Survival at a Price in an Iranian Prison

Author Marina Nemat

hide captionMarina Nemat was minutes from being executed when her life was spared by the jailor who forced her to marry him.

Marina Nemat's name had been scrawled on her forehead, and she was about to be shot.

She had been locked up in Tehran's notorious Evin prison since early 1982, when, at age 16, she complained that math and history lessons in her school had been replaced by Koran instruction and political propaganda.

Nemat was rounded up for speaking out against the Ayatollah Khomeini's brutal regime, and she was sent to Evin to be interrogated, tortured and executed.

Just minutes from death, her life was spared. But the blessing came with a heavy price.

A prison guard named Ali had fallen in love with Nemat and used his father's connection to the Ayatollah to commute her sentence to life in prison. Threatening to harm her family and friends, he forced Nemat — a Christian — to marry him and convert to Islam.

In her new memoir, Prisoner of Tehran, Nemat tells the story of her life as a political and domestic prisoner, married to a man she feared. Though she grew to care for Ali's family, Nemat lived in a constant state of anxiety and guilt about what her family would think when they learned of her marriage to Ali and her conversion to Islam.

Twenty months after Nemat was imprisoned, Ali was gunned down on the doorstep of his parents' home. Six months later, Nemat returned home. It was only after her mother's death, when Nemat started filling notebooks with memories, that Nemat's family and friends learned of her past.

Excerpt: 'Prisoner of Tehran'

'Prisoner of Tehran' Book Cover

Chapter Two

I was arrested on January 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.

Excerpted from Prisoner of Tehran by Marina Nemat. Copyright © 2007 by Marina Nemat. Excerpted by permission from Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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Prisoner of Tehran
Prisoner of Tehran

A Memoir

by Marina Nemat

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