Prisoner of Tehran: A Memoir (No Series)

BOOK: Prisoner of Tehran: A Memoir (No Series)

A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020

Copyright © 2007 by Marina Nemat

All rights reserved,
including the right of reproduction
in whole or in part in any form.

FREE PRESS and colophon are registered trademarks
of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Nemat, Marina.
Prisoner of Tehran: Marina Nemat.
p. cm.
1. Nemat, Marina. 2. Women political prisoners—Iran—Biography. 3. Political prisoners—Iran—Biography. 4. Iran—Politics and government—1979–1997. I. Title.

DS318.84.N46 A3 2006
365'.45092 B 22 2006050191

ISBN-10: 1-4165-5663-X
ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-5663-3

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To Andre, Michael, and Thomas;
to all political prisoners of Iran,
especially Sh.F.M., M.D., A.Sh., and K.M.;
and to Zahra Kazemi

And if I pray, the only prayer
That moves my lips for me
Is, “Leave the heart that now I bear,
And give me liberty!”
Yes, as my swift days near their goal,
Tis all that I implore
In life and death, a chainless soul,
With courage to endure.

—Emily Brontë


Although this is a work of nonfiction, I have changed names to protect the identities of my cell mates, and I have added the details of other prisoners’ stories to theirs, merging lives and reshaping them. This has enabled me to safely tell of life and death behind the walls of Evin and to remain true to what we went through, without putting anyone in danger or invading anyone’s privacy—but I’m sure my cell mates will easily find themselves here.

While working on this book, I had to rely on my memory, which, like any other, has a habit of fading and playing tricks. Some things I remember clearly, as if they happened a week ago, but others are fragmented and foggy; after all, more than twenty years have gone by.

In everyday life, dialogue is our main means of communication, and I believe that memories cannot be effectively brought back to life without it. I have reconstructed the dialogue in this book to the best of my abilities and as close to the truth as is humanly possible.

Prisoner of Tehran

that says: “The sky is the same color wherever you go.” But the Canadian sky was different from the one I remembered from Iran; it was a deeper shade of blue and seemed endless, as if challenging the horizon.

We arrived at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on August 28, 1991, a beautiful, sunny day. My brother was waiting for us. My husband, our two-and-a-half-year-old son, and I were to stay at his house until we could find an apartment. Although I had not seen my brother in twelve years—I was fourteen when he left for Canada—I immediately spotted him. His hair had grayed and thinned a little, but he was six feet seven and his head bobbed over the enthusiastic chaos of the waiting crowd.

As we drove away from Pearson, I looked out the window, and the vastness of the landscape astonished me. The past was gone, and it was in everyone’s best interest that I put it behind me. We had to build a new life in this strange country that had offered us refuge when we had nowhere to go. I had to concentrate all my energy on survival. I had to do this for my husband and my son.

And we did build a new life. My husband found a good job, we had another son, and I learned how to drive. In July 2000, nine years after our arrival in Canada, we finally bought a four-bedroom house in the suburbs of Toronto and became proud middle-class Canadians, tending our backyard, driving the boys to swimming, soccer, and piano lessons, and having friends over for barbecues.

This was when I lost the ability to sleep.

It began with snapshots of memories that flashed in my mind as soon as I went to bed. I tried to push them away, but they rushed at me, invading my daytime hours as well as the night. The past was gaining on me, and I couldn’t keep it at bay; I had to face it or it would completely destroy my sanity. If I couldn’t forget, perhaps the solution was to remember. I began writing about my days in Evin—Tehran’s notorious political prison—about the torture, pain, death, and all the suffering I had never been able to talk about. My memories became words and broke free from their induced hibernation. I believed that once I put them on paper, I would feel better—but I didn’t. I needed more. I couldn’t keep my manuscript buried in a bedroom drawer. I was a witness and had to tell my story.

My first reader was my husband. He, too, didn’t know the details of my time in prison. Once I gave him my manuscript, he put it under his side of our bed, where it remained untouched for three days. I was anguished. When would he read it? Would he understand? Would he forgive me for keeping such secrets?

“Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” he asked when he finally read it.

We had been married for seventeen years.

“I tried, but I couldn’t…will you forgive me?” I said.

“There’s nothing to forgive. Will

“For what?”

“For not asking.”

