Those who’ve attended Acton University in the past know that the Evening Speakers are memorable, uplifting and often the highlight of the day for many. This year, one speaker is Marina Nemat, currently teaching at the University of Toronto. Nemat is set to speak on her book, Prisoner of Tehran. The memoir details her imprisonment, with a life sentence, at age 16 in the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran during the Khomeini Regime.
While the memoir, by its nature, is extremely personal, it touches on the themes of religious and intellectual liberty that are foundational to the learning at Acton University. In fact, Nemat was imprisoned for the “crime” of asking her calculus teacher to teach calculus, rather than spouting the politics of the regime. Her request led to her fellow students walking out of class, and Nemat found herself accused of communist and anti-revolutionary activities.
Part of the memoir focuses on Nemat’s Christian faith, a faith passed on to her from her Russian grandmother. While Nemat’s parents were distant emotionally, her grandmother was a source of strength for Nemat, especially as Nemat grew to learn that her grandparents had survived the Russian revolution.
Although Nemat was supposed to be executed upon her arrest, she was spared, only to be brutally tortured. She describes the living conditions of the young women in Evin Prison:
Each of us received three blankets. Everyone slept on the floor side by side, each person with a designated spot…There were so many girls that even the hallways were used for sleeping…When everyone was settled down, there was no room to spare. Going to the bathroom in the middle of the night proved to be a challenge; it was almost impossible without stepping on someone. During the time of the shah, 246 [the cell block], upstairs and downstairs combined, had fifty or so prisoners in total. Now, the number was close to six hundred and fifty.
Most of the prisoners were schoolgirls and young women.
Nemat’s memoir flows back and forth between her imprisonment and her time growing up, enjoying time at the family cabin, swimming and going to parties. She loved to read, and classics like Peter Pan and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe filled her mind with fantastic imagery and ideas. The contrast between the two worlds – the freedom and beauty of her childhood and the brutality and torture of prison life – could not be more apparent.
One of the goals of Acton University is to introduce attendees to world-class scholars who have deep personal experience in the areas of building a free and virtuous society. Ms. Nemat’s book and her evening talk will certainly tie together the themes of the University. Certainly, she will bring to the Acton University audience a spirit of the struggle for truth and liberty at a time when she says she was a “stranger in my own life.”