Marina Nemat: Surviving the nightmare of Iran's Evin prison

Author Marina Nemat talks about her new book, her time in Iran's Evin prison, the Sarah Shourd case and human rights issues in Iran.

Author Marina Nemat talks about her new book, her time in Iran's Evin prison, the Sarah Shourd case and human rights issues in Iran.

(Timothy Neesam/CBC)
With her release from Iran this week, American Sarah Shourd joins the tragic club of former inmates of Tehran's nightmarish Evin prison.

Shourd and two other Americans, Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer, were detained along Iran's border with Iraq in July 2009 and accused of spying. The two men remain in prison.

All those who have managed to emerge from behind Evin's walls tell horrific stories of solitary confinement, of torture and of a brutality that has scarred their lives irreparably.

Canadian writer Marina Nemat is part of that group. In 1982, as a 16-year-old student in Iran, she was swept up in the cruel political reprisals of the Islamic revolution.

She wound up in Evin charged with counter-revolutionary activism, and spent two years there. Terrible things happened to her, including being forced to marry her prison interrogator.

She recounted all of this in her stunning memoir, Prisoner of Tehran, which became an overnight success and has been translated into 25 languages.

Nemat has just published her sequel, After Tehran: A Life Reclaimed, which describes settling down in Canada with her family and dealing with the life-long trauma she has suffered as a result of those two awful years in Evin.

CBC producer Jennifer Clibbon interviewed Marina Nemat about her new book, about the Sarah Shourd case  and human rights issues in Iran.

(Courtesy Penguin)
CBC News:
Sarah Shourd just left Evin prison after almost a year there, a place you know intimately, having spent two years inside its walls yourself. What would you imagine her life was like there?

Marina Nemat: In general, from what I have been able to gather, foreigners are treated much better than Iranians in Iran's prisons. Even though they are put through interrogations and psychological torture, they are rarely physically tortured.

I'm sure Sarah spent most of her time in solitary confinement, and just that is enough to drive one mad. But Iran's prisons are filled with political prisoners who face different forms of torture on a daily basis.

CBC News: Is it unusual for foreigners to end up in Evin?

Nemat: It is unusual. Most foreigners who visit Iran are tourists who arrive at airports and don't happen to enter that country after wandering through the mountains of Kurdistan [one of the provinces of Iran]. Although I'm sure these young people are not spies, the mountains of Kurdistan at the Iran-Iraq border are not exactly the place I would recommend to people for hiking. They were probably only looking for adventure, but then things went terribly wrong. Many Westerners don't understand how dangerous that region is.

CBC News: The terms of her release are murky. But some say there was factional infighting in the government over what to do with her and the other hikers. Does this suggest infighting within the power elite there?

Nemat: Since the early 80s there have been factions within the Iranian regime, and they fight over power. Even my release was delayed because of power struggles; there were those who believed I should be let go, but there were also those that believed I should be kept behind bars. 

CBC News: In 2007, in a high-profile case, Iranian American academic Haleh Esfandiani was held at Evin for 105 days because the government accused her of spying. She worked at the Woodrow Wilson Institute in Washington and her job involved organizing talks and exhibitions. Sarah Shourd and her friends were travellers; she was an English teacher, Shane Bauer a freelance journalist, and Josh Fattal an environmentalist. Why the paranoia by the Iranian government about alleged spying?

Nemat: Paranoia does not obey logic. Sarah and her friends were at the wrong place. When Iranian authorities suspect someone - and let me tell you that it doesn't take much to make them suspicious - they don't let go easily. Also, you have to remember that imprisoned foreigners could always be used as hostages.

CBC News: How bad is the human rights situation in Iran right now?

Nemat: Terrible. As bad as you can possibly imagine. Any form of dissidence or criticism of the government can get people arrested, tortured, and even executed. Recently the number of arrests has risen significantly.

The pressure on women has been getting worse as well. The dress code has to be obeyed very strictly now, even though for a while it had become a little relaxed.

For a few years, classical music had been taught in universities and had been allowed. But recently the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamanei, announced that teaching any kind of music was illegal, which is how it had been during the time of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Also, there is now an Iranian-Canadian man named Hamid Ghassemi-Shall in Evin prison. He went to see his mother in 2008 and was arrested on charges of espionage. Many Iranians with dual nationalities go back to Iran regularly to visit family, and Hamid's arrest should be a warning to them, that they could get arrested for no good reason and be imprisoned for extended periods of time.

