Karen Tse: How to Stop Torture
Karen Tse: How to Stop Torture
"No question is too personal, political or religious," says Marina Nemat opening up the question period at her talk in Newmarket last Wednesday. Her two books, Prisoner of Tehran and After Tehran: A Life Reclaimed, are highly acclaimed memoirs revealing Nemat’s experiences as a political prisoner in Tehran, Iran, and nothing - personal, political or religious - remains unaddressed.
On January 15, 1982, at the age of 16, Nemat was arrested in her own home at gunpoint by Islamic Revolution guards. At her talk, referring to this incident, she says, “Fear is a luxury.” She recalls only being in a state of shock, as if she was wearing a bullet proof vest that served to protect her once, but after the threat had passed, could not be taken off. “When your whole existence is threatened, you feel nothing.”
The political climate of Iran changed once Ayatollah Khomeini came out of exile and into power. Citizens soon began to disappear if they were suspected of criticizing the new government. Nemat exercised her right to free speech writing articles for her school newspaper, and refused to sit idle while government propoganda served by her teacher took precedence over calculus. For these, Nemat was accused of being involved with anti-revolutionary groups, though she had refused all invitations to be associated with them.
Shortly after, Nemat was blindfolded and brought to Evin prison where she was interrogated. She was asked if she was associated with any communist groups and for the names of any anti-revolutionary classmates. “I’m sorry, but I don’t have anything to tell you,” she wrote. Nemat was then led to a small room with a wooden bed and metal headboard. She was handcuffed to the bed and Hamehd, the torturer, began to lash the soles of her feet - more than 16 times.
While standing in front of the two dozen women at the talk on Wednesday, Nemat reassures that she would have confessed something, had she known anything, to stop the inexplicable pain. But she didn’t. She recalls her regular size seven feet became size 14 from the swelling. The audience was silent. “The goal of torture is not to get information,” Nemat insists. “Torture is meant to break the human soul.”
Prisoners awaited their trial, but were not granted jury or the use of evidence. A form of sentencing called “The Knowledge of the Judge” was used, which operated on the basis of a single man “feeling” whether one was guilty or not, and would pass punishment accordingly. “People got the death sentence like candy,” she says. Nemat escaped execution but was forced to marry one of her interrogators, Ali, and change her religion from Christianity to Islam.
She was eventually pardoned from her life sentence with the help of Ali’s generous family only after Ali’s death. Eventually, Nemat married a boy named Andre (who she had known before being captured) and moved to Canada. She had escaped Evin prison but the 2 years, 2 months and 12 days spent within its walls caused emotional and psychological aftereffects she could not have foreseen or ignored.
Writing these memoirs not only shared with the world her life-changing experience in Iran, but also allowed her to break the silence that had begun to consume her identity and past.
In person, Nemat is a kind woman, social, polite and has an unexpected sense of humour. She is an infectious women; when she laughs, you laugh with her. She is passionate about the beauties and horrors of the world. Her hands move with fervor through the air and her eyebrows furrow with anger when she speaks of misused power at the cost of human rights.
Nemat’s books and talks demonstrate her dedication to humanity, and her belief that the human spirit cannot be destroyed. She holds strong opinions about politics, believing the ideologies that seperate a society into ‘us’ and ‘them’ work against progress - against freedom and democracy.
"Knowledge makes us accountable," she says as the talk comes to an end. Nemat’s memoirs and maturing insights hold us all accountable. She reminds us ignorance and violence have never roused any lasting good. Her unfaltering patience for kindling dialogue, in which political correctness and censorship do not command the reins of conversation, is just what is needed to awaken the world from passive slumber.
*This is an extended version of the piece appearing in this weeks Excalibur, York University’s newspaper, titled “Political Prisoner Comes Clean.” - http://www.excal.on.ca/arts/political-prisoner-comes-clean/