If I had doubts about speaking out, they vanished in the summer of 2005 when I met an Iranian couple at a dinner party. We enjoyed each others’ company and talked about everyday things: our jobs, the real estate market, and our children’s education. When the evening air became too cool to sit outdoors, we moved inside for dessert. As the hostess served coffee, she asked me how my book was coming along, and the Iranian woman, Parisa, wanted to know what it was about.

“When I was sixteen, I was arrested and spent two years as a political prisoner in Evin. I’m writing about that,” I said.

All color left her face.

“Are you all right?” I asked.

She paused a little and said she herself had spent a few months in Evin.

Everyone in the room fell silent, staring at us.

Parisa and I discovered we had been prisoners at the same time in different areas of the same building. I mentioned the names of a few of my cell mates, but they weren’t familiar to her, and she told me about her prison friends, but I didn’t know them. However, we shared memories of certain events which were well known to most Evin inmates. She said this was the first time she had talked to anyone about her prison experiences.

“People just don’t talk about it,” she said.

This was the very silence that had held me captive for more than twenty years.

When I was released from Evin, my family pretended that everything was all right. No one mentioned the prison. No one asked, “What happened to you?” I ached to tell them about my life in Evin, but I didn’t know where to start. I waited for them to ask me something, anything that would give me a place to begin, but life went on as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. I guessed that my family wanted me to be the innocent girl I had been before prison. They were terrified of the pain and horror of my past, so they ignored it.

I encouraged Parisa to phone me, and we spoke a few times. Her voice always trembled as we shared our memories of our cell mates, recalling friendships that had helped us survive.

A few weeks later, she told me she didn’t want to talk to me anymore; she didn’t want to remember.

“I can’t do it. It’s too hard. It’s too painful,” she said, her voice choked by tears.

I understood and didn’t argue. She had made her choice—and I had made mine.


15, 1982, at about nine o’clock at night. I was sixteen.

Earlier that day, I woke before dawn and couldn’t go back to sleep. My bedroom felt darker and colder than usual, so I stayed under my camel-wool duvet and waited for the sun, but it seemed like darkness was there to stay. On cold days like this, I wished our apartment had better heating; two kerosene heaters weren’t enough, but my parents always told me I was the only one who found the house too chilly in winter.

My parents’ bedroom was next to mine, and the kitchen was across the narrow hallway that connected the two ends of our three-bedroom apartment. I listened as my father got ready for work. Although he moved lightly and quietly, the faint sounds he made helped me trace his movements to the bathroom and then to the kitchen. The kettle whistled. The fridge opened and closed. He was probably having bread with butter and jam.

Finally, a dim light crawled in through my window. My father had already left for work, and my mother was still sleeping. She didn’t usually get out of bed until nine o’clock. I tossed, turned, and waited. Where was the sun? I tried to make plans for the day, but it was useless. I felt like I had tripped out of the normal flow of time. I stepped out of bed. The linoleum floor was even colder than the air and the kitchen was darker than my bedroom. It was as if I would never feel warm again. Maybe the sun was never going to rise. After having a cup of tea, all I could think of doing was to go to church. I put on the long brown wool coat my mother had made for me, covered my hair with a large beige shawl, and climbed down the twenty-four gray stone steps leading to the front door, which connected our apartment to the busy downtown street. The stores were still closed, and traffic was light. I walked to the church without looking up. There was nothing to see. Pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini and hateful slogans like “Death to America,” “Death to Israel,” “Death to Communists and All the Enemies of Islam,” and “Death to Anti-Revolutionaries” covered most walls.

It took me five minutes to get to the church. When I put my hand on the heavy wooden main door, a snowflake landed on my nose. Tehran always looked innocently beautiful under the deceiving curves of snow, and although the Islamic regime had banned most beautiful things, it couldn’t stop the snow from falling. The government had ordered women to cover their hair and had issued edicts against music, makeup, paintings of unveiled women, and Western books, which had all been declared satanic and therefore illegal. I stepped inside the church, closed the door behind me, and sat in a corner, staring at the image of Jesus on the cross. The church was empty. I tried to pray, but words floated meaninglessly in my head. After about half an hour, I went to the church office to say hello to the priests and found myself standing face to face with Andre, the handsome organist. We had met a few months back, and I frequently saw him at the church. Everyone knew we liked each other, but we were both too shy to admit it, maybe because Andre was seven years older than I. Blushing, I asked him why he was there so early in the morning, and he explained that he had come to fix a broken vacuum cleaner.