CBC News: You chronicled your time in Evin prison in the 1980s in your widely acclaimed memoir Prisoner of Tehran. Incredibly, while you were at Evin, your prison interrogator forced you to marry him. You remained his "wife," although remaining in prison, until his assassination two years later. How was Evin and political imprisonment different back then?

Nemat: I spent most of my two-year imprisonment in Evin in solitary confinement and in a public cellblock. Evin was not much different at all than it is now, and this is frightening and extremely disturbing. The difference is mainly that during my time, more than 90 per cent of prisoners were under the age of 18, but now the average age of prisoners is a little higher. Torture is still used regularly.

CBC News: Your latest book After Tehran (published by Penguin) is just out this week. In it, you deal with life after your escape from Iran to Canada and the trauma of dealing with life in Evin. Tell me about how the experience affected you and shaped your life.

Nemat: I was in Evin for two years, two months and 12 days, between the ages of 16 and 18, during which I was tortured by being lashed on the soles of my feet, was put in front of a firing squad, and was raped. I watched my friends being tortured and many of them were executed.

One cannot just put something like that behind, especially because it's still going on. I will always live with the trauma; this is a truth I have accepted.

What has helped me deal with it is bearing witness. By writing and speaking about what happened, I'm fighting the system that has committed and is still committing atrocities.

CBC News: You kept your trauma bottled up for years. You didn't tell your family what happened to you inside Evin until just a few years ago.

Nemat: It is not unusual for people who go through extremely traumatic events to seem "normal" for a very long time. Symptoms of stress and psychological disorders may take years to appear. My trauma didn't end with being released from Evin.

After my release, I married my [Christian] boyfriend.

Leaving Iran was not easy, and we had to overcome many obstacles. Once we finally arrived in Canada, we had very little money and I had a very sick child, so, again, it was an uphill battle.

Once things began to look good and we began to feel comfortable, I began to have flashbacks. This was in 2000. I finally figured out that I had to speak out or my life would be meaningless. I just couldn't live with myself anymore. That was when I began to write my first book, Prisoner of Tehran.

Back then, I worked as a waitress at Swiss Chalet. Then the book became very successful internationally, I won some awards, and I found myself travelling the world, bearing witness against the Islamic Republic of Iran. I believe I lived to do this, to make sure that the world knows about the atrocities committed in Iran. Many of my friends are buried in mass graves, and it is my duty to make sure they will not be forgotten.

I still live with grief, but I have learned to face and manage it. There is no such thing as closure, but I have found some comfort in writing.

CBC News: The political situation in Iran now for women is especially frightening. In the news we have heard much of the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who faces execution by stoning for adultery. Is this case unusual?

Nemat: Not at all. Terrible mistreatment of Iranian women is quite the norm in Iran.

In Sakineh's case the news got out because her children went public, even though they had been warned by the authorities not to.

There are right now at least 12 other women who can be stoned because of adultery. And there are many women political prisoners in prisons.

CBC News: Do you expect any change in the political situation in Iran in the foreseeable future? And what can the international community do?

Nemat: Dictatorships fall. This is a rule of history. Iranians showed the world last year that they are fed up with their political system, but this system is so brutal that bringing it down is a very difficult task, but even though it's difficult, it's not impossible. What the anti-regime movement in Iran needs is a leader who speaks for all and not ideologically in any way.

Unfortunately, most of the opposition groups right now belong to the far left and to communist or Marxist-Islamist groups. They don't have much popular support at all, and this is why we saw Iranians look up to Mir Hossein Mousavi as the leader of their movement when he is a part of the system. We need an alternative.

The international community should be very vocal in supporting Iranians and their struggles for human rights. On the website that [Indigo Books and Music CEO] Heather Reisman set up in support of Sakineh we now have more than 30,000 signatures, but we need more.

Democracy cannot be exported; it has to be achieved, and it is not an event, but it is a process.


Jennifer Clibbon is a radio producer with CBC Syndication. She began living and working in Russia as a freelance journalist in 1985 and was the news producer in the CBC's Moscow bureau from 2000 to 2003.