete. It is about dealing with trauma, emerging from the other side, and the challenges that a survivor has to face. 

These days, I'm translating Prisoner of Tehran into Farsi, writing essays, articles and short pieces that are published regularly around the world, and I also give an average of four or five talks a week in different countries, mostly at high schools, universities and conferences. In addition, a play based on Prisoner of Tehran will be on stage this April at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto. A movie is also in the works. I'm immensely grateful to everyone who has, in one way or another, assisted me along the way, especially my readers, who have helped me get my voice back by reading my books and spreading the word and who have felt motivated enough to use their talents to fight abuses of human rights in any shape or form.

On my public Facebook page, people from all over the world write to me, ask their questions and place comments. Silence is not an option. It is the silent majority that allows atrocities to happen.


Marina Nemat grew up in Iran. Her memoir, Prisoner of Tehran, is a harrowing account of her arrest on false charges, at the age of 16, and the two years she spent as a political prisoner in Iran's Evin Prison. Her book will be defended by Dragon's Den star Arlene Dickinson in the Canada Reads 2012 debates. The debates will air at 11 a.m. (11:30 a.m. in Nfld.) on CBC Radio One and will be livestreamed on CBC Books at 10 a.m. ET on February 6,7, 8 and 9.

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