“I haven’t seen you in days,” he said. “Where have you been? I called your house a few times, and your mother said you weren’t feeling well. I was thinking about coming to your house today.”

“I wasn’t well. Just a cold or something.”

He decided I looked too pale and should have stayed in bed for another couple of days, and I agreed. He offered to drive me, but I needed fresh air and walked home. If I wasn’t so worried and depressed, I would have loved to spend time with him, but ever since my school friends, Sarah and Gita and Sarah’s brother, Sirus, had been arrested and taken to Evin Prison, I had not been able to function. Sarah and I had been best friends since the first grade, and Gita had been a good friend of mine for more than three years. Gita had been arrested in mid-November and Sarah and Sirus on January 2. I could see Gita with her silky long brown hair and Mona Lisa smile, sitting on a bench by the basketball court. I wondered what had happened to Ramin, the boy she liked. She never heard from him after the summer of 1978, the last summer before the revolution, before the new order of the world. Now, she had been in Evin for more than two months, and her parents had not been allowed to see her. I called them once a week, and her mother always cried on the phone. Gita’s mother stood at the door of their house for hours every day and stared at passersby, expecting Gita to come home. Sarah’s parents had gone to the prison many times and had asked to see their children but had been denied.

Evin had been a political prison since the time of the shah. The name brought fear to every heart: it equaled torture and death. Its many buildings were scattered across a large area north of Tehran at the foot of the Alborz Mountains. People never talked about Evin; it was shrouded with fearful silence.

The night Sarah and Sirus were arrested, I had been lying on my bed, reading a collection of poems by Forough Farrokhzad when my bedroom door burst open and my mother appeared in the doorway.

“Sarah’s mother just called…” she said.

I felt as if I were breathing shards of ice.

“Revolutionary guards arrested both Sarah and Sirus about an hour ago and took them to Evin.”

I couldn’t feel my body.

“What have they done?” my mother asked.

Poor Sarah and Sirus. They must have been terrified. But they were going to be fine. They had to be fine.

“Marina, answer me. What have they done?”

My mother closed my bedroom door behind her and leaned against it.

“Nothing. Well, Sarah has done nothing, but Sirus is a member of the Mojahedin.” My voice sounded weak and distant to me. The Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization was a leftist Muslim group that had fought against the shah since the 1960s. After the success of the Islamic revolution, its members opposed Ayatollah Khomeini’s unlimited power as the supreme leader of Iran and called him a dictator. As a result, the Islamic government declared their party illegal.

“I see. Then maybe they took Sarah because of Sirus.”


“Their poor mother. She was beside herself.”

“Did the guards say anything?”

“They told their parents not to worry, that they just wanted to ask them a few questions.”

“So, they might let them go soon.”

“Well, from what you’re telling me I’m sure they’ll let Sarah go soon. But Sirus…well, he should have known better. There’s no need to worry.”

My mother left my room, and I tried to think but couldn’t. Feeling exhausted, I closed my eyes and fell into a dreamless sleep.

For twelve days after this, I slept most of the time. Even the thought of doing the simplest tasks felt tiring and impossible. I wasn’t hungry or thirsty. I didn’t want to read, go anywhere, or talk to anyone. Every night, my mother told me there was no news of Sarah and Sirus. Since they had been arrested, I knew I would be next. My name was on a list of names and addresses my chemistry teacher, Khanoom Bahman, had spotted in the principal’s office—and our principal, Khanoom Mahmoodi, was a revolutionary guard. Khanoom Bahman was a good woman, and she had warned me that this list was addressed to the Courts of Islamic Revolution. However, there was nothing I could do but wait. I couldn’t hide. Where would I go? The revolutionary guards were merciless. If they went to a house to arrest someone and that person was not home, they would take whoever was there. I couldn’t risk my parents’ lives to save myself. During the past few months hundreds of people had been arrested, accused of opposing the government in one way or another.

At nine o’clock at night, I went to take a bath. As soon as I turned the tap on and the water began to steam, the sound of the doorbell echoed in the house. My heart sank. No one rang our doorbell at this hour.

Turning the tap off, I sat on the edge of the tub. I heard my parents answer the door, and a few seconds later, my mother called my name. I unlocked the bathroom door and opened it. Two armed, bearded revolutionary guards wearing dark green military-style uniforms were standing in the hallway. One of them pointed his gun at me. I felt as though I had stepped out of my body and was watching a movie. This wasn’t happening to me but to someone else, someone I didn’t know.

