In the lead up to interviewing Marina Nemat, I found myself recounting her story to anyone who would listen. For it really is, an unbelievable story.
Imagine, you’re forced to the ground against a cool, stone wall. You can see nothing but the unending blackness of the inside of your blindfold. You hear nothing but the whimpering sobs of the girl next to you, echoing in the silence.
‘They didn’t want you to talk to anybody’, but Marina Nemat found herself consoling the girl next to her. ‘Don’t cry’ she said, ‘why are you crying?’ she asked. Nemat then recalls telling her companion, ‘don’t be afraid, be brave! What’s the worst thing that could happen…?’
The worst did happen and from that moment, aged just 16, Nemat experienced nearly 3 years of imprisonment and vicious torture in Iran’s legendary Evin prison, a prison today that is labelled by human rights activists as’ Hell on Earth’. Among other techniques, the soles of prisoners’ feet are whipped with metal cables, making the entire body’s skin feel as if its exploding with pain.
Nemat’s outcry in class one day had sparked an entire protest at her high school, leading to her arrest and death sentence in Evin. However, in prison Nemat’s torturer soon became infatuated with her, and threatened to harm her family if she did not marry him. Her torturer-turned-husband soon began to negotiate her release until his own assasination meant her eventual escape was achieved by his family. In 1991, Nemat escaped to Canada where she now lives and campaigns against human rights abuses of political prisoners. Whilst recalling this story, Nemat laughs wholeheartedly at the ‘naive person’ that she was sitting against that wall that day.
Nemat was imprisoned during a tsunami of political change in Iran’s history. In 1979, the country jerked from an authoritarian, secular monarchy – propped up by the West – to an ardent Islamic theocracy. Few saw it coming and even fewer anticipated it ruling for the next 40 years. Iran today has some of the poorest human rights records in the world with the government’s illicit use of torture and methods of public suppression. Famous cases such as the British-Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, prove to be as frustrating as they are heartbreaking.
Now at 53, and despite her sleeve of humanitarian achievements, Nemat resists being called an activist. At the time of her arrest in 1982, Nemat claims she just wanted to be like her friends and that, ‘if you wanted to be cool back then, you would talk about social justice’. Many of Marina’s friends also tragically faced a life spent waiting for death in Evin. Fast-forward to now, Nemat has affixed herself on bringing justice to political prisoners around the world and has tirelessly spoken out against the Iranian regime’s human rights abuses, even coming face to face with their officials at the UN. Her two books were international bestsellers and the first, Prisoner of Tehran (2007), has been published in 28 countries. Nemat has been awarded the 2007 Human Dignity Award from the European Parliament, the 2008 Grinzane Prize in Italy, and the Morris Abram Human Rights Award from UN Watch in 2014. Amongst this, Nemat is a member of and regular speaker at the Oslo Freedom Forum, chair of the Writers in Exile Committee at PEN Canada, sits on the board of directors at the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture and the Norwegian organisation Vigdis, as well as speaking at major international educational institutions such as Yale, Harvard, and Oxford.
Yet, Nemat claims her job ‘is only to bear witness’ and ‘to make sure that the next generation has the other version of history’ by telling her truths of government abuse and newfound refugee status. International acclaims aside, it is instead during her talks at high schools where Nemat sees her work take its best effect. Here she aims to break down the stigma of the ‘refugee as the other’, making her work not only pressing but totally necessary in giving the next generation this fuller history. Nemat’s noting of the particular treatment she sees in Europe, and especially in France (where it hit her ‘in the face like a brick’), gave her work an urgent sense of purpose as Islamophobia spreads across the continent. In France where the term ‘refugee’ has been traded for ‘economic migrant’, Nemat’s voice could not be needed more.
However it took nearly two decades before Nemat herself could put her own history into words. Her experiences in prison left her with dark stains of psychological trauma that manifested into long-term PTSD. Her macabre sense of humour is perhaps the most visible hangover of this, as she jokes that she is ‘in over her time’. When asked what the aim of the Iranian’s torture was, Nemat replies with, ‘well how about a better question, why torture at all?’. And she’s right. As Nemat says, torture aims to kill the human soul and this is something that is impossible to rebuild.
As the world watches for Iran’s next move after Trump abandoned the JCPOA, I ask Marina what the current feeling on the ground is of amongst the Iranian people. Her first word? ‘Hatred’. As tensions rise exponentially between Iran and Israel however, Nemat reasons that what she ‘has learned about the Iranian government is that they are not suicidal’, but instead it is ‘about money and power at any cost’. The ‘cost’ of the reinstallation of US sanctions however ‘make it difficult’ but not ‘impossible’ for Iran to further its nuclear capacity. For this reason, Nemat disputes that the JCPOA treaty is the diplomatic success we are led to believe and her personal advocacy of highly targeted Magninsky Act is compelling. Using this act, she says, would hit Iran ‘where it hurts’.
In her relentling will to speak out, Nemat stands apart in an eloquent league of her own. When I ask whether she fears any further retaliation from the Iranian regime, she smiles and says, ‘I have written a book they can’t kill that, I have given all these talks, they can’t kill that, I have done all this work and they can’t kill that’. Together we laugh as she shrugs and concedes that, as she now approaches her retirement, if they were to kill her now it would at least be well timed.