Terry Fallis explores Prisoner of Tehran

Marina Nemat's personal story of courage, resilience and rebirth held me in its grip from start to finish. Prisoner of Tehran reminds us all of the human capacity to endure and eventually overcome torture, terror, tragedy and injustice. It hardly seems possible that one could pass through such hell and emerge on the other side seemingly so well-adjusted, so thoughtful, so lovely. Somehow, Marina Nemat has done that, and more.


Canada Reads host Jian Ghomeshi with author Marina Nemat and panelist Arlene Dickinson (Tanja-Tiziana Burdi/CBC)

Early in 1982, Iranian society was still in the throes of a cataclysmic upheaval in the wake of the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 by Islamic fundamentalists. Marina, a Christian, was 16 when she was arrested by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, tortured and held at the infamous Evin prison in Tehran for more than two years. Her crime? She had written what were considered to be anti-revolutionary articles in the school newspaper and had the unmitigated audacity to ask that calculus be taught in her calculus class rather than the revolutionary propaganda that the newly installed teacher had been spouting. Marina's sentence for these teenage transgressions? Death.

Prisoner of Tehran is the harrowing tale of how she endured torture, escaped a firing squad by the narrowest of margins, withstood a forced marriage that may have saved her and eventually fled to Canada to begin a new life. You won't forget this story. You can't. It's hard to comprehend that it actually happened. Yet it did.

Marina writes matter-of-factly about her ordeal, which seems to have the effect of heightening the story's power and impact. In the early part of the book, she flits back and forth from her time in Evin to happier days of her childhood and the events leading up to her arrest. It's a welcome and affecting structure, giving the reader regular relief from the almost unbearable tension and malevolence that drive the segments about her incarceration at Evin. She keeps the story moving without sacrificing the little details and important insights that make this memoir so compelling.

The book makes it clear that Marina feels a deep sense of responsibility to those she left behind. Having lived through an ordeal many do not survive, her memoir is freighted with the stories of so many who have been silenced by fear, torture, imprisonment, and execution. This is Marina's story, yet it represents those of so many others who can never write their own. It was not easy for Marina to share this book. It took a long time before she felt able to start. In fact, it was 16 years after escaping to Canada that Prisoner of Tehran was published.

While set in Iran, Marina Nemat's story has an important Canadian overlay. The book ends with her arrival in Canada with her husband, Andre, in 1991. Like so many other immigrants making a new start in a new country, they worked very hard, and still do. For years, she toiled at a Swiss Chalet. In time, they bought a home and raised children. The rebirth of Marina Nemat in this country is a very Canadian story that has been repeating itself over and over for as long as we've welcomed immigrants and refugees.

Of course, not all immigrants are fleeing torture and injustice. But after finishing Prisoner of Tehran, I wonder how many of the newcomers I come into contact with every day have stories of courage and sacrifice with at least some parallels to Marina's. Her courageous memoir, like the part of the iceberg visible above the ocean's surface, heralds the many other stories unseen beneath.

But how will Prisoner of Tehran fare in the Canada Reads debates in a few weeks? How will Arlene Dickinson position it and fight for it? Well, I think this will be a tough book for the competing defenders to tear down. How does one criticize a story that has moved so many readers in Canada and around the world? There are lessons about hope, faith, and conviction for us all in Marina's triumph and I think that's the book's greatest strength. On the other hand, it's possible that other defenders may note that this story takes place a very long way from our shores. If that happens, I expect we might see Arlene turn that argument right back on them, transforming it into a paean to Canada. It was Canada's open arms that welcomed Marina Nemat, helped heal her wounds and gave her the peace to write this extraordinary story. Arlene might even argue that Prisoner of Tehran is as Canadian as Ken Dryden's The Game.

Marina's harrowing tale and sharp writing are sure to captivate panelists and readers alike. But will the heavy subject matter weigh down Arlene's arguments?


Terry Fallis is the author of The Best Laid Plans, a satirical novel of Canadian politics that won the 2008 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour and the 2011 Canada Reads title. It's currently being adapted as a six-part mini-series for CBC Television. His follow-up novel, The High Road, was a finalist for the 2011 Leacock Medal. McClelland & Stewart will publish his third novel in September 2012.

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