Survival at a Price in an Iranian Prison At age 16, Marina Nemat was imprisoned for speaking out against Iran's brutal regime. Just minutes from execution, her life was spared by a man who forced her to marry him and convert to Islam. She tells her story in a new memoir.
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Survival at a Price in an Iranian Prison

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Survival at a Price in an Iranian Prison

Survival at a Price in an Iranian Prison

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Marina Nemat's name had been scrawled on her forehead, and she was about to be shot to death. She had heard plenty of other shots. She could see other bodies. She was 16 years old and had been locked up in Tehran's notorious Evin prison for complaining in her school that math and history had been replaced by Koran instruction and political propaganda.

Whenever prison interrogators tortured her, lashing the soles of her feet, the other, a man named Ali, fell in love with her - spared her life but forced her into marriage.

After decades of shame and silence, Marina Nemat has written her extraordinary, confusing and complicated story. Her book is called "Prisoner of Tehran: A Memoir." And she joins us in our studios.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. MARINA NEMAT (Author, "Prisoner of Tehran: A Memoir"): Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: You know, I have to tell you, first off, we're accustomed to introducing people who were in remote locations. I found it difficult to read that introduction and tell people in front of you, even in the barest possible terms, what happened to you.

Ms. NEMAT: It's very normal on what you're saying because it took me more than 20 years to be able to write about it, and I couldn't have done it any sooner. I think that 20-year gap just gave me enough distance and the perspective to be able to take on such a difficult task. But I had ulcers when I was in prison and when I started writing about it, well, I had the same health problems that I was experiencing in prison.

SIMON: You were in prison for two years.

Ms. NEMAT: Two years, 2 months, 12 days.

SIMON: You have what seems a very happy family, married to a man who you knew in Tehran. And I gather, you never really told him the details of the story.

Ms. NEMAT: No, I didn't. What happened was that when I was released from the prison, I came home thinking that my home would be the same as I had left it. And the first night we sat around the dinner table and my parents talked about the weather, and I remember how shocked I was. I wasn't ready to talk about it. Don't get me wrong. but I expected, I guess, some sort of acknowledgement or, do you want to talk about it?

SIMON: Can I ask her to guess about why?

Ms. NEMAT: Yes, absolutely.

SIMON: Because it must have been a source of shame...

Ms. NEMAT: Absolutely.

SIMON: ...for them that that they must have felt, how could I let this happen to my little girl.

Ms. NEMAT: That's right. It's absolutely true. I understand it now. But when I got home at the age of 18, I didn't understand it. Anyhow, I moved on. I thought that the past can just be simply put away and forgotten. I didn't work for so many years and we finally exited the country - we went to Canada and we became Canadians.

And that was when my mother became seriously ill, and she died from cancer rather quickly. And I think that was when it clicked. (Unintelligible) my mother never knew who I was. I had hidden it all these years. And then I started having nightmares about the prison and I couldn't sleep at night. And that was when I saw they have to do something about it.

SIMON: How do you explain, in this day and age, how a 16-year-old girl gets tossed into prison in Tehran?

Ms. NEMAT: In Iran, after the revolution...

SIMON: This would have been the early '80s.

Ms. NEMAT: Yes. The revolution happened in '79. So right after that for few a years the country was in chaos. And at any given time between '81 and '91, there were 35,000 political prisoners in Iran's prisons, and even worse, mostly 90 percent between the age of 15 and 20.

SIMON: You were 16. You were in school. What did they say when they came for you? It was at night. You were taking a bath.

Ms. NEMAT: It was at night. I knew they were coming for me because my friends, a few of my friends have been arrested. One of my friends had been executed, and as soon as I heard it, I knew that's it. So I opened the bathroom door, I stepped outside. There were two armed guards with guns pointed at me.

And at that moment, I think I just left my body somehow, you know? I lost all connection to the world. And they put me in a car and they took me to the prison, we got there, they blindfolded me. And there it was. We were in Evin, which was - everybody knew that if you end up in Evin, you'll probably never come out.

SIMON: A lot of people didn't.

Ms. NEMAT: A lot of people didn't.

SIMON: Is it difficult to talk about what conditions were like in there?

Ms. NEMAT: You know, it was difficult when I was writing about it. The conditions were terrible. They blindfolded me and everybody upon arrival, and they took me to a hallway. And I could hear a man screaming in pain. And I couldn't breathe and then they came and they took me to one of those rooms, and they tied my ankles and my wrists to this bed and they lashed the soles of my feet.

And it's just - I cannot even begin to tell you how much that hurts. It's beyond anybody's imagination. And then they finally stopped - I don't know how many lashes it was. And then when I looked at my feet, I just couldn't understand how the human body can possibly swell so much. They were huge. Then they took me out and they made me walk outside.

And there were four other people with me. I didn't know where we were going. I didn't know what was going on. You know, keeping in mind that, you know, I was a girl who had grown up during the time of the shah really. And I was the generation that had watched the "Little House on the Prairie" and "Donny and Marie Osmond Show" and I had read Jane Austin.

