Dec 282011
 

Prisoner of Tehran
Prisoner of Tehran by Marina Nemat

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had heard great reviews of this book, but I found it a difficult read — not style-wise but content-wise. And so at first I read it on and off.

“People just don’t talk about it,” [the Iranian woman] said.

That’s true for any suffering. People get a terrible health diagnosis, friends disappear. People spiral down into mental illness, family shuns. A young teen girl is arrested as a political prisoner, is tortured, held captive, forced to marry, and parents and fiancé don’t ask. Lives are destroyed in public and must be rebuilt in private. In Iran, the author Marina did it surrounded by the silence of not being asked what had happened and not feeling safe to tell. Here in Canada, sufferers get lectures on “get on with your life,” “move on,” “think positively,” “fill in a gratitude journal,” “focus on the good not the negative.” More sophisticated yet nastier ways of ensuring silence from the sufferer about their experiences.

“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” [my husband] asked when he finally read [my manuscript].
We had been married for seventeen years.
“I tried, but I couldn’t … will you forgive me?” I said.

Always it is the sufferer who apologises first — for not being strong enough, keeping silent, looking weaker than those who seem unscathed from similar experiences — not the ones who abandon, neglect, don’t ask. Yet, Marina’s husband did something different:

“There’s nothing to forgive. Will you forgive me?”
“For what?”
“For not asking.”

What a burden that must’ve fallen off of Marina’s shoulders in that moment.

At one point, I stopped reading the ebook on and off and started reading in large gulps, pausing only to process. I got over my antipathy to hearing about an unpleasant reality.

Marina seemed to have put behind her the horrific two years in Evin, Iran’s notorious political prison. She and her family emigrated to Canada, they built their lives up from nothing, and reached the Canadian dream. That’s when things began to fall apart. In the perfection of suburban life, memories came crashing back and robbed her of sleep. The only antidote was to write about it and then share it with her husband and then talk about it and then publish it so that her story became a witness to the truth of Iranian life.

It takes courage to bear your personal story to an ignorant world when it’s filled with pain and mind-breaking loss, even more when it exposes a criminal regime that hides behind the mask of religion. It’s told in a back-and-forth way. It begins in the present and ends in the past when she and her family were on their way out of Iran and then to Canada. In the middle she weaves memories of her childhood and the friendships that like a set of falling dominoes led to her incarceration in between the memories of her time in Evin and her forced marriage to one of the interrogator/torturers. What was most interesting for me was that she is not Muslim but a Christian and she went to a Zoroastrian school for a time. When I think of Iran, I think all Muslim with a diminishing minority of the original Persians, the Zoroastrians. I learnt that there were (are?) Christians allowed to practice their faith; that Christian women are allowed a different dress code from Muslim women; but that like Zoroastrians if they marry a Muslim they must convert, no choice.

It was difficult to know exactly what Marina was thinking during the telling of certain events, only later in her narrative did she reveal the fullness of her thoughts. I’m not sure if that was deliberate or the way her memory worked so as to allow her to re-experience the horror times without being sucked in completely.

“Why did we turn our backs on reality when it became too much to bear?”

After she was forced to accept her interrogator’s proposal, her thoughts turned to that question. Guilt rose up and her body rebelled. She was not allowed to express her feelings and thoughts about her interrogator’s proposal publicly, not allowed to be free in her choice, but her body expressed her disgust and pain for her. This story is not just a witness to Iranian atrocities but also to resiliency and the maturing of a conscience, of how a human being copes with and changes under suffering (and how some break).

I think this is a book that would be more appreciated in the second reading. It’s written in an accessible style, but there is so much to absorb and ponder that I’m sure much is missed in the first reading. I had only one day left before my library ebook expired when I went back to reread it; I had time only to reread the beginning. It made more sense now that I knew her whole story.

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