Canadian Memoir: Marina Nemat’s Prisoner of Tehran

Have you read Prisoner of Tehran by Canadian author Marina Nemat yet? If not, here's a word of advice: do so when you have a day or two set aside. Otherwise, you'll read late into the night, every night, until you finish the book, as I did.

To say this gripping memoir is a page-turner is to put it mildly. Published by Penguin Canada in 2007, the international bestseller is the autobiographical account of Iranian-born Marina Nemat, who was arrested on false political charges at age 16 during Ayatollah Khomeini's dictatorial rule, and spent two years in Tehran's notorious Evin prison. 

This all happened in the early '80s. When teenaged North American girls were watching MTV, Marina was being tortured and witnessing her friends being executed. The account is harrowing, to say the least, yet Marina tells her story with the grace, strength and unshakable faith that sustained her throughout her ordeal. She alternates shocking prison scenes with poignant memories of her childhood and early teen years, recreating the complex tapestry of her own personal history, and that of Iran's.

We experience both the beauty of Iran and the brutality of its post-Revolutionary regime. We swim alongside an adolescent Marina at night in the Caspian Sea; we dodge the bullets of Revolutionary Guard soldiers while protesting in the streets of Tehran. We feel the author's first stirrings of love for a young man named Andre; and we weep along with her when she is torn from him, sent to prison, and then forced to marry Ali, one of the prison guards. 

Ironically, it is Ali's family who secures Marina's release from Evin after he is assasinated. In fact, during her brief marriage to Ali, Marina grows quite close to her captor's family – who, it turns out, are warm, inviting and loving people.  Through Marina's eyes, we begin to realize there are no clear-cut lines between good and evil, nor love and hate. And when Marina is finally released from prison, we realize that once you've been to hell and back, home is never quite the same.

Prisoner of Tehran is an unforgettable read. It is a long-silenced story that, now told, gives voice to thousands of young women and men who were held, tortured and in some cases, died, in Evin Prison during Khomeini's reign. Moreover, it is a story of forgiveness, in which Marina plumbs her depths to find compassion for her captors. In the end, it is this compassion and forgiveness that grant Marina her greatest freedom. 

Unfortunately, according to recent reports from Iran, Evin Prison is still going strong, and prisoner executions and torture still take place. The question remains: what's to be done?