And then I was put in this situation - we were put in this situation - where everything was extremely violent and unreasonable. And then I looked and there were just wooden poles sticking out of the ground and I looked at them and then they started tying us to the poles.

And then, you know, this car came speeding towards us and one of my interrogators, Ali - he stepped out of the car and he gave this sheet of paper to other interrogator and he nodded. And then Ali came to me and untied me and just threw me in his car and drove away. And that was when I heard shots fired. And I thought all the people with me - they are dead.

And then he sent me to a dorm with many, many other girls. And all we did, you know, I guess, we just talked about the past. You know, about good memories, about fun times, and I think that's how we survived it. We just relied on each other's memories and on the amazing friendships that grew. You know, when you face death together with a whole bunch of other people you become closer than family.

SIMON: I should point out that, not in frequently, you would hear somebody's name over the loudspeaker and people would come for them, and you'd never see him again.

Ms. NEMAT: This was the truth of life in Evin. We lived with a constant threat of death. You know, I had read about the Holocaust before I was arrested. And you know, I had always, you know, as a kid, I had always asked myself why did this people just walked to those gas chambers, like, why didn't they do something about it? Why didn't others do something?

People just watched as they took them and they burned them and they killed them. How could something like this happen? And then I saw myself in this situation that you're so helpless, you just watch it happen to you and there is really nothing you can do about it. And you become nobody. You become somebody who doesn't have any rights and who the world has totally forgotten

SIMON: With the 20 years of distance that you have, how was it that your jailer, Ali, fell in love with you?

Ms. NEMAT: I have no idea. I wish you could tell me.

SIMON: I say he fell in love. Is that the phrase we must use? I know that's going to be, but yeah...

Ms. NEMAT: I think he was. I think from his perspective, he was in love with me. And at the beginning I hated him with a passion. Then I realized that he had been a prisoner himself during the time of the shah and I saw the lash marks on his back.

And now, today, I have had the opportunity to meet many political prisoners from around the world. And you put us in a room and we connect. In five minutes we are best friends and we don't even need much to say. I think when I saw those lash marks on Ali's back, I think that was when I saw the humanity in him. I saw that he hadn't always been this evil interrogator who tortured and killed innocents. He had been a victim just like me.

SIMON: You had to marry him.

Ms. NEMAT: I had to because he said, if I didn't marry him, he would arrest my parents. And at that time, all I had left was my past and the hope that I would go home one day. Now if my parents were arrested, I wouldn't have any home to go back to. This wasn't some courageous act that I'm going to protect my parents - it was about protecting me. It was about having a home to go back to.

SIMON: I mean, talk about a peculiar married life. You were in prison still because, you know, you have life sentence.

Ms. NEMAT: Yes, I was a prisoner.

SIMON: And yet he could take you out and over to his parents for dinner.

Ms. NEMAT: He could because he was a very powerful man in the prison, and I went to soldier's confinement because I was ashamed.

SIMON: Yeah.

Ms. NEMAT: You know, I had married him but, really, when you thought about it, I was being raped over and over and over again. And this is not something you will utter to your friends and you say, oh, by the way.

And a friend of mine, the only person I ever talked to about this whole situation ever in the prison, this is what she said - because I was too young, she was older - and she was trying to tell me that, listen, this is not your fault this is just a situation you're in and don't try to justify it. But with Ali, it was such a strange story because he had saved my life, and he saved my life again just when he was killed because he pushed me out of the way.

SIMON: Let me - can I ask you about that night?

Ms. NEMAT: Yes.

SIMON: That was a Monday night. You're leaving Ali's parents' house. You heard motorcycles coming out of the darkness. This was a time violent (unintelligible) warfare...

Ms. NEMAT: A great deal. Yes.

SIMON: ...of the revolutionary government.

Ms. NEMAT: Correct.

SIMON: He was shot.

Ms. NEMAT: Yes.

SIMON: In the book, you volunteer a sentence that you uttered that you cried out, which amazed me when I read it. You said, please, God, don't let him die.

Ms. NEMAT: Yes, I didn't want him to die. I really I didn't because his family protected me and he protected me. And you know, how do you put the goodness and the evil on the two sides and say which one weighs more. We are talking about human beings here. This is not mathematics.

SIMON: In that moment and to a small degree - because you're happily married now, wonderful family - even now maybe are you talking about real gratitude or what is commonly called Stockholm syndrome?

Ms. NEMAT: Yes.

SIMON: ...where you're feeling a kind of twisted gratitude for somebody...

Ms. NEMAT: That's right.

SIMON: ...who saved your life only because he was part of endangering it?

Ms. NEMAT: I absolutely agree with you. It could be the Stockholm syndrome because everything has a name these days. But the feelings that person feels are very real. So just giving the name of a syndrome to it doesn't make it any less complicated. That confusion you feel, the guilt you feel, the shame you feel - it only means the same.

SIMON: Marina Nemat, thank you very much.

Ms. NEMAT: Thank you very much for having me.

SIMON: Marina Nemat. Her memoir, just published by the Free Press, is "Prisoner of Tehran."

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SIMON: And to read an excerpt from "Prisoner of Tehran," you can come to our Web site,

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SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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