“You stay here with them while I search the apartment,” the second guard said to his friend and then turned to me and asked, “Where’s your room?” His breath smelled of onions and made my stomach turn.

“Down the hallway, first door on your right.”

My mother’s body was shaking and her face had turned white. She had covered her mouth with her hand, as if to muffle a never-ending cry. My father was staring at me; he looked as if I were dying from a sudden, incurable disease and there was nothing he could do to save me. Tears fell down his face. I had not seen him cry since my grandmother’s death.

The other guard soon came back with a handful of my books, all Western novels.

“Are these yours?”


“We’ll take a few of them as evidence.”

“Evidence of what?”

“Of your activities against the Islamic government.”

“I don’t agree with the government, but I haven’t done anything against it.”

“I’m not here to decide whether you’re guilty or not; I’m here to arrest you. Put a chador on.”

“I’m a Christian. I don’t have a chador.”

They were surprised. “That’s fine,” said one of them. “Put on a scarf and let’s go.”

“Where are you taking her?” my mother asked.

“To Evin,” they answered.

With one of the guards following me, I went to my room, grabbed my beige cashmere shawl, and covered my hair with it. It was a very cold night, and the shawl was going to keep me warm, I decided. As we were about to step out of the room, my eyes fixed on my rosary, which sat on my desk. I took it.

“Hey, wait! What’s that?” said the guard.

“My prayer beads. Can I bring them with me?”

“Let me see.”

I handed him the rosary. He studied it, looking closely at each one of its pale blue stones and its silver cross.

“You can bring them. Praying is exactly what you need to do in Evin.”

I dropped the rosary in my pocket.

The guards guided me to a black Mercedes parked at our door. They opened the back door, and I stepped in. The car started to move. I looked back and caught a glimpse of the bright windows of our apartment staring into darkness and the shadows of my parents standing in the doorway. I knew I was supposed to be terrified, but I wasn’t. A cold void had surrounded me.

“I have a piece of advice for you,” said one of the guards. “It’s in your best interest to answer every question you’re asked truthfully or you’ll pay for it. You’ve probably heard that at Evin, they have their ways of making people talk. You can avoid the pain if you tell the truth.”

The car speeded north toward the Alborz Mountains. At that hour, the streets were almost empty; there were no pedestrians and only a few cars. Traffic lights were visible from a distance, changing from red to green and back again. After about half an hour, in the pale moonlight, I saw the snakelike walls of Evin zigzagging across the hills. One of the guards was telling the other about his sister’s upcoming marriage. He was very glad that the groom was a high-ranked revolutionary guard and from a well-to-do traditional family. I thought of Andre. A dull pain filled my stomach and spread into my bones, but it was as if something terrible had happened to him and not to me.

We entered a narrow, winding street, and the tall red brick walls of the prison appeared on our right. Every few yards, from lookout towers, floodlights poured their intense brightness into the night. We neared a large metal gate and came to a stop in front of it. There were bearded, armed guards everywhere. The barbed wire covering the top of the wall cast a tangled shadow on the pavement. The driver stepped out, and the guard sitting in the front passenger seat gave me a thick strip of cloth and told me to blindfold myself. “Make sure it’s on properly, or you’ll get in trouble!” he barked. With my blindfold in place, the car passed through the gates and continued for two or three minutes before again coming to a stop. The doors were opened and I was instructed to step out. Someone tied my wrists with rope and dragged me along. I stumbled over an obstacle and fell.

“Are you blind?” a voice asked, and laughter followed.

Soon, it felt warmer, and I knew we had entered a building. A narrow strip of light appeared below my blindfold, and I saw that we were walking along a corridor. The air smelled of sweat and vomit. I was instructed to sit on the floor and wait. I could feel other people sitting close to me, but I couldn’t see them. Everyone was silent, but vague, angry voices came from behind closed doors. Every once in a while, I filtered out a word or two: Liar! Tell me! Names! Write it! And, sometimes, I heard people scream in pain. My heart began to beat so fast, it pushed against my chest and made it ache, so I put my hands on it and pressed down. After awhile, a harsh voice told someone to sit next to me. It was a girl, and she was crying.

“Why are you crying?” I whispered.

“I’m scared!” she said. “I want to go home.”

“I know, me too, but don’t cry. It’s not going to help. I’m sure they’ll let us go home soon,” I lied.

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